One of the most interesting, and potentially powerful, phenomena that can arise in supervision sessions is that of parallel process. A parallel process is occurring when 'the pattern of relationship in one area is enacted in another, with no conscious awareness of what is going on' (Hawkins and Smith 2006, in Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy: Supervision and Development p167). It can therefore provide a rich source of information in the supervision session about what is happening in the coaching and back in the coachee's wider life. This case study includes a parallel processes operating between the Worlds within the 3 Worlds 4 Territories model.
Work WorldHaving contracted with the coach (Thomas), I start by asking about the coachee.
Thomas tells me he has had an initial session with the coachee (Jane). He describes her as being a well-regarded programme manager in the public sector. Jane feels she lacks the potential to progress further because of her lack of confidence, particularly around difficult personalities. Questioning by Thomas has established that 'difficult personalities' are people who are more senior than her and people she perceives as being stronger than her. As well as this being a problem at work, Jane mentions that this is an issue with her husband, a senior policeman with a powerful personality. She also says she thinks too much about what other people think of her, that she needs praise, and that she is afraid of being 'found out'. She wants the coaching to help her be more assertive with these senior, stronger people. Realising I haven't heard about the Action quadrant of Jane's work life, I ask how specifically she acts in the presence of 'difficult' people. Thomas says that she's cautious and careful, and tries hard not to do anything controversial that might upset them.
Coaching WorldThomas has brought Jane to supervision saying "How do I get into this with her? Where should I go with this? I feel stuck". Focusing on Thomas's inner dynamics (Readiness) I am curious as to why he's feeling stuck as I know him to be a competent coach who would typically not be stumped by a situation like this. It is likely therefore that there is something else going on here that is interfering with his normal competence. I make a mental note to return to this. To give Thomas a different perspective, I move his attention onto a different territory of experience, Vision, using the "If you were marooned on a desert island together what would happen?" question. This shift in perspective frees him up to think differently and he immediately replies "I'd be the one making the suggestions and leading, and Jane would be very cooperative - she'd want things to work."
I point out this apparent contradiction to Thomas. On the one hand he doesn't know where to go in the coaching, and yet on the imagined desert island he sees himself as the leader. So Thomas finds himself in the bind of feeling he has to provide leadership - but not knowing what to do.
Thomas reflects on this - "Yes, I'm taking the responsibility myself. I'm taking on being the stronger, more senior person where I know the answers and where Jane is cooperative, but not assertive." It seems Jane has recreated in the session the reality she deals with in her day to day life by unconsciously coaching Thomas to play the role of a stronger, more senior person and he has unconsciously accepted this role, a clear example of a parallel process linking coach's and coachee's Readiness territories.
However, this insight has not freed Thomas up as his next response is "But I still need to know what questions to ask her". Whilst this sounds like an Action issue, it seems likely that it is rooted in the opposite quadrant, Readiness, where some out of awareness process may be interfering with Thomas's ability to know where to go with Jane.
Supervision WorldWondering whether my 'here and now' experience may shed some light on Thomas's dilemma, I turn my attention to the Supervision world. Focusing inwards on my own Readiness territory, I notice that I too am feeling a pressure to come up with some answers and uncertain as to where to go next. Thomas's feeling of stuckness and uncertainty about how best to coach Jane has communicated itself to me where it has emerged as a felt pressure to fix Thomas - a second parallel process.
Recognising these linkages gives me the opportunity to use them to inform the supervision. I now have a direct experience of what may be going on, not just for Thomas in his coaching session, but also for the people around Jane back in her place of work, and at home. I turn my attention to my creative mind (Vision) and start to wonder what is the shift I need to make in this supervision session which might defuse the second parallel process and in turn defuse the first?
The parallel process between Jane and Thomas is a complementary one in which Jane's compliance has evoked Thomas's directing stance. But both are in a bind - Jane because she knows being compliant won't deliver what she wants at work, and Thomas because he doesn't know what direction to give!
By contrast, in the parallel process between Thomas and me, our experience is similar - we are both feeling a pressure to come up with answers. And then I realise (more clearly now with the benefit of hindsight) that this is true for Jane as well - its just that her way of avoiding the discomfort of feeling incompetent is to be compliant and let others take the lead. If this hypothesis is right, then I need to step out from the parallel process and then enable Thomas to do the same so that he is freed up to in turn free up Jane. I hypothesise that this will involve each of us making a shift in our Readiness of being willing to not know, to feel uncertain, and to feel incompetent.
I realise that my focusing on coming up with solutions (Vision) for Thomas for him to use (Action) on Jane has been maintaining the parallel process. Parallel processes are usually rooted in the Readiness quadrant and, as I focus on my inner experience, I realise my need to appear to be the 'expert supervisor' has been driving my interventions. To break it, I need to stop searching for solutions within myself, drop my 'expert supervisor' persona, and switch my attention to clarifying my intent (Vision) - which I realise needs to be to focus on helping Thomas access his own insight. Turning my attention to my externally facing quadrants I realise that this will involve making interventions that keep pushing the thinking back to Thomas (Action), and that seeing that Thomas, rather than me, is working hard is what will tell me I'm being successful (Insight).
By seeing the chain of causality from the Work World, through the Coaching World, to the Supervision World I have been able to free myself up, I now need to help Thomas free himself up, so I turn our attention to the Coaching World.
Coaching WorldRecognising that Thomas is stuck in a fixed pattern of thought with regard to Jane I try focusing his attention outside this coachee system by asking "What would you do with a typical coachee?" Thomas gives an immediate and confident answer listing the questions he would ask and the approach he would take. "So what's stopping you do that here?". He immediately replies "She expects me to have the answers". Thomas laughs as he sees the pattern and then says "I don't feel confident to not know" (his Readiness quadrant). He pauses, reflecting on what he's said, and then commenting that this is what Jane also experiences (her Readiness quadrant). There is a palpable change in his energy which suggests his Readiness has shifted.
I ask him what has shifted for him. Thomas says that he's realised that wanting to feel confident is interfering with his ability to coach well. Further exploration of this shift in Readiness helps him recognise that, by allowing the feeling of not being confident, he can extend his range as a coach (since he can now coach Jane both when he is feeling confident - and when he's not). He recognises that he needs to be willing to not feel confident (Readiness) - partly so that he can ask the questions that need asking - and partly to demonstrate to Jane that one can be confident despite not knowing (Action). Focusing on his Readiness, I wonder aloud if his feelings of 'unconfidence' can become an ally in his coaching, allowing him to use his own feelings of 'unconfidence' in the next session as an indicator that he's doing real work with Jane and enabling her shift back in work.
I ask Thomas to imagine himself in his next session with Jane and ask about what his experience will be in each of the 4 territories to ensure that there is coherency between the territories. He says:
- Readiness: I feel comfortable about being 'unconfident' - and I can even see myself welcoming it as an indication that I'm really engaging with Jane.
- Vision: My intent is to help Jane engage with her unconfidence as a way of increasing her confidence in dealing with difficult people. I am holding a vision of myself, and of her, as someone who is comfortable and even energised by feeling uncomfortable.
- Action: I will ensure that I don't intervene to offer Jane solutions but will hold back to create the space for her to be more assertive. I may even make a paradoxical intervention along the lines of "Jane, you're a powerful woman - you can even get others to be assertive over you!" to help her reframe how she sees herself.
- Insight: I will be looking out for Jane's discomfort around not knowing so that I can help her get more used to being with this feeling.