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It’s now just over twenty years ago that my eldest son, Clark, came to me with his request: “Dad, next time you choose a job to do, please pick something that I can explain to my friends!” Those were the early days when most people hadn’t heard of coaching outside of sports coaching. In fact, I remember bumping into executives I knew at the airport who knew I had left the law firm I had been at and would ask me what I was doing now. Somehow, they wouldn’t hear the first word when I answered “executive coaching” and they would invariably respond: “What, sports coaching?” or “What sport?”

Nowadays, most people have a better idea of what coaching is – and most of us coaches have refined our own definitions of what we do as our coaching has, hopefully, matured from something fairly transactional where we help our clients set and achieve their goals or help them resolve their dilemmas, to something more transformative where we support them in their personal and professional growth and maturity.

Yet two decades later, as the profession has developed, it’s interesting to note that even coaches are refining their definitions of coaching in distinguishing it from two offshoots of the profession, mentor coaching and coach supervision. For example, as Hawkins and Smith point out, supervision “is simply not the same as coaching another coach”, a delusion under which I (and, as I have noticed lately, many other coaches) suffered for many years. It is natural that some confusion might arise unless one is dealing daily with these distinct areas of our profession – and, even then, as we have found with coaching, our definitions of the three professions mature as we mature within them.

So, if you are not altogether clear on the distinction between the three areas, firstly, don’t feel alone! Secondly, this newsletter is written for you. I thought I would share some definitions with you with the hope that you will respond with some of your own and, in the process, refine your definitions.

Let me start with coaching. My favourite definitions or descriptions that I often lean on and read together are provided by Myles Downey and Timothy Gallwey. Downey succinctly defines coaching as “the art of facilitating performance, learning and development.” In a way, Gallwey describes this art of facilitating as “eavesdropping” on someone’s thinking processes via a synthesis of three conversations for mobility – that is, conversations for awareness, choice and trust.

One way of distinguishing mentor coaching and coach supervision from coaching is to look at who receives each of these services. In the case of the first two, it is fellow coaches whereas, in the case of coaching,

 this could be anyone (including coaches) and depends on the type of coaching one does (eg leadership, life, business etc).

In my view, the confusion sometimes arises from the fact that both mentor coaching and  coach supervision are often aimed at the improvement of a coach’s coaching skills and effectiveness in some way. Mentor coaching does so by supporting coaches in achieving accreditation with their  professional body, that is by adhering to the various competencies that the body prescribes.

Supervision, on the other hand, is perhaps more subtle and probably more far reaching. Carroll describes supervision  as a forum where supervisees review and reflect on their work in order to do it better while Zachary defines supervision as the forum where supervisees are supported and facilitated in sitting at the feet of their own experience and allowing that experience to become their teacher. Magill sees supervision as the act of waking up to what happens in practice and Cusell Humphries sees it as working alongside a coach to enable the coach to step back and see the bigger picture.

All of these are “nice”, succinct, accurate descriptions of what supervision is – in fact, I really like them – but they do remind me of my son’s haunting request of me so many years ago. For me, for now anyway, supervision is a relationship in which we support coaches in learning from their live practice in a way that matures their coaching over time, deepens the way they reflect on what they do, and allows their own inner supervisor to emerge.

If you are still reading, I hope that you are clearer in your thinking of the distinctions between these areas of our profession and in knowing which direction you would like to take to help you to be at your best as a coach, and person, more of the time.

I would love to hear your thoughts.


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