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‘Work is the place where the self meets the world’ D Whyte

(From the Quarterly newsletter of ICF-HCC, India)


‘Work is the place where the self meets the world’.  David Whyte (1)

As some of you may know, I am a Director at the Coaching Supervision Academy.  We are based in the UK but our 9-month supervision training programme takes place in many countries and we have trained over 250 executive coaches, leaders, consultants and HR personnel to be first class supervisors.  So I want to say something about what this practice of supervision offers people who work in our ‘complex, ambiguous, and sophisticated’ 21st century world.

 In my roles as professional supervisor and trainer of supervisors, I get to hear a lot of stories from around the world as to what it means to live and work in the environments that so many workers find themselves in. A recurring theme from some supervisees is that developing leaders and executives these days, also includes supporting them to remain balanced in their increasingly hectic and demanding environments. Recently, I was at a conference at Ashridge Business School (UK) and we were considering how the nomads among us – those who either shift business and professional identity often or those of us who are literally nomadic as we work globally – manage to hold a centre, a true sense of self.  What supports us to move consciously, safely, through our busy lives?

Supervision has an important role to play in this – and not only for coaches but for business leaders, HR, people in medicine and education, in SME’s and in the boardroom. One of supervision’s central gifts, is offering a quality of reflection that in itself slows people down to ‘the speed of life’ – as opposed to them remaining in the often manic pace of contemporary living.  Supervision is a space in which we have ‘time to think’ in the presence of another practitioner who will support our learning and development.  Old ideas of supervision as a kind of policing are long gone – professional supervision is not managerial supervision!  It is more akin to educational or therapeutic supervision, where the learning journey of the supervisee is paramount.  Nancy Kline says:

Supervision is an opportunity to bring someone back to their own mind, to show them how good they can be. ‘Time to Think’. 2002

 Contemporary supervision maps and models illustrate the wide range of conversations that occur in supervision- from classic casework exploration, to focus on one’s future, from conversations about organisational change to personal development work. (see Full Spectrum Model of Supervision  at The focus in sessions is determined always by the supervisee and the supervisor flexes to co-create insight and understanding with each supervisee so that they return to work and life, clearer and better resourced.

I want to focus more closely here, on the personal development aspects of supervision – the ‘self’ that meets the world.  Supervisees benefit from working with a qualified supervisor who will explore closely with them who they are in their work and how they relate to their clients and their business colleagues. The premise here is that who we are affects the quality of the conversations that we have and also the outcome of a session, a contract, or of a team/business meeting. Long experience of supervising coaches tells me that effective coaching is less about using tools and applying models and is more about the robustness of the relationship we are able to make with ourselves and with our colleagues.  The best work we do, happens within a relationship; who we are is a key element in building and sustaining that relationship and in giving our skills the best environment in which to flourish. It is important that coaches place self-knowledge and self-care at the centre of their professional commitment.  We are the instrument of our work and that instrument needs to be finely tuned – and given a loving polish every now and then!

Supervision enables us to look at how differently we relate to a wide range of clients, how we show up in contracting conversations, how we manage our feelings, how we self-disclose, how we stay present and open even with clients who may frustrate us.  In this way, supervisees become much more self-aware, better at building excellent working alliances and can show up more confidently in senior meetings.  Supervision supports supervisees to become capable of generative dialogue – balancing advocacy with enquiry and ensuring that in workplace conversations, our intentions square up with their impact on others. All of this reflective work, develops crucial self-understanding and enables supervisees to function at a transformative level with their colleagues. In this way, coaches and leaders more often develop ‘highly-attuned mental, emotional, and relational capacities’ in their clients. Many of us are paid to bring about change and transformation; Prof.Bill Critchley reminds us that:

‘Change happens in the crucible of relationship’ (

The relational practice of supervision pays due attention to the living field of relationships in which a coach or a leader is working. So the supervisory conversation, will include focus on prior and on-going conversations between coaches/leaders and the rest of the stakeholders in a particular piece of work.  This often sheds light on why for example, a coach gets stuck or how they may have become entangled in a web of half-truths or even secrets – all of which may be affecting their current professional capacities. Joan Wilmot says;

When a supervisee comes to supervision, both people will be changed by the relationship and the conversation that happens between them……(supervision) is a place for everyone in the system to be thought about or held in mind. It is a place to have deep conversations; it is a place to think creatively with a joined heart/mind perspective.  Supervision as Transformation Ed Shohet  2011

 Many leaders now use supervision as part of their support and development system and Barrett C Brown outlines perfectly the benefits of this work :

Leaders who develop themselves…..have access to enhanced and highly-attuned mental, emotional, and relational capacities that others don’t. They not only see and feel situations and people differently, but they see and feel more than other leaders. They sense more connections, nuances, perspectives, and possibilities. They are able to act with greater wisdom and deeper care than ever before, and this empowers them to be able to reliably generate organizational transformation. It also strengthens their ability to effectively respond to the challenges of 21st century leadership.

 (The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism, MetaIntegral Associates Barrett C Brown)

The ‘place where the self meets the world’ is invigorating, stimulating, demanding and complex.  Supervision enables those in the workplace to gain more vision – they see more and differently; they connect more and gain perspective. They also mature, being much more open to their own wisdom and the wisdom of others. I would suggest that many 21st century workers can benefit from the reflective space that is supervision.

 1. Crossing the Unknown Sea – Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by  David Whyte   2011

 Edna Murdoch, Co-editor, ‘Full Spectrum Supervision’  2013 Panoma Press    (