November 24, 2020
Three Reasons to Invest in Reflective Practice, aka Supervision
As an executive coach, I am consistent in asking clients “What have you been reflecting on?” and “What have you learned and changed as a result?” What I often get back is “I haven’t had much time to reflect lately.”
It’s understandable that executives are pressed for time, especially as we all live through the Covid pandemic, racial justice challenges, and an economic recession. Yet without reflection, leaders, and all of us, miss turning experiences into learning opportunities we can use to change future outcomes. Investing in a reflective practice isn’t “nice to have,” it’s the ground from which effective leadership grows. As the organizational consultant Margaret Wheatly notes, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
What is reflective practice?
Here is an adapted definition from Donald Schon’s book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.
Reflective practice is critical and deliberate inquiry into professional practice in order to gain a deeper understanding of oneself, others, systems, and the meaning that is shared among individuals. This can happen during practice/work (mindful in action) and after the fact (on action) and can be done alone or with others.
We reflect to learn from experience; we learn to adapt and change for the betterment of ourselves, others, and organizations.
As executives need to reflect more and react less to meet the challenges of these times, so, too, do the coaches who support them. As coaches (I use the term broadly to include internal coaches, HRBPs, and external coaches), we need to polish our own mirror to be “fit for practice,” in our work with leaders and their organizations.
Supervision has become the key vehicle for reflective practice for coaching professionals. Here are the three reasons to invest in a reflective practice (one-on-one or in groups), which are also historically called the “functions” of supervision.
- Supportive – coach well-being and resilience building
- Developmental – coach competence and capacity building
- Qualitative – coach quality control, including contracting and ethics
In general, and especially in our current challenging environment, it’s emotional support that a coach needs most from reflective practice. In a group supervision session I led earlier this year, one coach presented a challenging client case. As the group and I listened, the coach expressed doubts about their approach; the coach questioned if they were “good enough” for this client. On top of that, the coach was also fatigued from their home-schooling role as a parent. Feelings of being depleted and overwhelmed due to Covid stressors were overshadowing the coaching work. The supervision dialogue and reflection shifted to support the coach’s present experience, with the group providing empathy, understanding, and emotional support. The group acknowledged and normalized the coach’s experience, as we were all feeling exhausted to some extent with all that 2020 has thrown our way. To better engage with their clients, the coach needed to devote more attention to their well-being, so they could tap and reinforce a resilient mindset and behaviors. The coach become aware that they needed to practice self-compassion to mitigate their self-judgment. They ended with “I am a good enough and also tired coach.”
A coach’s well-being and resilience is the ground from which all good work happens, because well-being leads to well-doing.
Generally, coaches know their learning isn’t done when they graduate from a coach training program. We know that to develop our coaching competence and capacity requires practice and continuous learning. As we reflect on coaching cases in supervision, we follow the advice of the poet Walt Whitman, to “be curious and not judgmental.” One area I’m always curious about in my coaching practice, and the practices of my supervisees, is the influence of our self-stories. These stories, or scripts, originate in our childhood, and we all carry them forward in our coaching work in different ways. As an example, one coach realized they were enacting parental behaviors with a client by being overly protective, unconsciously treating the client like a child. A supervision conversation helped the coach stay aware of keeping the coaching conversations adult to adult and to begin to unlearn their parent/child relational pattern with clients. Reflection helps us become more conscious in the moment, so we can steer clear of our conditioned patterns from our past.
A coach’s commitment to their continuous learning keeps them on a developmental edge, always deepening and widening their competence and capacity and unlocking potential.
The integrity of our coaching work depends on delivering the highest quality coaching to our clients and organizations. Quality control is essential and encompasses how we contract with clients and organizations, and how we establish professional boundaries as well as ethical standards. In one of my supervision cases, an internal coach/HR Business Partner was struggling to navigate the escalating tensions between the SVP they support and another SVP. The other SVP was supported by a colleague my supervisee found to be “difficult.” It can become complicated as internal coaches are always working within a system they are a part of. In our supervision conversation, we explored the initial contracting and reflected together on when to know to push back and challenge the executives they supported and when to let go. We also looked at how the tensions between the SVPs might be paralleled, or playing out, between the HRB’s and its impact on their coaching work. Supervision research suggests that supervisors find half of the issues brought to them by coaches are related to original contracting, and this case supported the findings. In the end, the insight from reflective practice was to revisit the original contracting with the SVPs and HBP colleague and recontract and restructure the coaching work accordingly.
A coach’s attention to the quality of their work benefits everyone in the system as it holds the coaching to the highest standards and helps ensure coaching goals are achieved.
As the coaching field grows, so does the need for mindful reflective practice, aka supervision. Leaders aren’t reflecting enough, especially during these trying times. They are not learning at the pace they need to so they can keep up with the changes in the business environment. It’s our job as coaches to model a reflective approach. The emerging research shows that coaches who attend to their well-being, continuously develop their competence and capacity, and focus on quality control are the coaches most fit for purpose.