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Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Coaching" in Supervision

A recent article in The New Yorker (“Personal Best” by Atul Gawande) raised the very provocative question of whether or not all kinds of professionals might benefit from a personal coach.  The author, a very accomplished surgeon, described himself as being “at the top of his game” when he decided to experiment with this question.  Interestingly, it was a random encounter with a much younger tennis player who offered the author some tips on improving his serve, which prompted this vocational reflection.  

The entire article can be found here:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande
I will go ahead and spoil the ending by telling you that even a seasoned surgeon found it useful to invite a trusted colleague to observe his work and offer feedback about becoming even better at what he does!

While the work of personal coaches is often geared toward a particular challenge such as weight loss, improved athletic skills, better public speaking, etc., there is some wisdom in the practice of coaching that might be of use to those of us who supervise Divinity students in the mysterious process of coming to confidence and competence in daily practice.  Religious leadership is difficult to teach partly because  “jobs that involved the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master.”  (p. 44)

Often I think that I do too much of the talking when I am supervising a student.  This article offered some concrete techniques that help me quickly shift into listening mode, while still being attentive to important feedback that needs to be given.  After the student has engaged in some work of their own, instead of the supervisor immediately offering praise and possibly critique, experts from the world of coaching suggest a few simple and straightforward questions:
  • what worked?
  • what did not work as well as you would have liked?
  • What might you do differently next time?
  • What else did you notice?


What I like about these questions is that they ask the student to quickly get to the heart of the matter.  It gets them in the practice of reflecting on their own work, in the moment.  Part of the work of supervision is to be attentive to unhelpful dynamics, such as exaggerated self-criticism or self-praise, a tendency toward perfectionism, etc.  But the starting point for this work is what the student herself says about her work.

Sometimes a student’s reflection offers a natural segue for the supervisor to share practical wisdom.  “Others in this situation have done this or that.  Or: sometimes I have had success with this.  Saving this part of the conversation for later assures us hat we are offering advice that is needed and welcome, and speaks directly to the student’ situation.

I invite you to read the article for yourself and share your own comments and reflections about times you have coached or been coached.

--Viki Matson

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