Coaching Supervision: Who is the Expert in the Room?

My first supervisor, when I was a trainee counsellor back in 1991, was a well known psychotherapist. Sitting on the huge leather sofa in his luxury Georgian home in leafy North London, I would dutifully recount my private client sessions. Often before I could finish a story he would tell me what was happening in the client/therapist dynamic, or what I should have done when he thought I had done wrong. Oh the shame. I knew nothing. And I sometimes hid things from him for fear of being revealed as a sham.

Fortunately he generously shared his own vast experience in so many ways with me that I knew for sure I had come to the real expert! Sometimes I even felt he cared for me because he so wanted me to know all that he knew. But I dreaded the sessions and often came away feeling naive and inept.

At the same time, I worked as a volunteer bereavement counsellor with a charity. We had monthly small group supervision, meeting in an impoverished red light district of London. The room was cold and sparsely furnished with broken chairs and tatty carpets, and we sipped lukewarm tea from chipped mugs. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, the supervisor humorous, supportive and egalitarian. She listened and encouraged us to listen whilst we shared our (anonymous) reflections on our client counselling sessions. Then she would get us into pairs and ask us to reflect once more about what we had learned about ourselves, our clients, and the relationships we were creating with them. We then shared again with her and the whole group. When she occasionally challenged or offered her view she'd keep it short and give us room for more discussion. And despite my lack of counselling experience in relation to hers, I came away feeling valued, skilled and energised.

Grown-up, even.

Later on when my work evolved into executive coaching, I sought out a supervisor with whom I would also feel like an adult, working side by side for the good of my clients and of me as a professional. I happily found one. With her I felt brave. I could be honest. I felt supported. I never felt foolish. 

I never felt she was an expert. But actually nor was I the expert. We just both had some expertise. And I think there is a big difference in those two words of expert and expertise.

Actually, I have never really liked the word "expert".

Because when there is an expert in the room with superior knowledge and skills it usually means that the other is inexpert, and lacking in both. And not only that. Inexpert can mean blundering, amateurish and inept. Just as I felt when leaving my early supervision sessions in leafy North London.

Some may find the idea of being "inexpert" a positive challenge to develop their knowledge and skills. At that point in my career I didn't. I felt ashamed and afraid to take risks. That's not how I learn. And I am sure I'm not alone.

So if it's not about being or becoming an expert, what should supervision be?

Supervision should enrich practitioners professionally and personally, for the benefit of both the supervisee and their clients. Whether it's coaching or therapy supervision, the aim must be to build a relationship in which the supervisee feels supported and secure enough to fully explore their work, stretch their skills and develop expertise, without fear that they are being judged, dictated to, patronised or smothered.

Supervision should be an easeful place where the supervisee can think for themselves. Where they are equal to the supervisor as a thinker, and where they can seek input when they want it, not when the supervisor thinks they do. Where if the supervisor challenges, they do so with the specific intention of encouraging fresh thinking, not to impose theirs. Where the supervisor asks a question because they are interested in what the supervisee thinks, not to make a point. Where the supervisor will not interrupt or intervene unless they are sure that what they are about to say is going to be better than what the supervisee is about to think. And of course they don't know that. So they need to give them time before they take over. They need to create great conditions for independent thinking. Nancy Kline, from whom this particular perspective on independent thinking emerged and developed, and who inspired me to really think about what independent thinking means, calls it a Thinking Environment®.

What about duty of care?

If the supervisor truly believes the supervisee’s client (or the supervisee themselves) is in genuine danger they naturally have a duty of care to ensure that welfare and safety take precedence. However, firstly they must provide time and space for the supervisee to discover that for themselves. It's rarely a red flag issue; it’s just that they have been conditioned to think they know more or know better than the supervisee and that it's their job to set them straight.

The challenge for the supervisor is often for them to set aside their knowledge and their anxiety, and let the supervisee do the work.

The challenge for the supervisee is often that they have become dependent on an "expert" telling them what to think, instead of thinking for themselves. To realise that yes, they can do it. Yes, they can see it, understand it, choose it, decide it, do it.

If you want to draw out the thinker from within, you both have to believe there is one already in there.

Great supervision means creating an alliance for thinking. Not for the supervisor to be the expert in the supervision room.

- But for the supervisee to develop expertise in thinking for themselves.

Nor for the supervisee to become the expert with their own clients in the coaching room.

- But for the supervisee to develop expertise in helping their clients to develop expertise in thinking for themselves.

In this way, both the supervisee and their clients will develop and consolidate their experience and grow their capability, skills, presence and confidence.

We don't need experts if we want to become good at thinking for ourselves. We need expertise.


© Linda Aspey, 2016