Supervision of Executive Coaching By John Marzillier, PhD on 9/14/11 - 11:04 AM

Last year I was tempted out of my retirement as a psychotherapist to provide supervision to a group of colleagues working with business executives. This was not psychotherapy but coaching, and my protests that I had never done any coaching or even read very much about it were overruled: they wanted me and they had every confidence that I would do a good job. I was flattered of course, intrigued too, and the extra money was welcome. So I began. Sessions were individual and scheduled to last an hour and a half, not the usual fifty minute hour. I met my supervisees just once a month. These parameters took some getting used to and I found myself having to take detailed notes in the session, something I had not done for years, simply in order to keep in mind who people were, what their place was in a particular firm, what work they were doing and who they related to. It was a steep learning curve and, more than once, I wondered whether I had taken on something of a monster. But I got used to it and developed a way of working that suited me. Interestingly, only one person out of the six I was supervising asked me at the outset what my model of supervision was. I was not expecting the question and answered without preparatory thought. I listen to what you tell me, I said, and, where appropriate, I shall say something. I admit that this is terribly vague but it is nevertheless accurate. I could have said something about attending to the currents and undercurrents in the material, or about the dynamics of relationships, or about the transactional nature of coaching. But I felt that that was too prescriptive and even, to some degree, false. I would do what I was good at and what I had done as a therapist, which was work out what I thought might be going on and seek out the best moment to make an intervention. This is not as straightforward as it sounds.

In supervision there are three levels of ‘what might be going on.’ What the coach/therapist and client are doing in the world outside, what material the coach/therapist chooses to bring to the session, and what is happening there and then in the supervisory relationship. The last is particularly important. One of the supervisees was someone I had met 20 years ago when we were both involved in training clinical psychologists but I had not seen since. He is a likable and charismatic person with an unusual background. At our first supervisory meeting, he said that, when he had heard I was to be their supervisor, he had told his colleagues how great I was and how he had known me for 20 years. My ears pricked up not just at the effusive compliment but the claim to have known me for 20 years when the truth was he had known me briefly 20 years ago, an important difference. I said nothing. Time would reveal whether his desire for special recognition would be important in the work as indeed it has proved to be.

The man who asked me what my model of supervision was suddenly quit. He came to one session and bluntly told me that he had decided to stop. It was not adding enough value and he was a busy man. I was filled with overwhelming anger. I felt the narcissistic wounding and I knew this was in part counter-transference, how I hated to be wrong-footed and made to seem a worthless minion. I waited a while for my feelings to lessen and then formulated my response. “You have sacked me,” I said, deliberately using that dismissive word, “and I am feeling quite angry at that.” Immediately, he acknowledged the peremptory way he had done this, apologising for it. The anger, which had been felt by both of us, was transformed and even though, he stuck to his decision to quit, we could spend the last session in productive work.

There are some who argue that supervisors have a responsibility to tell their supervisees what they are doing wrong or to suggest particular techniques to use. While there is a place for this, it is far less important that understanding and reflecting back. It is better for supervisees to find things out for themselves and unless something very bad is going on, the supervisor should not be directive. In a heated debate on supervision in the late 1970s, I vividly recall a distinguished psychoanalyst quietly saying, “Those who tell their supervisees what to do end up telling their clients what do.” He did not mean it as a compliment.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Therapy Training