The picture that heads up this blog was created by a coach to whom I am providing restorative supervision. Supervision suffers a bit from its title, giving the impression that it is about compliance and inspection. Nothing could be further from the truth in the work I do and am being trained to carry out. It is the case that as a supervisor I have a role to play in ensuring that my clients are ethically, emotionally and physically fit to practice, however, that responsibility comes from a place of care and compassion, not from domination and instruction.
My aim in this piece is to share brief meditation on the supervisory relationships I have been developing since last October when I began my training as a supervisor to coaches and leaders. Carroll and Shaw’s beautiful explanation of the neuroscience of ethical decision making, in the book Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions, revealed to me the integrating power of love; an apt shorthand for connection, belonging, empathy, compassion, respect and openness.
Love integrates all three regulatory systems of the human brain – Reptilian, Limbic and Executive Brains. Love answers our reptilian need for safety, this releases our capacity for connection beyond the immediate need to survive and brings imagination and creativity to the cold world of pure logic and formal rule-based ethical decision making.
How does this help in my work as a supervisor?
Being in contact with others through embodied presence is a dimension of relational ethics. We often sense what words cannot tell us, and this ‘data’ is often the sign that something of importance is present and in need of ethical attention. This ‘limbic resonance’ puts us in touch with information in a field of communication we do not have access to immediately through language and conscious thought. It comes to us through sensation, movements, images, and trained intuition.
It has become a source of joy to me tuning into this limbic resonance in service of my supervisees and modelling for them, as my supervisor has modelled for me, the liberation of connecting on this plane of the unspoken.
But it must be done with respect, love and ethical clarity. It can otherwise be experienced as invasive or manipulative. After all we have power in the supervisory relationship, we need to use this power transparently co-creatively and in balance with the creative capacity of our supervisees.
I have a couple of supervisees who sometimes turns up to our sessions distracted, unsettled, a little late. Where I to approach supervision from the less resourced state of insecurity (dominated by my reptilian brain) my ethical decision making process would be depleted; so rather than seeing the needs of my client I would instead be focused on ME. MY Competence. I would interrogate myself about whether or not I was good enough and this self-doubt would register in the field of energy between us as impatience with my supervisee; block empathic deep listening; encourage a need to prove myself through driving progress. All of which would be entirely useless to a stretched and exhausted coach who is internally trapped in the same parallel process of self criticism and blame.
Her clients are stretched, distracted and sometimes late or do not show up. How is she to be supported beyond this if I as supervisor fail to show up resourced and in an ethically mature relational presence; integrated within my own connection with self, others and the world that impacts on us all?. Fully able to work beyond being blaming, shaming & judgemental.
The client who produced the art work I have used above (with her permission) is using painting to heal a fractured sense of self. Having to navigate a world that often speaks in oppressive terms to one isolated aspect of her being, wife, mother, daughter, business woman, through our restorative conversations, is bringing her whole self into flowering and flight. This is self-love which gives her the balance to work from her whole self with her clients. This came to her as a process during a supervision session, reconnecting to her creativity.
Another client came wanting support with the emotions she absorbs and carries with her after sessions with very stressed and overwhelmed professionals. We are focusing on how she can make use of the emotions generated in her work in service of her clients in the course of a coaching session. My favourite phrase, one which transformed my own relationship with emotions in coaching was to realise that ‘its all data in the field’. The field of energy within which we work with our supervisees. I hope that this is healing and energising for her. This is a work in progress.
Two others are learning about how they wish to navigate the professional roles they occupy in the world after the killing of George Floyd has turned the acronym BLM into a symbol depicting a commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. For one black professional it is challenging and removing someone who was resistant to change but in the process destabilising the old and comfortable arrangements she relied on. Better the devil you know. Supervision is helping her to continue to lead in the midst of this turbulence and uncertainty. The other is questioning the meaningfulness of her work. Turning down engagements that seek to turn her into a token of diversity. Questioning her worth, resisting having it valued at only the colour of her skin and not as a measure of her talent in a world where having a black or brown face lends kudos to those who previously worked in monochrome spaces. With both these clients I hold a safe, loving and cool space to explore questions and dilemmas.
Love and Complexity
Because love is complex it helps us to understand and be able to live and work with complexity. It does not often speak using words. Love speaks with the body, with energy in waves and magnetic attraction. We need to be able to surrender to this intangible force to meet our supervisees where they are most vulnerable and in need of restoration.
I am loving this work.
This post features artwork created by a client.