Resistance as a guide through a supervision

Resistance as a guide through a coaching supervision process? An essay about why do we need a guidance in coaching (supervision) and why it should be our client who guides us

I wrote this essay during my training as a supervisor in summer 2017 as a way to reflect my professional experience, which could be assimilated by my emerging role of the supervisor. Even this was before our year-long work trip to central America, I decided to publish it to have a closer look on the way I think about coaching — and supervision itself. To fulfill this task thoroughly (and to make the most of it), I decided to discuss three matters, which I, in my current state of professional development, consider to be the most crucial. Clearly, these matters are linked with coaching — and therapeutic — trainings I graduated from and clients I work with. However, this essay is also based on my experience as a scientist in the field of social psychology. My motivation to write this essay is then connected with the question I asked once my fellow coaches: “What is the most recent struggle you face in your professional development, which you have to solve to move further?” Besides the many productive answers, there was one, which I thought about the most: “You know, in fact, questions like these, do not really interest anyone.” But, don’t they? Or, aren’t they supposed to interest us?

In this essay, firstly, I will discuss the insufficient ontology of a coaching as an “objectively” true category and consider the socially constructed “nature” of it. Secondly, I will question the common position of coaches that “the past is past and cannot be changed” from the perspective of the current research in neuropsychology and I will look at the “change” in coaching from the perspective of the gestalt therapy and internal family systems therapy. At the end, I will propose an attitude to the coaching (or, maybe better to say, to coaching supervision) based on the concept of “resistance”, which would take into account matters discussed above.

Coaching, therapy, et cetera

When we talk about the ontology of coaching, we actually ask, what the very specific nature of the coaching is, or in more positivist language, what is the unique essence of the coaching. What the coaching “really” is. When something is what it is, it cannot be something else. When coaching is coaching, it cannot be therapy or mentoring. Or can be?

There are many different definitions of coaching and there are also many different kinds of coaching. While we can define coaching as a “collaborative relationship formed between coach and coachee for the purpose of attaining professional or personal development outcomes which are valued by the coachee” (Grant et al., 2010: 126), there will be different definition f.e. for life coaching, while life coaching can be defined as “motivational and behavioural change approach that helps people to set and reach better goals, leading to enhanced well-being and personal functioning” (Jarosz, 2016: 34). These definitions, however, do not differentiate coaching from the many postmodern therapeutic approaches — f.e. solution focused brief therapy (de Shazer et al., 2006) or narrative therapy (Combs – Freedman, 1996).

There are many attempts to elude from this trap, Grant (2003: 254) f.e. add, that in life coaching, we work only with “normal, nonclinical clients”[1]. Strnad and Nejedla (2014) propose that the difference between narrative therapy and narrative coaching lies in the topics of sessions: there are work-related topics in coaching and non-work-related topics in therapy. With these however coaching becomes only some kind of subset of the therapy.

If we would continue in this analysis, we can find out, that even broadly ascribed specifics of the coaching, such as non-expertise, non-interpretation and orientation on future (Parma, 2006), are in current therapy more and more common (de Shazer et al., 2006). More above all, there are reflective approaches in coaching, which are based on phenomenological reflection and presence in the situation “here and now” than orientation on future (Langdridge, 2012; Silsbee, 2008; 2010), which are more common even in older therapeutic approaches (f.e. gestalt therapy or existential psychotherapy; see Perls et al., 1951; Yalom, 1980).

If we do not want to conclude, that coaching is in fact therapy (or some kind of “subtherapy”), we have to change the paradigm (from the positivism to social constructivism) and ask these two questions: “In the case of a need, would CEO / executive manager / father on parental vacation visit psychotherapist?” “In the case of a need, would CEO / executive manager / father on parental vacation visit coach?” For different reasons (reputation, attractiveness, availability etc.), these clients can answer the first question with “no” and the second with “yes”, despite the fact that well trained SFBT / CBT / Ericksonian therapist would do with these clients mostly the same things as well trained coach. Coaching then does not exist as a unique ontological category, but exists as a unique social practice.

Social practice, however, has different rules, than the truth itself. Truth is binary, something can be either truthful or not. So when we say that coaching is only this and coach do only that, then either you do coaching or not and either you are coach or not.

In social practice this does not work. Coaching is what is accepted as a coaching by the community. But more importantly, it can be discussed and negotiated by the social actors. And with that, any category (or discipline) — such as coaching is — can be fluent. The problem is that the communities usually do not think about social practices in the terms of fluidity, but more in the terms of the binary truth. And more institutionalized and more rigid the community becomes, the more it enforces its socially constructed categories as if they were the truth itself. This is, however, common and well described social process (Kuhn, 2012; Lyotard, 1984) resulting in still more widening gap between those who are on the top of communities (authorities) and the rest (those who agree and quite disagree).

Unfortunately, we as coaching community did not take a lesson from the history of psychotherapy and we are still pressing more on definitions, institutionalization and clan membership. This creates a comfortable illusion of the finality of our professional development, as if it would be just enough to introject[2] the ICF codex and rank system. But, is it? Who and how would then assimilate  new concepts and bring  new ideas? Will there be a team of experts who implement and enforce new rules? Will there be someone who will say to someone else where and how to develop?

If so, what happened with our belief in non-expert-contractual-partnership thing?

Past is past and can be changed[3]

The social practice of coaching is problematic for more reasons. Inconsistency in our beliefs and our actions are disregarded in many ways — we do not have diagnosis (or labels) for our clients but we have diagnosis (or labels) for ourselves (ACC, PCC, MCC and its equivalents). We are not experts on lives of our clients but we are experts on lives of  other coaches. While we allow ourselves to be inconsistent and do not really apply our philosophy to its consequences, there is only difficult way to assimilate new scientific knowledge and use it in practice.

The good example of our common shared assumption which shapes our professional identity is our belief into the distinction between therapy = past and coaching = future[4].

However the typical coaching objection against the past-focused therapeutic approaches is not exclusive coaching phenomenon. The psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis led his critique of psychoanalysis in the similar way in 1950 with his great essay The Place of Action in Personality Change. There he wrote that only the focus on child trauma and gaining an insight and corrective emotional experience are not really useful — useful they become only in the active involvement in the actual everyday life. And he was not alone. Behaviourism, Milton H. Erickson, Steve de Shazer and many more others followed his steps to the point where there was decided to not to deal with the past at all. We moved from the dark and traumatic past to the bright and constructed future era.

And for a long time it was also scientifically alright.

There was supporting evidence in neurological research (Rock, 2007) that thinking about the problem instead of solution only strengthen the problem’s synaptic connections in our brain. And how more we dive into the problem, the bigger this problem seems (and the richer its structure in our brain becomes). The past is past and cannot be changed. Then, scientists and therapists and coaches asked, why we just do not leave the past behind and create the new connections — solutions — instead of the old traumas?

However, as new scientific discoveries about brain functioning came, there can be actually more answers to this question.

Tom Holmes (personal communication, September 26, 2016), one of the founders of the internal family systems therapy, claimed, that we in the coaching often work only with the growing parts of the client’s personality and ignore the rest of the system with different (or even opposing) needs.[5] When we construct the solution in coaching process, we do this simply with the one part of the personality from many. Therefore, until there is a consensus among all other personality parts that the change is required for the whole system, the change will not occur. The other parts will literally drag the one growing part back. I suppose it is quite common experience in coaching that despite the fact that client creates and schedules an elegant solution, he just do not follow his own steps. Actually, Tim Gallwey (2001) describes one of his clients who learned one day, how to perfectly serve in tennis and the day after he played badly again. Disappointed Gallwey asked what happened in the meantime. Client answered: “You mean the great serve I had yesterday? Well, it just did not felt like me.” The me is crucial here, because it points to the whole system of Self, which did not wanted to move further.

The complement view on this situation can be found in the philosophy of gestalt therapy. Arnold Beisser’s (1970) paradoxical theory of change suggests, that the only option for the change to occur is for the client to accept both the present Self and the future Self as his own (see also Yontef, 1993 for review). Otherwise the client will still oscillate between desired outcome and rejected present. This, however, really requires acknowledging also the very unpleasant phenomena: I need my depression, I need my fat belly, I need my caffeine abuse and I need my bad tennis serving to be who I truly am and to become who I  am truly becoming.[6]

In less philosophical and mysterious way is this acknowledgment explained and adapted in coherence therapy (former depth oriented brief therapy; Ecker – Ticic – Hulley, 1995).  Coherence therapy is based on two basic principles: pro-symptom position and memory reconsolidation. Memory reconsolidation refers to the new scientific discovery about brain functioning I was mentioning above — our memories can be literally rewritten. The past can be changed.

To understand this, we have to see the difference between the common attitude in coaching and coherence therapy. It is common try to dispose of depression, smoking and bad tennis serving (or start to run, or eat less hamburgers, or work more, or work less, or spent more time with family, or finish the PhD., or start, or stop …). This coherence therapy calls a negative-symptom position, because we look at symptoms as something negative without acknowledging our role in creating it in the first place. Instead of it, coherence therapy suggests that client creates these symptoms for fulfilling some needs and thus these symptoms play an important role in client’s reality. This is called pro-symptom position, because we acknowledge symptoms not as a problem, but as indicators of the unfulfilled need (f.e. I need to do this to feel safe, because if I would do not that, I would be lost).

The therapeutic process leads client to (a) understand why is this symptom important for him (to get an insight into an emotional learning which triggered the symptom in the first place) and to (b) change the past (this is the breakthrough here). According to the latest research in neuropsychology, the past can be actually changed (Dahlitz – Hall, 2015). When there is an opposing association or memory or imagination embedded into the traumatic memory, the emotional learning can be deconstructed (Ecker – Ticic – Hulley, 2012).[7] The synaptic structure of the problem is not getting richer because its primal need has dissolved and the problem (symptom) is not more required. With this, client find himself on a starting line, acknowledging who he is, free to change, free to move. But, one can now still add, to move where…[8]

Consistent way to supervise as a partner

Current research in education (Boekaerts – Corno, 2005; Zimmerman, 2002; Zimmerman – Schunk, 2011) suggests that the basic condition for the progress in learning is a safe environment which facilitates learning processes. To set a goal, to set a strategy for achieving this goal, to evaluate outcome, change the strategy if the outcome is insufficient or move further if it is. The key is an agency of a learner. Without agency, there is no intrinsic motivation to grow. To achieve an agency of a learner, we invented — partnership.

We can find many similarities between theory of self-regulated learning described above and the coaching itself, however the safe environment and the agency are the two basic principles. That is why we in coaching do not judge (to avoid fear from mistakes and authority), do not suggest interpretations (to avoid disruption of the client’s self-esteem), that is the reason why we are not experts on client’s life (to support his agency) and that is the reason why is coaching strictly contractual (to be equal human fellows, partners).[9]

But then there is a supervision. Etymologically — to “oversee”. In the meaning of superintendence of the work of others. Etymologically — not much a partnership. The main question to solve is this: How to supervise to stay consistent with the principles of safe environment and agency stated above?

Firstly, let’s create the safe bubble. Under the “safe bubble” I understand an environment based on the actual authentic presence. Setting, where you could freely express and test your thoughts, where you could disagree and negotiate and where you could allow yourself not to fear and to learn to be someone else. The bubble where you can truly be who you are and the bubble where you can truly become who you are becoming. In this bubble, it does not necessarily mean, you have to like, what you have discovered.[10] But it does mean that you have the right conditions to face it. There is much written about creating safe environment in psychotherapy which could be helpful for establishing such an environment in coaching (see Cepeda – Davenport, 2006 for review).

However, supervision, as I see it, is a bit different case.

Supervisor, being himself also a coach, has an extensive knowledge of the field which creates expectations and requirements on who to be and what to do. These, if they are treated as objectively valid and not fluid and negotiable, would inevitably lead to some kind of countertransferential reaction which threatens our safe bubble. To explain this: if our attitude is based on the authority and giving of the objective knowledge to our supervisees, we are re-creating the common setting from our lives — we have authorities home (parents), in school (teachers), in work (seniors) — we can only expect, that our supervisee will act according to his usual strategies and will not grow in a ecologically valid way (how can we learn someone the meaning and feeling of partnership if we do not act as partners?).

However, if we understand coaching as a constructed social practice (as is discussed in the first part of this essay), we can give ourselves as supervisors the freedom to be authentic even in potentially endangering areas for our professional Self. Yes, we also do not know everything, let’s find it out together.

My suggestion is that the process — in this “safe bubble” setting — is supposed to be guided by our client. I understand now it is quite opposite point of view from the coaching perspective, where the coach is the procedural expert, but let me explain it. Steve de Shazer et al. (2006) acknowledged the cases, where the client, after hearing his question on miracle, was unable to create an imagination of the desired future. While SFBT does not use a concept of resistance, there is an effort to ask differently and push the client to the future anyway.[11] For the reasons discussed in the second part of this essay, I tend to disagree with a tendency to move faster than the client. Client through his bodily reactions, responses, energy (etc.), as well as resistance itself, clearly express, where he need to be at the present moment. It is also a client, whose agency has to be created (or restored) through a process, if he is supposed to authentically express his thoughts and possibly change them.

To sum up.

I see coaching as a constructed social practice which allows us as coaches to assimilate new ideas and allows us as supervisors to discuss also topics which would otherwise endanger our professional Self, while we can feel safe and create safety even in the situations with lack of procedural knowledge. As an example of a shared and common assumption which does not always leads to the desired outcomes, I discussed strict connection of the category of coaching with the future. If this is practice realized against the client’s resistance, it happens to be inconsistent with other two basic principles of coaching: disturbs the safety of the environment and client’s agency. In order to keep these two aspects restored, I propose to let the client’s reactions to guide us through the process. To be with our client or supervisee there, where he needs to be at the moment, while only there can the change occur.



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[1] I have also a bit objection against the use of the word „normal“.

[2] I use the word introjection in opposite to assimilation as Perls et al. (1951).

[3] There were two major breakthroughs in my professional development connected with this topic: the workshop in internal family systems therapy and training in coherence therapy.

[4] The past only for resources.

[5] In IFS we can think about personality parts as ego-states, however, there is no strict psychoanalytical differentiation such as Id-Ego-Superego. Different personality parts can fulfil different functions which could fit the classical psychoanalytical framing, but while they can be both introjected and / or constructed, their functions can be really specific. Tom and Lauri Holmes (2011) suggest imagining a Self as a living room where different parts come to take a control (or fight or discuss…) from different rooms of the house, roof, kitchen, basement etc.

[6] This sounds really strange in the essay about coaching.

[7] This process makes more demands on clients (and therapists) than corrective emotional experience, while memory reconsolidation requires not only “be there and get through” traumatic memories, but also active and willing participation in deconstruction of them.

[8] And as Allen Wheelis criticized psychoanalysis in 1950, we can (or must) criticize coherence therapy today. Therefore, from my perspective, the combination of coherence therapy and coaching is very useful and creates very complex attitude towards change in clients.

[9] Beautiful example of this philosophy consistent with practice is the British school of Summerhill (Neill, 1995).

[10] Tarkovsky’s Stalker would probably explain this metaphor in the most appropriate manner.

[11] This is actually considered to be one of the most common mistakes in the therapeutic work with imagination in katathym-imaginative psychotherapy: to get the client somewhere, where he is not yet  (Leuner, 1984).

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