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Coaching Supervision and Parallel Process

By Keri Phillips

I was having coffee at Patisserie Valerie, Liverpool Street, with a friend and colleague, Maria. She also is a coach and said she would like a quick informal word about one of her clients. Very soon after starting her story I suddenly felt very irritated with Maria. My irritation was intense and seemed totally out of context. I mentioned this to Maria. She said she had noticed how I had suddenly sat back in my chair and she knew that ‘something had happened’. As we talked it through, Maria became aware for the first time that she was in fact quite irritated with the client about whom we had just started to talk.

As a result of supervising coaches who are also consultants in organisational change I have found it valuable to draw on the idea of parallel process. The purpose of this brief paper is to define and elaborate the concept, hopefully giving an indication of its richness for coaching supervision.

The phenomenon of parallel process has been described by many authors in a variety of contexts, initially in the field of therapy and counselling.1.2 Drawing on these sources, my definition is, ‘the unaware replaying within the helping relationship of a pattern of relationship brought from outside’. This is what seems to have happened to Maria and myself. Between us we seem relatively quickly to have been able to identify what was happening. Though even here I was rather anxious about raising the matter of my irritation and was quietly concerned about how Maria might react.

There will be occasions when neither party notices. This, I suggest, is closely linked to Petrushka Clarkson’s description of parallel process as a form of hypnotic induction. Hence the behaviour and feelings can be absorbed into the supervisory session almost by osmosis, arguably at a level of communication which is visceral, indeed beyond words. Clarkson also stresses that parallel process is two-way and that the unfinished business of the supervisor may equally intrude into the work of the therapist.

The visceral, non- verbal nature of parallel process has strong similarities with the concept of ‘scripting’ in transactional analysis.3 That is to say, the child has a sense of his worth and loveability as much by the unspoken atmosphere at home as the verbal exchanges. He subsequently, in drawing on this material, much outside awareness, ‘decides’ on the sort of person he is, the sort of life he will lead and how he will end up. This may indeed be a strand within a longer term family script which extends, as described by Eric Berne through the generations.4 This might range from the types of career which should be pursued through to a scarcely surfaced existential dimension about life : a joy or a struggle; a place of possibilities or suffocation; a source of excitement or frustration.

As I write, I am aware of presenting this point in rather stark terms; frequently scripts are an inter-play, a blend of what might broadly be called ‘life-enhancing’ and ‘life-diminishing’. In this there is an assumption that people can create self-fulfilling prophesies ; however, this can take place with varying degrees of self-awareness. Some aspects of the script will be more accessible than others. The same is true of parallel process.

So, along with the dimension of awareness there is, separate yet linked, the dimension of visibility. Sometimes the phenomenon of parallel process will appear in technicolour. For example, the supervisor and coach might both realise early in their session that they are working in a rather hurried, almost breathless way; they are both apparently unduly anxious and eager to reach some solid outcomes from their work together. In examining this they might subsequently acknowledge that the coach’s client and indeed the client’s organisation are going through a phase of ‘high anxiety’ ; perhaps there are a number of crucial business decisions pending, each with an underlying tone of survival.

However, in contrast to this technicolour example, there might be parallel process which has much more subtle tones and indeed barely stands out. The casual or even skilled observer may notice nothing. For example, it may only be through the process of receiving supervision, that the supervisor realises that in recent months her approach to a particular coach has marginally changed; that, whether for good or ill, she no longer encourages the coach to the degree of specificity of agreed action as was previously the case. With further investigation the supervisor may discover that this is how the coach now is with his client. Beyond this, it may also reflect a marginally, yet significantly changing organisational culture where issues are not quite resolved. For example, team meetings are held, actions identified, ownership of those actions is clear, but perhaps the follow-up is not as rigorous as it needs to be and indeed was until a few months previously.

This example demonstrates the how parallel process can flow through from the interpersonal through to the organisational. On that basis, as indicated in the diagram below, the dynamics can be both individual and collective. Also, as shown by the arrow, the energy is both centrifugal and centripetal. Parallel process can thereby be a source of strength as well as vulnerability. In other words, the supervisor in not contributing to the existing pattern can help to break it and replace it with one which has the potential to be developmental at an individual and organisational level. In writing this I am not inviting the supervisor to engage in grandiosity, but rather to accept that sometimes small actions can have a cumulatively large impact.

Acknowledgement of this wider context can therefore be helpful in supporting the dual role which some helpers have as both coaches and organisation development consultants. Referring to the example above, the coach as consultant may, having become aware of the parallel process, propose interventions to make team meetings more effective through the focussed review of agreed actions.

Building on this further, there may be other aspects which emerge.

First, there are the possible implications for the co-consulting relationship. If there is a theme of follow-up not being quite as rigorous as needed, then maybe this is how the consultants are with each other. The consultancy team absorbs some of the values and behaviours of the client culture, but perhaps in a way that can impede effectiveness. In that sense, there has been a collective hypnotic induction. This would not necessarily be a shock since consultancies need to have a lot in common with their client organisations in order to work well with them; along with this however, there is the risk that commonality evolves to the point where boundaries dissolve. I am reminded also of Clayton Christensen writing on the topic of disruptive technologies and his explaining that sometimes those providing a service sometimes actually listen too carefully to their customers’ requirements and thereby miss opportunities from ‘left-field’.5

Secondly , there is the question of the consultant’s personal identity as an agent of change. ‘ What is the self I leave behind when I become a player in parallel process?’ This question goes beyond the purely technical, as already briefly mentioned; namely that the consultant does not follow through as much as is needed. The identity aspect might also mean, for example, that the consultant loses some of his softness, a clever sensitivity to relationships and becomes ‘macho’ in working with a ‘macho’ client. In doing so, he no longer represents perhaps a quality which the organisation most needs……….and yet both fears and despises. This may link to a point made by Roger Harrison, that when ‘love’ is denied a role or even legitimacy in organisational life, then it may manifest itself in an ever more urgent desire for power. 6This ultimately being self-defeating because the core need is unmet.

Thirdly, I suggest that the recession and the current economic, business and social challenges increase the possibility of survival thinking being a key theme in all the domains of the model above; for example, there may be a profound anger , but also a fear of expressing it. Under these circumstances the risks and the opportunities may well be as intense as each other. On the one hand there is a risk that the coach/consultant/supervisor may be blinded by the multiplying and multi-faceted darkness that can come from shared pain. Perhaps particularly if there is pain not only from a recent past, but also perhaps resonances with earlier survival decisions from childhood. For example, ‘ I know that I need to raise my profile much more in order to generate business, but my father used to get really angry with me if ever he thought I was showing off. Hence, I learnt to keep my head down’. On the other hand, the opportunity is that at any point individual introspection and a willingness to explore parallel process may provide significant insights; for example, the supervisor in asking herself , ‘ What do I notice about my patterns in relation to the coach ?’, may uncover valuable perspectives which are relevant in all the other spheres, both the individual and the collective.
In conclusion, my proposal is that coaches and coaching supervisors be alert to the option of creating a safe space where they follow their excitement and curiosity in playing with the idea of parallel process and seeing what delights and learning may emerge. In doing this I would also encourage, where appropriate, the use of ‘creative’ techniques since they may bring to the surface the unspoken, non-verbal elements within parallel process.7

1. ‘The Therapeutic Relationship’. Petrushka Clarkson. Whurr. 1995.
2. ‘Training and Supervision For Counselling in Action’. Windy Dryden and Brian Thorne. Eds. Sage 1991.
3. ‘Scripts People Live’. Claude Steiner. Bantam. 1975.
4. ‘ What Do You Say After You Say Hello?’. Eric Berne. Corgi. 1972.
5. ‘ The Innovator’s Dilemma’. Clayton Christensen. Harper Collins. 1997.
6. ‘ Accessing the Power of Love in the Workplace’. Roger Harrison. 2008. ( pre-publication.
7. ‘ Creative Coaching : Doing and Being’. Keri Phillips. KPA. 2007.  Email: