Who Learns What in Supervision? – Colin Brett

Who learns what in supervision?

This question has been on my mind since the Forum in Victoria. I’ve been turning it over and over, and have come up with some thoughts I’d like to share with you.

When I was giving my presentation, I mentioned how there is always mutual learning in the supervision session. One of you then asked me if I learn, and I said I did. But what I realized in that moment was that I rarely capture or reflect on my learning. I know I’ve learnt something, but I’m not sure what. And because I don’t pay attention to it, I forget it.

So this week I was supervising our coach supervisors in South Africa, and I suddenly remembered that question. I started observing myself, almost inviting myself to notice what I was learning. I learnt three things.

Firstly, I learnt (again, again, again) that when I am in role as a supervisor, I behave in ways which I don’t socially; for example, the role demands that I ask the supervisee to think about their ‘stuff’, because it is getting in the way of their work as a coach (‘where is the personal intruding on the professional?’). Socially I wouldn’t do that. So if I notice myself holding back from doing that in supervision, then I am slipping out of role.

Secondly, there was another moment where I found myself beginning to agree with the coach. Nothing wrong with that, but I wondered if I was leaving my position of detachment and becoming confluent. I realized that I needed to regain my distance and focus on the work rather than making the coach feel good. It was my old ‘wish to please’ that was getting in my way.

The third thing I learnt this week became clear after a cascade exercise (where A supervises B, then C supervises A, then D supervises C…). I was encouraging a trainee supervisor to invite his coach-supervisee to think about the personal issue that was interfering with his ability to do his usual good work as a coach. ‘My’ supervisee fell silent, and then said to me: ‘I am a strengths-based supervisor, and you are suggesting that I ask my supervisee (i.e. the coach he was supervising) to talk about something that’s wrong, while I want him to build on his strengths.’ I was surprised, and didn’t find a good answer in the moment. I felt I was treading on hallowed ground. On reflection, however, I realised that it was quite simple: supervision is not coaching. They are different paradigms, sometimes complementary, and sometimes seemingly in conflict with each other. How do I handle such a conflict? Or is ‘different’ merely ‘different’? I also realised that just as there is a need for support, owning strengths and celebration, and there is an equal need for challenge and deeper reflection about our practice. There is space for both.

Thanks to whoever it was that asked me if I learn as a supervisor. Had you not asked, I couldn’t have written this.

Colin Brett PCC, BA(Hons), MA, MSc, MA
Coaching Development and Coaching Changes