Making sense of how supervision fits into coaching begins with appreciating the variety of ways it may work best by Jeremy Ridge

1. Supervision is a good idea, but how does it work in Coaching?

Supervision suggests you can have someone looking over your shoulder, with all the answers, who can guide you in what to do, and not to do. It is also pretty much the meaning in established professions which then monitors the use in practice of an agreed set of measurable standards and processes which have been tried and tested for always delivering desired results.

However, the complexities of Coaching theory, previously illustrated in my blog-article, ‘How we can define coaching – ‘Do it for Yourself’ (DIY)’  on coaching definitions still challenges this ideal of always knowing what to do and not to do in Coaching. 

So what exactly does supervision supervise?

Some of the challenges for supervision are:

  • The supervisor may not be present

  • They may not know the context

  • They may not have all the answers about what should be done – as there are so many models of coaching

My practice in working towards having a positive effect on other people, which is often referred to currently under this ‘coaching’ banner, has always been looking for ways to ‘check what I am doing is working properly’.

Some of the circumstances for getting it right also requires very careful navigation; lest surprises and inappropriate actions may start to work very negatively, and with potentially serious consequences.

So it is useful to take stock of how this works for me. It’s a sort of self-supervision exercise! Although I also need to know how to make the best of possible mechanisms of supervision, as it is often promoted in the field.

I also refer to experience, and practice, from providing supervision to other coaches, when they like to formally call it supervision, as well as through more informal practice of similar processes.

At the end of the day it would seem to be more about whatever works for each coach, in their kind of practice, and for the kind of person they are; for how they consider it is best to check themselves out in the circumstances – with appropriate others.

2. Current thinking

So to start with, how supervision is supposed to work for coaching.

2.1. A general definition

"the action or process of watching and directing what someone does or how something is done: the action or process of supervising someone or something” [2]

2.2. How supervision is used in other contexts

academia, supervision is aiding and guiding of a postgraduate research student, graduate student, or undergraduate student, in their research project; offering both moral support and scientific insight and guidance. The supervisor is often a senior scientist or scholar, and in some countries called doctoral advisor.
business, supervision is overseeing the work of staff. The person performing supervision could lack a formal title or carry the title supervisor or manager, where the latter has wider authority.
society, supervision could be performed by the state or corporate entities to monitor and control its citizens. Public entities often do supervision of different activities in the nation, such as bank supervision. [3]

This begins to show up some of the current complications about how supervision is seen, and not seen, to work in the coaching field. For example, 

  1. Coaching is not a remedial exercise, and

  2. It often works across many different contexts, and

  3. Draws from many different areas of knowledge and learning.

Mature ‘professional’ bodies normally have a form of best practice/required practice guidelines that are quite stipulative, and based on agreed research. It is why they are worthy of the term professional. And this is where any practitioner malpractice that may bring the profession into disrepute may lead to professional registration being curtailed, and even removed/barred from continuing to professional practice in the marketplace.

This makes a process of ‘checking’ important. Especially in those professions where it typically involves a one to one situation and there is risk of bias, or where the client/patient is vulnerable. It is a good standard for Coaching to also work towards embracing.

2.3. My experience of how supervision is being used in coaching

One conclusion I’ve drawn thus far from all my interactions in this field and that drives this enquiry for me is the current dilemma in the idea that ‘a supervisor’ is:

  • the total solution, in Coaching, and

  • that they are readily available with all of the answers that any coach needs, for every situation.

Another dilemma is ‘who sets the agenda’ for supervision. If Coaching is a ‘reflective and developmental exercise’, and the Coach sets the agenda, then supervision actually often seems more like ‘coaching the coach’ than supervising the coach.

I would expect in a field promoting coaching that we would be seeing a clear practice of coaches getting coaching after all!

2.4. Some current perspectives on supervision in coaching

Hawkins, P. and Smith, N. (2008) put forward a useful framework, (adapted, here for the purpose of this blog-article) that compares the functions of supervision in Coaching with other, related, one to one helping professions.

Extending ‘The Functions of Supervision’ to include it’s professional orientation (Adapted from ‘The Functions of Supervision’) [4]

Extending ‘The Functions of Supervision’ to include it’s professional orientation (Adapted from ‘The Functions of Supervision’) [4]

Hawkins and Smith also describe how the function of the supervisor is to ensure ‘quality of work‘ that is ‘appropriate’. Less detail or information is shared around what contexts this mark of ‘quality’ could be tested against. 

So Hawkins & Smith introduce this term ‘qualitative’ into their framework, above, which again implies coaching is still developing some tested, validated and agreed framework, that may be more readily found in other professional areas more easily than in Coaching. For example, the reference to the term ‘normative’, by Proctor, and ‘ Managerial ‘ by Kadushin, as applied in the field of counselling and social work respectively, implies a clear reference to external standards. 

This implies Coaching is still a more open field of work; with implications that Coaching Supervision needs to be more open in approach.

2.5. Recent thinking is also beginning to appreciate a variety of ways may work better for supervision

A recent paper presented by Gilbert, Lucas and Turne [5] at the Fourth International Supervision Conference 2014, emphasises supervision in Coaching as primarily reflective practice.

Again, I am not sure I can see the logic of why supervision doesn’t refer to this as the opportunity for ‘coaching,’ rather than for ‘supervision!’ - especially when working in the field of coaching. 

Similar to other authors in the field, there is less mention of context here.  However it does emphasise the variety of ways in which ‘supervision style’ reflection can happen.

Similarly there is much less of any emphasis on any ‘context’ of required standards for the variety of ways that supervision can be practiced:

  1. Paid for 1 to 1 supervision

  2. Paid for group supervision

  3. A Peer supervision chain

  4. Co Coaching – e.g. in triads

  5. ‘Mindfulness’ practice / meditation

  6. Other 1 to 1 supervision (timely rather than periodical)

  7. Reflective journaling

  8. Action learning sets

  9. Other group supervision

  10. – ‘Something else’

It further suggests that supervision in Coaching may well be still on an emerging path, as much as Coaching itself.

This certainly seems to tally with my practice experience – where there is a great deal of diversity in the ways I ‘check myself out! ‘

3. How does my practice sit in these frameworks?

As shared above, the current definitions for supervision are too simple for my practice and so I revert to my own definition of the aims of supervision of ‘checking out what I am doing is appropriate, and suitably contracted for’ that is guided by the following:

3.1. Direct contact with the data of what is going on

For me, what matters is who will have the best data / information about the circumstances – not just the best theory.

For example, the most valuable supervision I can get is the live shared data – from the ‘team’ (of coaches) I often work with, rather than from ‘separate’ supervision, which like today’s simple coaching model, requires the coach, and then supervision,  to be in a detached space. The team knows more of the context, as well as a greater appreciation of how my contribution may be working.

3.2. The diversity of practice – ‘a coaching approach’

It is different for each of the different ways that Coaching is carried out. I refer back to my good coach blog ‘Freeing up our use of coaching! … contrasting the simple model of coaching with a more ‘open’ model for coaching’ about the ‘simple model’ [6] , and the wide range of other ways Coaching can be carried out – now often referred to as through ‘a Coaching Approach’.

3.3. The nature and practice of contracting

This can range from being very formal and very detailed – almost ‘ legalistic ‘ through to highly informal and highly emergent – where the nature of the agenda depends on the way the dialogue and relationship takes shape.

If the client is to work in the way that suits them, there are requirements to contract in some manner that takes their preferences into account.

Hence contracting may not be a simple process that starts at the beginning, and is never reviewed again.

Even the subtleties of ‘ ethics ‘ can vary from person to person, organisation to organisation, as well as vary in time and circumstances.

3.4. Learning about the rigour involved in understanding what is going on in Coaching

I still see how much coaching capability, and learning about what is involved, still comes more from everyday life/work, and coaching client experience than it does from the considerable diversity of text books in the field. 

I have found it is most important to establish a frame of reference for my own practice that enables me to check out, for myself, as a priority, what is appropriate.

The dynamism of the chemistry between two people is substantial. And even arguably still more complex than measuring brain waves. It still seems to be in the ‘invisible’ zone as even a subject to talk about, let alone study.

This is more than just ‘informal’ – rather it may just be invisible, still, for many people.
It can take time though to establish a common language, and ways for referring to the events of coaching, especially during supervision as an exercise.

4. Examples of how this works in practice for me

4.1. Research into myself:

This is an important starting point; a never ending journey (and still a subject of some need for further work in the field generally).

One important example, here - as mentioned in an earlier good coach blog ‘Smiling and Laughter really matter in coaching’ - was how I found I was particularly interested in such things as ‘humour’ [7] as a particular route into understanding and appreciating how to interpret events with people.

It remains an important source of how I supervise myself – in being able to find how to create conditions that raises a genuine ‘smile’ as an important indicator of approval.

4.2. Research into – research

Where are our frontiers of understanding about getting the best out of people up to, and going?

Academic standards of rigour provide an important basis for checking out whether interpretations are evidence based.

This standard of rigour is another important component of bringing supervision into my practice.

4.3. The client – or Coachee themselves

They are a primary source of information about how things are going.

There are always the important conditions of confidentiality, and basic principles of engagement, (including exceptions to confidentiality such as any matter that is not considered appropriate in the context) to be established. 

In executive coaching, the client may well be multiple, and more complex. This is an area that always needs care.

Normally, however, coachee reactions, and feedback, is essential for knowing how things are going, and the need to consider how to work further towards an appropriate direction.

4.4. Immediate Colleagues

This may arise from working with other Coaches in for example, a ‘team coaching’ context where the other colleagues are directly involved in the process – either at the same time, or in the same context. This provides the possibility of important feedback and information about how practice is working drawn from direct observations.

4.5. ‘Wider’ colleagues in the field, generally

This may be from keeping up to date with the field more widely. Or it may be more of a personal network of dialogues with colleagues where we have similar interests, but do not work directly together.

4.6    Family and Friends

This is still somewhat radical to suggest, but the people who know me best, and who have the well practised skills of knowing how to reach me, are often found in places which are less than formally expected.

Of course no details of actual contracts are ever disclosed, however, the intimacy of awareness and practice in knowing how to reach me for who I am is power enough.
All these sources of information provide a continuing stream of data that enables that all important process of checking how things are working.

5. My learnings and conclusions, so far

I have found it useful to review, here, how the main stated reason for supervision in coaching may well be achieved through a range of other mechanisms then the more rigid processes, or frameworks, sometimes promoted in the field.

  1. I have yet to find how individual supervisors in Coaching are ‘appointed’ – let alone also ‘supervised’.

    This does not deny the value of development that many coaches can enjoy. But why isn’t this called Coaching then?

  2. My experience of the reality of coaching practice brings many others into the formula for checking out whether what is required is being achieved, other than a more detached single person with the ‘authority’ of being the supervisor with all the answers.

  3. I find it is important to always hold that the coaching work involves starting from a position of considerable lack of information – e.g. about the Coachee, and what their development circumstances actually are, and how they are perceived by the various stakeholders who can be involved.

    So a ‘cautious, and step by step approach’ that continuously checks with those involved is essential.

    Further this needs to be done ‘informally’, and even sometimes intuitively, lest the process of checking out becomes too dominant and costly.

  4. Executive Coaching typically provides contact with people who are naturally inclined towards greater rigour concerning results and outcomes.

    This can even extend to work with people in leadership positions who can be better versed in even appreciating even small changes in learning than many can seem to be able to report in the Coaching field.

  5. This also opens up the issue that many people have skills, and practices, in their work, that are not labelled as coaching, but on close examination, are indeed very highly effective in the same way as Coaching can be. Again, I see how their use of ‘supervision’ for this is measured by the results they (and others) are looking for in the context.

  6. Finally, Supervision it would emphasise to me is something that has to be managed by the Coach in a manner that is appropriate to them. An important test is often simply for any coach to enquire how they are doing this.

My Question to you: “How well can you articulate your own ways of ‘checking yourself out’?” 

[1]    ‘How we can define coaching – ‘Do it for Yourself’ (DIY) (
[4]    Hawkins, P. and Smith, N. (2008) Coaching Mentoring and organisational     consultancy – supervision and development; Mcgraw Hill
[5]    Gilbert S Lucas M and Turner E;  4th International Supervison Conference June 2014 …
[6]    Freeing up our use of coaching! … contrasting the simple model of coaching with a more ‘open’ model for coaching’ (
[7]    ‘Smiling and Laughter really matter in coaching (