Mindful Supervision: Widening the window of emotional tolerance
Summary of article appearing in Coaching At Work, 2012, Vol 8 (1).
Providing coaching supervision for individuals and groups has been an important component of my work for many years, but it is only in the last 2-3 years that I have brought my personal commitment to mindfulness explicitly into my work as a supervisor. Judging from the feedback from coaches, the approach has been very useful. Even experienced coaches describe themselves as making deep shifts in the quality of their presence and attunement to their coaching clients; as being more steady and available for the range of issues that clients might bring; as feeling more spacious within themselves and within the work.
Case Illustration – Elaine
Elaine brought to supervision her work with a senior sales manager, Dan, who was perceived by his boss and other colleagues as having poor relationships across the organisation, despite being successful with external customers. When Dan first met Elaine he said: ‘I hope I will be honest and open enough in coaching’. This somewhat unusual comment raised alarm bells for Elaine. She wondered if, as HR had suggested, this man was something of a game-player. Surely, if he wanted to be honest and open he could be. Why was there a need for ‘hope’?
In supervision, after Elaine had provided a bit more background, I asked Elaine to pause. In terms of our already established practice of mindfulness as part of supervision, Elaine knew that this was not only an invitation to stop talking, but to bring her attention to the sensations in her body, to anchor herself in the sense of the breath moving in and out of her body. Then I asked her to observe what was arising for her when I repeated Dan’s words: ‘I hope I will be honest and open enough in coaching’. She said that she immediately got an uncomfortable sensation of tightening in the chest. I encouraged her to stay and breath with that discomfort, to describe that sense of tightening in more detail, to bring gentleness and a sense of inquiry to the experience. Initially Elaine associated this tightness in her chest with her distrust of Dan’s motives, but, encouraging her to bring her attention back to the emerging bodily sensations, after sticking with it for a while, she noticed a shift in her body. The sensation was now more open and flowing. She then said she thought the tightness in her chest was linked to her anxiety about being a competent enough coach to handle Dan. The softening in her body was accompanied by a sense of compassion, towards herself and towards him, and a curiosity about why he would find it difficult to be open and honest with her. She began to consider the possibility that Dan was signaling his fear of showing his vulnerability in relationship; that he might struggle to be open and honest because a part of him was fearful and ashamed of admitting to areas of incompetence.
This short piece of supervision brought a wholly new perspective to Elaine’s thoughts about the work with Dan. In subsequent sessions Elaine confirmed that the coaching was going well, with a focus on what it was like for Dan to take the risk of being vulnerable in relation to her and to his colleagues.
What does mindfulness add?
This account of how a leap of insight by a coach can free up the work with her client is perhaps not unusual. So, what does the addition of mindfulness seem to enable? In my view mindfulness widens the window of emotional tolerance in a way that no other technique can. If, as coaches, we can stay attuned to our own bodily sensations and primary emotions, even when they are highly disturbing and uncomfortable, then we are much more likely to be able to stay present to the difficult emotional territory arising in our clients. Neuroscience has shown how a triggered limbic system in the brain will evoke our threat responses, pushing us towards automatic defensive routines; habitual modes of thinking and behaving designed to protect us. In coaching supervision, as coaches discuss the challenges of client work and the associated feelings – perhaps confusion, self-doubt, anxiety, irritation, shame, attraction, fury, … – it is inevitable that the limbic system will be triggered. It is at those moments that the attentional mental muscle of mindfulness is invaluable.
By practicing consistently the capacity to bring our attention back to the sensations of the breath, a relatively benign object of awareness, we become increasingly familiar with the movements of our attention. We learn how readily the mind tends to wander, how easily it gets caught into patterns of rumination, how quickly it seeks to blame us or others, how adept it is at finding distractions. The building of the steadiness of attention is like the skier learning to snow plough. It is this underpinning steadiness that enables us to approach and cope with the black slopes of difficult emotions and sensations.
By learning to tolerate what is uncomfortable, we give ourselves space to be curious about these internal experiences, to breath with them, to meet them with compassion, to unpack the automatic thinking patterns and limiting beliefs that fuel them. We learn to downgrade the tendency of such feelings to trigger threat, and so can gradually integrate them into a tolerable range of experiencing. In the language of neuroscience, mindfulness appears to strengthen activity in parts of the frontal cortex concerned with representing its own representations1. In other words it allows us to be more self-aware, to observe and make sense of our experiences without instantly reacting to them.
Furthermore, in coaching or supervision, our self-knowledge combined with an enhanced attunement to bodily sensations, allows us to pick up and empathize with the feelings in our clients, communicated to us via mirror neurons2 in the brain. We discover that our mindful presence with clients enables us to more adequately regulate their emotional distress, and over time, to provide the safe relational holding required for them to expand their emotional resilience.
Case illustration – David
This interaction between a shift in supervision leading to a shift in coaching is further illustrated in David’s coaching of James, a senior finance director. David explained that James was typically very poised and business-like during coaching sessions, but on one occasion the conversation led into personal matters, and James appeared to be on the brink of bursting into tears. David found himself quickly diverting the conversation to practical, non-emotional issues. In group supervision David recounted this event and after a while I asked him to pause, and to tune into the sensations in his body associated with the moment when James appeared about to cry. David described very unpleasant visceral feelings; he experienced his stomach as a cesspit, a putrid, stinking assault on his senses. When he pulled away from these feelings he spoke somewhat dismissively about the sense that James was about to ‘blub’.
Although David recoiled away from this cesspit several times, with the support of his own mindfulness practice, the trust of the group, and my encouragement and guidance, David did bring himself back to those sensations to hold them more gently and inquiringly in awareness. Eventually there was a shift in this bodily experience; the putrid cesspit was now just vegetable matter, something he experienced as an ordinary and acceptable part of the world. The shift to vegetable matter represented a new way of relating to areas of fragility, one that was about acceptance and integration. This internal shift for David later reflected in the quality of his presence in coaching, and he subsequently described how James was learning to explore and work usefully with his own tender thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness fosters a high quality of listen and support
A further important aspect of mindfulness within group supervision is the quality of listening and support provided by colleagues. David commented that, unlike some experiences of people in helping positions who can seem voyeuristic in their curiosity, he experienced the group as genuinely alongside him as he investigated his inner world. The group was able to be present to him in the way he needed to be to himself, and in turn, he learned to be present to himself in the way he needed to be for his client, James.
Catching the moment of being triggered
As coaches, being truly available for our clients can only occur if we are truly available to ourselves. That we can get emotionally triggered into defensive, non-reflective patterns of thinking and behaving is part and parcel of the human condition – it is a tendency built into the design of our brains. But, with mindfulness combined with supervision, I have seen coaches become much more able to catch these moments of being triggered. Through a widening of the window of emotional tolerance, they are able to pause and breathe into the bodily experience. Bringing attention to what is arising right now, in the body, in the mind, in the relationship between coach and client, the coach sustains an open and generous stance of inquiry, and through inquiry, holds open the door for new experiences and insights to emerge.
Siegel, D. Mindsight. Transform your brain with the new science of kindness. Oneworld, 2010.
Iacoboni, M. Imitation, Empathy and Mirror Neurons. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009: 60. 653-670.