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“Embracing the qualitative function as a supervisor of a group – my learning steps” by Kathryn Downing

Embracing the qualitative function as a supervisor of a group – my learning steps.

In a group supervision session a few months ago, a supervisee brought a case forward wondering if there might be potential conflicts of interest in holding multiple roles with a particular client and the client’s organization. In inquiring, considering and reflecting on the situation within the group, the supervisee also shared her strong attachment to coaching this client and how much joy and satisfaction she experienced.

I referenced the ICF Code of Ethics, raised questions about what the conflicts might be, and wondered why she was bringing this case at this time. The other group members raised reflective questions and shared what feelings and images had come up for them. As is our practice in the group, when it felt as though there was a richness of consideration, I asked the supervisee what she was sitting with and taking from our discussion.

I had noticed that the group reflections had raised several areas of ethical concern worthy of an exploration. I was therefore expecting that the supervisee would also be reflecting on and perhaps considering, or even have decided, that there were conflicts for her in holding multiple roles. I noticed my own thinking was moving towards considering the merits of ending the coaching relationship.

To my surprise the supervisee had no such thoughts. She thought she would continue in the coaching relationship with this client. It was as though time slowed down for me. I was holding genuine surprise. I was holding the video images of the other supervisees and their facial reactions. I was holding Hawkins’ and Smith’s third purpose of supervision which is the qualitative function and ensuring the supervisee’s work falls within the ethical standards (Hawkins and Smith, 2013, p174). I was holding the safety within the group and wondering if I should raise my surprise in the group, or later with the supervisee individually. I was holding great deal of discomfort that if I did not intervene with the group, I would be setting a lower ethical standard than was appropriate. I took a deep breath, paused and took another deep breath.

I then shared with the supervisee and the group that I was in that moment uncomfortable. I shared that I was going to choose my words carefully, and that I was going to come in more strongly than I had in our earlier sessions because of my discomfort. I took my time, took care to be supportive and to say I had strong reservations about her deciding to stay in the relationship given the probable conflicts of interest that had been described. I raised a few more conflict issues that hadn’t come up and encouraged the supervisee to add those into her reflections. I also noticed for her that since she had been thinking about this situation for a number of months before bringing it to the group, there may be information for her in considering why was it on her mind. I wondered if she might focus into, and trust, her own internal stirrings. The supervisee thanked me and agreed to do additional reflection.

In supervision of my supervision, I raised this situation with my supervisor and shared a bit of the recording of my intervention. A note to readers, I ask my supervision groups for permission to bring my supervision to my supervisors and with this group I had asked if I could also bring parts of the recordings. I had their permission to do so. On reflection with my supervisor I was reassured that I was careful, appropriate and that the ethical issue was important enough for pushback in the group setting.

A couple of weeks later I had supervision of my supervision in a group setting and raised this same situation. I find the group setting enriches me in different ways than the one on one supervision and am grateful to have the opportunity to do both most months. This ethical dilemma was still on my mind and I was wondering what had I missed? What came out of the reflections in the group was about the attachment of the coach to this client. If I had explored that aspect might the supervisee have drawn on her strong care for the client to identify how the client could be served by a different coach? Might she have seen the issue through a lens of love rather than the legal lens of codes of ethics, fiduciary duties and conflicts of interest? I am grateful for these additional reflections and they are proving excellent food for thought.

Also raised in the group was the question of what are our ethical obligations in coaching supervision given the unregulated nature of the executive coaching profession. We had a robust discussion about what does one do when the ethical violation seems reasonably clear, and should we even assume we have enough information to reach that conclusion? Should a supervisor go back and follow up with the supervisee, and if so individually or in the group? When, if ever, might we involve the organization? How could we ever go beyond the supervisee given the confidentiality agreements for the supervision and maybe we should each go back and review our confidentiality agreements? And many more luscious questions.

Overall, this experience has given me a great deal to reflect on, consider, turn over in my mind and critique as I go forward in the handling of potential ethical issues in a group supervision setting. That is the power of supervision of supervision! I learned about trusting myself in the moment to come in differently with the group I was supervising. I was reassured and resourced by the discussion with my supervisor. Having reflected for a few weeks more, I had moved from “Did I do this appropriately?” to “Wonder what I missed?” My learning increased again, in the discussion with my peer supervisors and our group supervisor.

Author: Kathryn M. Downing


HAWKINS, P. & SMITH, N. 2013. Coaching, Mentoring and organizational consultancy: Supervision, skills and development, Maidenhead, United Kingdom, Open University Press.