The coaching profession has eagerly embraced communications technology, and this has increased the capacity for rich exchange and increased the range of learning environments. This chapter will look at how both group and individual coach and mentor supervision can occur virtually and what supervisors need to be aware of when working in this way. It will also highlight significant features of using a combination of telephone, email and recorded material in supervision and what is different when we supervise face-to-face. The chapter illustrates some of the key features of coach and mentor supervision and shows how virtual supervision results in a powerful and effective form of professional development for coaches and mentors. In addition, there is insight into how working virtually affects the body/mind and how the energy of the work is carried across the various media. The ‘supervisees’ referred to in the chapter are members of virtual coach supervision groups run by CSA; they have been asked to comment on their experience of telephone supervision.
“The energy fields that we inhabit in relationships exist in time and space wherever we are. So telephone conversations carry these field conditions…..we are all connected at levels often outside our everyday conscious awareness.” Fiona Adamson, Coaching Supervision Academy 2008
The coaching profession has embraced communications technology intelligently and this has greatly increased the capacity for learning and for participative and engaged professional relationships. In this chapter, I will look at how virtual coach and mentor supervision – specifically the telephone, email, and recorded coaching sessions – adds up to a powerful and effective form of supervisory experience. We will look briefly at the ‘field conditions’ that make this possible (what’s happening in the space between supervisor and supervisee and around them) and at the main features of coach mentor supervision, in order to show what it’s like to supervise and be supervised virtually.
In the world of Quantum Physics, we are all connected, all the time and in every place.
‘At this level we discover that ALL matter is energy – the desk, the car, you, and me. There is no solid boundary between matter and non matter, and both are made up of the same thing – energy, or quantum particles.’ ( Miriam Orriss, 2006 p2.)
Ervin Lazlo, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner, says that the Field is one vast interconnected field of information. So, when we begin to work with an individual or a group, we enter into and increase the energetic space that contains our creativity, thinking and intentions for the work. This begins to happen from the moment a potential employer or supervisee contacts a supervisor and it continues as we converse and contract for the work. It happens whether we are sitting together in an office or if we are talking via the internet or on the telephone. Given that we are connected electromagnetically, the choice to work virtually requires only a slight change in focus and skills; there is no reduction in connection or in professional effectiveness. Indeed, it has been suggested that using the telephone, for example, may even encourage the use of a higher mental function – ‘the integrative intuitive perception of a quiet, peaceful mind’ (Selby. 2004 p87)
Coach and Mentor Supervision
‘Supervision is an opportunity to bring someone home to their own mind, to show them how good they can be’. Nancy Kline, 1999
I want to highlight the main functions of supervision in order to show how virtual working easily carries its main functions and tasks. Supervision is conversation between two experienced professionals where the central focus is on the coach or mentor’s work and on how their being affects that work. Supervision explores and clarifies what goes on in various relationships and conversations, and it enables coaches and mentors to be intelligent about creating effective conversation – conversations with organisations, coaches, sponsors and stakeholders, between coach/mentor and coachee/mentee, and within the coach or mentor. There are several models that can guide these explorations and that are useful in gathering data about what subtly and powerfully influences conversation. For example, CSA’s Full Spectrum Model of supervision gives a useful overview of the range and scope of supervisory conversation while Peter Hawkins’ 7-eyed model guides the supervision session in detail.
Tasks of Supervision
Some of the central tasks of supervision include:
- Ensuring that standards and ethics are maintained
- Supporting coaches and mentors by increasing personal development
- Exploring critical moments in their work
- Establishing clear contracts
- Clarifying boundaries
- Deepening coaching presence
- Building the Internal Supervisor
- Increasing interventions and tools
- Developing systemic awareness
- Creating experiments through which the practitioner can learn.
Attending to these tasks requires that the supervisor has a strong presence and can connect easily, particularly on the telephone. The supervisor also needs to have the capacity for profound listening. Virtual conversations, listening to supervisees’ recordings and using email support, allows all of the above to take place efficiently, especially when we understand that ‘the energy fields that we inhabit in relationships exist in time and space wherever we are’. F Adamson
The telephone also ensures that coaches and mentors have access to the supervisor who is a true match for them. One supervisee comments:
I have known my supervisor for several years and she feels like an old friend, and yet I have never met her….. if I use the telephone for my supervision, I can choose the best supervisor for me, not just the one who lives locally. I can even choose someone who lives abroad if I like. This means that the connection is probably stronger because I can choose the right person for me.
Process of Supervision
Another way of identifying what supervision does, is to think of it as a process of Reflection, Insight and Support. This way of understanding Coach and Mentor Supervision underlines the fact that reflection enhances ‘seeing’, the seeing into one’s practice, the illumination of subtle processes in professional conversations and of blind spots in oneself and in one’s thinking. Supervision through reflection is then something that the supervisee, whether coach or mentor, takes away with them – an enhanced view, a super-vision of their practice. This occurs just as well face-to-face; however, supervisees report that the very concentrated thinking which is a by-product of working virtually, is especially helpful in deepening reflection and insightfulness. One supervisee puts it:
Being an introvert, I like working by telephone. I find that what you miss in body language you gain in focus. Curiously, I think I concentrate more on the phone than I do face to face; there are fewer distractions.
Some of the benefits and challenges of being invisible.
Coach and Mentor Supervision understands that while the observable business of coaching is going on – meetings, contracting, outlining coaching programmes, coaching sessions – it is people who do the talking and thus, who and how we are in the conversation, affects outcomes. This ‘who and how we are’ piece whilst being mostly unobservable from the outside, does have significant impact on effectiveness; supervision, like coaching and mentoring, is a relational practice. The telephone is surprisingly useful in this context – coaches are very willing to explore deeply in the capsule of sound that is created on the phone. Nor are they so bothered if they hesitate, blush or are lost for words.
Supervision on the telephone enables me to access my feelings more than face-to-face. It’s more internal – I go inside more; I access inside myself better. Socializing with others interferes a bit. The telephone allows me to become a bit more introspective.
And so for some coaches and mentors, the personal development explorations that are part of supervision, may be more effective when conducted virtually.
Many of the major professional bodies highlight Presence as a fundamental skill in coaching, as indeed it is in any professional conversation. Presence is often understood only in a face-to-face context and includes awareness of body language. This, of course, gives access to a wide range of information and a particular kind of immediate connection; for example, if I were to observe only the face of the other in a conversation, that alone would provide me with many clues as the conversation proceeds. When we add in the rest of the potential information, via body, movement, touch and environment, it becomes obvious that working virtually reduces the available information significantly. This view of Presence takes into account only the visual and sensual – it does not expand the understanding of Presence in relation to the energetic connection or the field, which I referred to earlier in the chapter. I want to emphasise that paradoxically, removing visual and sensual clues can help to create a strong presence and that the supervisor’s attention to co-creating a lively connection on the telephone is very important. I say this because, in the absence of many of the things that can enhance contact when face-to-face and create full body/mind presence (visual and sensual data), the supervisor needs deliberately to ‘reach across’ to the coach or mentor in conversation. In essence the supervisor is concentrating on forming the energetic or virtual connection. Sometimes, at the outset of a session, simply sharing information about the weather outside or the room where one is sitting, makes a link between supervisor and supervisee and connects us across the virtual space. This brings something of each person’s environment into awareness which helps to create a bridge and establish contact; it gives literal ground to the virtual space.
“Rather than meeting face to face in some impersonal hotel lobby in London we work from our respective offices where I look out into my garden, the River Pinn meadows and an old oak tree and my supervisor looks out to the sea and where – in my mind – the corporate and personal, the abstract and concrete, and the conscious and unconscious meets and is explored in our virtual space where possibility opens up, undiluted by extraneous noise and interruption.”
As supervisor, I find that ‘listening into’ the telephone, often with eyes closed, helps me to become wholly present and arrive more effortlessly at the place of ‘letting go to let come’, which in Sharmer/Senge’s thinking, is where the best learning occurs. Getting there, requires that we remove ourselves from habitual streams of thought and that we release the first level of thinking – for example, focussing on what the supervisee did last session, and what they might be requiring from this one, how they are looking to-day – how I am looking to-day! In Sharmer/Senge’s model, suspending our usual assumptions and re-directing awareness to include field consciousness, allows for learning about what is emerging and invites intuition that will support the more analytical functions of the mind. This supports supervisor and supervisee to come more fully into presence and encourages ‘seeing from the deepest source and becoming a vehicle for that source.’ (SharmerSenge). I would suggest that working virtually actually enables this to occur more easily, as the full range of sensing and thinking are enhanced by having fewer field phenomena present, for example: sight, sound, touch, movement. One member of a telephone supervision group puts it this way:
‘Working on the telephone allows me sense of quietness and presence; I can make meaning from other people’s experiences. It’s a lovely space.’
And in the space between sessions, when a supervisor might be listening to a recording of a coaching session, reflecting on it and emailing additional material to support learning, there is time to process and to identify what will be most useful to the practitioner. The paradox is that all the live visual and physical data that can guide us in professional conversations can also inhibit us and the absence of this data can actually promote other means of relating and of deepening reflection.
‘Listening into the telephone’ is a particular form of listening and requires a denser level of concentration and awareness than when we listen face-to-face. For this reason, it is usual that telephone sessions are briefer than face-to-face ones, as virtual listening is very demanding. My experience is that we listen ‘into’, and not just ‘on’, the telephone as we are energetically ‘reaching for and connecting with’ the other across literal distances. Some of Nancy Kline’s excellent insights about listening and paying attention are particularly relevant here. She writes that the ‘quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking’ and that ‘good attention to people makes them more intelligent’. Supervision is a learning journey and so stimulating thinking, and thinking together, are key components of it. As listening across distance is so central to the success of virtual supervision, it is important that supervisors become proficient in attention, presence and deep listening. These meta-skills are essential for the success of virtual work. In the words of a colleague:
When I’m on the phone I can HEAR much more than I can face to face. I am able to focus wholeheartedly on every word choice, intonation, pause that a client makes – and my ability to hear what is under the words is amplified.
Body/Mind Experience in Virtual Supervision.
There is ‘something very powerful about the voice entering the mind’ of the listener. (Erik de Haan 2008). What is different here from working face-to-face, is that the distractions of sensual data – environment, clothing, hair, smell, touch, movement of face and body – are all absent. In my experience, this drives concentration even deeper and requires that the practitioner is not only aware of the details of the voice that they are listening to, but that they are prepared to enquire about how something is said – ‘Was I right that I heard your voice drop when you said that?’ The supervisor will also need to check carefully their assumptions regarding how a client is feeling and confirm their perceptions about all parts of the supervisory conversation, throughout a session. These assumptions in face-to-face work are more easily clarified by just watching closely for somatic signals, whereas, when working virtually, picking up the subtle clues of speech patterns, pacing, voice levels and the quality of particular silences in conversation, becomes a core skill. These clues more than make up for not having the sensual clues that are present in face-to-face work.
The effect on the supervisor’s body/mind system is more likely to be intensified by working in this ‘capsule’ of telephone conversation. For example, I am more likely to be aware of how my breathing, posture, heart rate and facial gestures are changing during a session, if I am not distracted by watching for clues in the client’s face and if I do not have to disguise my own body signals – grimaces and other facial gestures – which might otherwise be distracting for the client. As one coach puts it:
On the phone I can frown, scowl, pace… do whatever I need to do to focus on the client’s message. Face to face I need to edit myself – I need to ensure that my body language and movements do not disturb the client or give away what’s going on for me. The very fact that I am aware of needing to edit my physical response means that I am less present to the client’s words.
In fact, I often close my eyes in order to concentrate well and so my body’s responses to what is being said or to the current silence in the supervisory conversation are more obvious and I can use them to increase the range of possible interventions available to me. This means that I may be able to explore more readily, aspects of the relationship in supervision that are highlighted by somatic intelligence. For example, I might ask, ‘I notice that when you said that, we both had an intake of breath; what’s that about for you?’ Or if I experience a strong feeling in a session, which I know does not belong to me, I may be guided to ask the supervisee to explore some aspect of their experience more fully, using both body and mind information. It is important that the supervisor constantly clarifies their perceptions and intuitive hunches since they do not have access to the ‘live’ clues that would offer information and a quick check.
Telephone Group Coaching Supervision – an example
I prepare to supervise a new group of four executive coaches on the phone. I’m slightly apprehensive. There’s nothing unusual in that – Bion suggested many years ago that there should be at least two terrified people in every conversation. He was acknowledging how being open to the unknown in any conversation really affects us. Having only voices to connect with initially on this call makes the ‘unknown’ quite real. These coaches have requested telephone supervision as their preferred way of having supervision and they know each other quite well; they work in different contexts, but live in the same area and belong to the same coaching chapter.
Our preparation has included visiting our various websites and sharing biographies via email. In addition, each coach has had a conversation with me on the phone and there has been particular attention paid to setting up and agreeing the contract for this work. The contracting has been done largely via email – many emails. We have finally agreed to have an initial session to check the chemistry for everyone and that the methodology suits our purposes. If this goes well, we will contract for six monthly sessions, one and three quarter hours long and each person will have time in the group to present issues for supervision. The style and nature of feedback has also been agreed – papers on feedback have been sent to participants, followed by comment and suggestion; this is a key ingredient in group coaching supervision as we have to agree on how we share insights with each other and encourage the potential for generative learning. We are ready to roll.
Eighteen months later, this group and I are working well, enquiring into classic coaching issues and over the months, trust and professional care have developed to such an extent, that the calls allow for deep personal and professional exploration, for brave encounter with our glitches and for humour that gifts an edge to the work and keeps us light. There have been explicit requests from time to time for deeper sharing or for information about supervision models – this re-contracting has signalled the development of greater group cohesiveness and increased engagement with learning, as the group has progressed and become more comfortable.
Often as we close a morning call, the comment is that participants feel well set up for the day – the telephone has been the vehicle for connecting our energies and ideas and for ensuring thorough learning about our work and ourselves.
Supervisors who are working with a group such as this needs to manage the sessions particularly well. There can be potential anxiety for the supervisee if their time on the call is not protected properly, or if there are process or contracting issues that are not explored and resolved. Participants on the call cannot see if the supervisor is getting ready to sort out an issue or allocate time appropriately, and it’s not possible to put up one’s hand and make a suggestion!
I have supervised many coaches and mentors since 1999. Much of this has been conducted on the telephone, supported by pre-session information, which is emailed to me, and by email follow-up. Supervisees also send sections of sessions for me to listen to, so we are working with three media at once. And while I will not meet many of the practitioners that I work with, our conversations are nevertheless vigorous, challenging and profound, and they generate significant learning for the coaches and mentors – and for me. When a supervisee has asked to meet me for the first session, they may show some reluctance if I suggest continuing to work virtually. I’ve not yet come across a supervisee who has regretted changing to working via the telephone – indeed many are surprised by the effectiveness of this medium and delighted that it fits in so well with a busy professional life. The potency, flexibility and cost effectiveness of virtual working is an enormous benefit to coaches, mentors and supervisors and I’m sure that as the virtual landscape develops, there will be more of it.
Edna Murdoch 2008 www.coachingsupervisionacademy.com
De Haan, E. (2008). Relational coaching: Journey towards mastering one-to-one learning.
Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Kline, N. (1999). Time to think. West Sussex, UK: Ward Lock
Orriss, M. (2006). Conference Paper: Coach as Energy Manager (CSA website)
Selby, J. (2004). Quiet your mind. London: Rider.
Senge, P., Scharmer, C., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. (2004). Presence: Human purpose
and the field of the future. Cambridge: Society for Organizational Learning.
Relational Coaching – Journey Towards Mastering One-to-One learning Erik de Haan Wiley 2008
Quiet the Mind Rider John Selby 2004 (page 87)
Time to Think Nancy Kline Ward Lock 2001 (pages 17 and 37)
Quantum Paper (unpublished page 2) Miriam Orriss 2006
Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski , Flowers SoL 2004
Bion W R 1976-1979) The Tavistock Seminars – from talks at the Tavistock Clinic, London