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The Role of Supervision in Developing Resilience in Coaches by Lisa Rosetti

“A person who intuits the ways of the heart stands a better chance of living well.” (Lewis, Amini & Lannon. 2001)

Resilience is a topical issue in learning and development these days. But should we also be considering resilience skills as vital developmental for coaches, as well as for business managers and leaders?  Supervision may prove to be the best tool in a coach’s toolbox to develop these skills.

Whilst the client organisation will naturally be interested in the quality assurance that supervision brings to coaching provision, this article explores the part that supervision has to play in developing resilience in coaches and why this is important.

Coaching supervision is a best practice process with three main functions: developmental, qualitative and resourcing (or restorative). Whilst its focus is primarily in service to the client and client organisational needs, it also supports the coach’s performance and wellbeing.  Supervision provides a regular space for the supervisees to reflect upon the content and process of their work, ensuring their performance is effective, and their work ethical. A vital aspect of supervision is therefore to examine coaching relationships, ensuring they are healthy and uncompromised.

Most people readily agree that these difficult economic times are placing unprecedented demands on our business leaders. Coaches can be equally affected by the prevailing tough climate, and face similar challenges and even the possibility of burnout.  Of course, this is not necessarily entirely negative; fiercer competition and client demands may mean coaches must develop a more critical awareness of their work and more professional practices, such as demonstrating ROI. They must also pay attention to their own self-care.

Relationships are clearly under strain in the current workplace. This affects coaches no less than incumbent staff as coaching work is primarily relational. Many coaches will be facing more stressed clients than ever before. This can sap a coach’s inner resources and undermine their resilience in the face of such pressure.

Nowadays a coach may also be coming under increasing pressure from HR personnel to deliver value against even more stringent criteria.  Increasingly, coaches need to manage their own resilience and energy reserves, without “toughening up” at the detriment of their responsiveness and flexibility.

However, as a recent CIPD report shows, proportionately very few practising coaches, whether internal or external, are receiving specific coaching supervision.

The report lists the consequences as including:

  • inappropriate boundaries
  • increasingly ineffective value offered to client
  • individual personal stress
  • impact on client relationships and organisational morale

On 14 July this year, the Association for Coaching hosted a conference, which specifically addressed resilience issues for coaches, including the need for supervision. Keynote speakers confirmed that supervision is a vital support for developing a coach’s resilience and their presence under pressure.

What is resilience?

The term “bouncebackability” is often used as a popular term for resilience. Those of you familiar with Aesop’s Fable, The Oak & The Reeds, will remember how the strong oak fought against the force of the wind but was eventually uprooted, whilst the smaller reeds bent and survived.

This well-known fable gives us a clue to our popular understanding of resilience, ie as a character trait of flexibility in tough times. Moreover, many believe that resilience is an inherent quality to be found only in certain individuals.

However, recent research shows us that this belief is too simplistic. Resilience is made up of multiple “thriving” behaviours and attitudes. These include being caring, thinking creatively, acting collaboratively, being proactive, choosing a path of wellbeing and tolerating ambiguity, to name a few. The good news is that these resilient behaviours can be developed, especially by relationships which encourage us to learn from life’s challenges.

Dr Chris Johnstone presented his workshop, Evoking resilience in Times of Uncertainty, at the Association for Coaching conference on Resilience. He advocates resilience strengthening practices for coaches. Dr Johnstone contends that resilience is transmissible, and that coaches can become “infectious agents”, passing on their learnings to their clients.

Supervision as a Reality-Check

Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review’s senior editor, has identified three unique traits of resilient people:

  • a resolute acceptance of reality;
  • a sense that life is meaningful;
  • an exceptional ability to improvise.

Dr Brene Brown’s research into shame and vulnerability is relevant in helping us understand resilience more fully. Coaches may be experiencing shame, for example feeling powerless to effect any meaningful change in their clients’ lives, or being overwhelmed by negativity and low morale prevalent within the client organisation. Supervision allows us to step back and see the bigger picture, and provide what Dr Brene Brown calls a “reality-check” on our feelings.

Dr Michael Carroll, a leading figure in the field of supervision and founder of the Supervision Centre, describes supervision as a dialogue conducted “in an atmosphere of mutual influence and vulnerability, each open to discovering themselves.” This conscious act of vulnerability allows supervisees to embrace uncertainty and move to deeper questions about their work and their place in the world. It is from here that we can transform our thinking and develop resilience skills.

Energy Management

Self-attunement through mindfulness and other energy management techniques has huge benefit for developing resilience, and has been well researched and documented. Daniel Siegel, researcher, neurologist and author of Mindsight, states that “tuning into the self also promotes a foundation for resilience and flexibility”.  A supervisor trained in these techniques can help coaches develop a programme of self-care to improve their resilience.

The need to address not just mental agility but energy management has been incorporated by Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK), into their global initiative for employee health, Energy for Performance. To date, over 1,500 senior leaders and employees from GSK have taken part in the initiative, the goals being to become more:

  • physically energized
  • emotionally connected
  • mentally focused

The fourth goal in GSK’s initiative is transpersonal: to become more “spiritually aligned”.  We might interpret the inclusion of this fourth goal as a timely acknowledgement of another type of energy affecting performance; one that perhaps we more easily understand as “Purpose and Meaning”. That is, when one is aligned with a higher purpose in one’s work, one is better equipped to meet life’s challenges with courage and determination.  For example, the employee who understands and values his company’s corporate social responsibility mission will be willing to go the extra mile to achieve its objectives despite adverse conditions.

Executive and life coaches will be the first to recognise that the absence of purpose and meaning in a client’s life leads to a decline in their ability to face each day with fresh enthusiasm and “bouncebackability”.

In her recent publication, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr Brown also stresses the link between purpose and resilience. She says,“Without exception, spirituality – the belief in connection, a power greater than self, and interconnections grounded in love and compassion – emerged as a component of resilience.”

Thus a supervisor is well advised to pay attention to “spiritual alignment”, and to understand its relevance in resilience work with their supervisees.

Resilience and Uncertainty

One of the characteristics of resilient behaviour is to ability to hold paradoxical thinking and cope with uncertainty. Strengthening our ability to be comfortable with uncertainty builds resilience to cope with an increasingly complex world.

Coaches entering new fields of coaching, or transitioning from eg life coaching to executive coaching, may face cultural and relationship challenges.  A coach recently told me that one of the most helpful aspects of supervision is that it allows her to see how effective she can be as a coach, as she ventures in to new areas of coaching where considerable uncertainties exist for her. Improving her resilience through supervision has helped her to be comfortable with that uncertainty and be more effective in her work.

Resilience Undermined by Unconscious Processes

Sir John Whitmore, a pre-eminent thinker in coaching, leadership and organisational change, emphasises the need to be aware of unconscious processes. Whitmore says, “I am able to control only that which I am aware of. That which I am unaware of controls me. Awareness empowers me.”

When we become more self-aware we improve our ability to cultivate resilient behaviours. Supervision creates that safe learning space for mindfulness and self-reflection, so that we can understand what might sap our resilience and confuse our work.  As Jung says, that which we do not understand in ourselves we do not understand in another.

Supervisors trained in meta skills such as systemic awareness, psychodynamic principles, energetics and mindfulness will be able to address the energy management aspect of resilience development.

Two Models of Supervision

To understand why this is important in a coaching relationship, it will be useful to refer to two well-respected models of supervision, the 7-Eyed Model of Supervision and the Full Spectrum Model.

The 7-Eyed Model (Bath Consultancy Group): The model provides seven “eyes” or lenses for supervisor and coach to explore the coach’s work in the context of relationships and systems. Within this, Parallel Process is a component of the fifth eye. Briefly explained, if a client has been withdrawn and uncooperative with the coach, then the coach may display similar behaviour with their supervisor. The supervisor will have their “antenna” trained to pick up any nuances to explore with the supervisee. The phenomenon of Parallel Process provides us with an explanation of how a coach may play out dynamics and energies they have absorbed quite unconsciously from their coaching relationships.

There exist underlying transference of attitudes, unresolved issues and emotional energies in relationships; a well-recognised phenomenon to which coaches are no less immune. Supervision helps coaches become aware of our “drivers” and unconscious processes within these relationships, helping to correct any inappropriate boundaries or responses. Furthermore, as we have said, by developing the awareness and resilience of the coach, these qualities are transmitted within their client relationships.

The Full Spectrum Model (Coaching Supervision Academy): This model has at its core “Coaching Presence”. It is an integral model utilising knowledge gained from traditional models of supervision as well as attending to the realms of body, mind and spirit. This perspective brings new understanding to all the relationships that lie at the centre of coaching. The model further clarifies how a coach can be affected not only by what is happening in the direct coaching relationship but also by the wider field of prevailing energies operating within the organisational culture and indeed beyond.

The diagram below illustrates the breadth of meta skills and energy management tools that can be used within supervision. Amongst other benefits this supervisory approach will strengthen resilience in coaches.

Fig 1 here

Two Supervision Case Studies

In both these case studies, unconscious processes had affected the coach’s work, and their own resilience compromised, impacting on their coaching relationships and performance.

Coach A felt very threatened by tough-talking clients, and was unable to weather criticism. When one client asked for a refund, she became over-anxious about her ability to coach. By talking this through in supervision, she became more aware of her emotional state, identifying that she still held fear from her past that had been triggered by the critical client. Through sharing her vulnerability in supervision and receiving supportive honest feedback, Client A was able to form healthier and more professional relationships with her clients, and become more resilient in the face of criticism.

Coach B took on a life coaching assignment that seemed straightforward at first (she was not in supervision at the time). After a couple of sessions, she found that her client was unwilling to set any goals and never followed through with interim “homework”. Coach B finally terminated the coaching after five sessions with little progress.

When she entered supervision some four months later the confusion of the client relationship was still vivid in her mind. Through supervision she came to understand her unconscious processes. She accepted that she had adopted the role of “Critical Parent” (cf Transactional Analysis) and was able to learn from the incident and move on. This new understanding helped Coach B to increase her emotional resilience and effectiveness with future clients.

Managing Burnout in the Helping Professions

According to the Institute for the Integration of Technology and Education (IITE), burnout is very prevalent within the helping professions, in which we can clearly include coaching.

The IITE defines the behaviours which predict burnout, including:

  • being in the presence of constant negative energy;
  • constantly handling other’s emergencies (and neglecting your own);
  • allowing others to abuse your kindness;
  • under-compensation;
  • and ignoring your need for accomplishment and growth.

In many organisations, the emotional field is likely to be charged with unexpressed or expressed cynicism, fear, anxiety and frustration. Coaches may now be working in complex or even “toxic” environment. Furthermore, a coach’s work can be confused by unclear contractual obligations and muddied boundaries.

Such influences in the workplace can impact on a coach’s resilience, so that they are unconsciously pulled into defensive behaviours.

By learning how to be attuned with others and have empathy, we also gain insight into ourselves. Supervisors trained in energy management can help their supervisees learn practices which increase their self-awareness and resilience, such as somatic awareness and breathing techniques.  In turn, the coach can pass on these techniques to their clients.

Fiona Adamson, transpersonal coach supervisor and contributing author to Supervision as Transformation (Shohet (ed) 2011), advocates interpersonal neurobiology and mindfulness as important learning.

Dan Siegel, neurobiologist and author, describes the neural circuits of the mind as being composed of Relationship, Reflection and Resilience. In his latest publication Mindsight, Siegel explains that the practice of certain techniques can help people connect with others and be aware of themselves.

Limbic activities such as these are the most effective processes we have to build connection, self-awareness and resilience. The reflective listening, which characterises the supervisory relationship, is a limbic activity. Notably, when we experience reflective relationships, we also create resilience.


Dame Carol Black’s Review, Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, identifies the strong and growing evidence that work, health and wellbeing are closely and powerfully linked and need to be addressed together. This is equally true for coaches as it is for their clients.

As Gill Smith, Head of Marketing, Association for Coaching (UK), says in the Association for Coaching Bulletin (April 2011),“Supervision and CPD play a part in maintaining the resilience of coaches and increase their capacity to also be a better resource for their clients”.

Supervision therefore is important not only for coaches themselves but for those organisations investing in coaching services, whether these are provided by internal coaches, managers who have been trained in coaching skills, or independent coach practitioners.

Organisations need to ensure that they hire coaches who demonstrate a commitment to supervision and also make provision for their own internal coaches, to ensure that coaches are resilient enough to perform safely and effectively.Black, C. (2008)Working for a Healthier Tomorrow. The Stationery Office (London)

Brown, B. (2010) The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden

Coutu, D.L. (2002) How Resilience WorksHarvard Business Review, May 2002.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., Lannon, R. (2001) A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books; Reprint edition (2 Jan 2001)

Shohet, R. (2011) Supervision as Transformation. Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Siegel, D. (2010) Mindsight.  Oneworld

Online Resources