Listening to one of my supervisees recently, I noticed that he was struggling to connect with one of his clients. As he talked about the coaching dialogue, it struck me that, if this conversation were a tapestry, there would be many holes in the picture where the client’s threads had not been woven through fully. She was weaving in multi coloured silk thread, tracing patterns across a broad expanse and he was weaving his own black and brown threads into neat lines, trying to grasp meaning, eager to “get clarity”, show his expertise and “be useful” to his client.
I then noticed myself caught in the same dynamic days later with my own coaching client. She is a CEO with a chronic disability. As we were doing a visioning exercise, she was describing her challenge in imagining a future without pain. I heard myself drop this blood red painful thread and instead talk expertly about the neuroscience of visioning, subtly dismissing her anxiety and leaving a gap between us and in her story. How could I have got it so wrong? It had been so obvious to me when hearing my supervisee’s tale and yet, here I was, repeating the pattern.
The closeness and connection that is possible in coaching and supervision emerges from building “relational depth”. This term was coined by Mick Cooper and Dave Mearns in a therapeutic context but is relevant for our profession too where the relationship is central to the work that we do. They define it as: “A state of profound contact and engagement between two people, in which each person is fully real with the Other, and able to value the Other’s experience at a high level.”
This kind of relationship requires us to really engage in dialogue with our clients, to meet them and get involved in their world in order to help them make sense of it and change it. However, there are many things that can get in the way of this happening. In my supervisee’s case, it is his inexperience and the lack of confidence that comes with that, that stops him being his real whole self and keeps him trying to be the expert. In my case, it was my unconscious fear and discomfort in the presence of my client’s physical and emotional limitations. I so want her to be well that I sometimes fail to engage with what it is really like for her. I work with another supervisee who coaches in the NHS and his barrier to relationship is often the hierarchy, or difference, be it in race, ethnicity, gender or even job roles.
We all have our personal blocks and barriers. The distance keeps us safe of course. Intimacy can be intimidating. But as coaches and supervisors we are able to help our clients weave a complete picture, if we can stay close to them and their story. Then together, we can step back and help them make sense of it
So where might the gaps appear in your relationships? Where do you leave a hole in the conversation? And what do you notice about your clients’ way of engaging?How can you stay aware of this and what might you do to weave the threads more closely in your next conversation?
Do get in touch if you would like to discuss more on this.
Mearns, D. & Cooper, M. (2005). Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Sage, London.
Become part of our online family. Connecting and empowering each other to succeed. We want to give supervision wider exposure and a larger 'share of voice' in the coaching community. Come and join us!