An inside story on peer supervision

An inside story on peer supervision

people sitting round a table

21 February 2024

Executive Coach Liz Cox has been part of a peer supervision group for the past decade. She shares what she has learned along the way about the benefits peer supervision can offer, as well as some of the ‘watch outs’. Liz also offers her best practice tips for coaches on how to manage a peer supervision process.

My peer supervision journey

It all started back in 2014 during my coaching master’s course at Henley Business School. Arriving one morning, we were instructed to form ourselves into supervision groups of around six people. It must have been a moment of Jungian synchronicity – or just pure luck – that drew me to the wonderful group of brilliant coaches that I continue to work with today, long after our Henley course has finished.

I could never have predicted that this random exercise at Henley would result in such invaluable support for my coaching learning and development over the next decade. Ten years later, we still meet every quarter, supervising each other’s coaching and sharing our experiences and learning. Although I have had other supervision, and plenty of CPD, I wouldn’t be half the coach I am without this incredible resource behind me.

Peer supervision – what is it?

Described as ‘horizontal supervision’ (Hawkins & Shohet), it entails coaches, who may be at similar levels of experience, supervising each other, switching roles of supervisor and supervisee. Although it can be done in a one-to-one set up, the collaborative nature of the group format lends itself particularly well to peer supervision.

In essence, peer supervision is about supporting and participating in the practical and emotional journeys of fellow coaches. At its best, it is stretching, stimulating and enriching. The special bonds of shared experience – the connectedness – of these peer relationships help foster powerful self-reflection and uncover deep truths.

Edna Murdoch talks about the ‘heart connectedness’ needed for powerful supervision and notes that the ‘attuned relationships’ of peers help facilitate vulnerable and accepting conversations. Erik De Haan agrees, seeing peers as supportive of self-reflection, doubts, emotions and discoveries.

As Robin and Joan Shohet write in their book, In Love with Supervision, ‘We believe at the heart of supervision is the relationship’.

The advantages of peer supervision

It’s free! This can be especially important for coaches who are just starting out, and who can find the cost of supervision a deterrent to this vitally important resource.

But at whatever level of coaching experience, the non-transactional nature of peer supervision carries with it a unique quality of generous and open-hearted mutual support.

Peers bringing their experience and knowledge into the group enables everyone’s growth and development.

The switching around of supervisee and supervisor roles gives each member the experience of being the supervisor, thus deepening their understanding and connection with the supervision process. And doing it enhances the experience of receiving it.

Switching roles also helps break down the power dynamic in the room, thus reducing any feelings of inadequacy, guilt or shame that can get in the way of effective supervision. This can enhance a sense of safety, which supports generative learning.

Peer supervision is a perfect forum for experimenting with different exercises and techniques. In my supervision group we have found rich learning in a variety of approaches, including constellations work, word and picture sort cards, walking in nature, group and individual feedback, etc. Lego has made a regular appearance, and recently we tried out Winnicott’s squiggle game to great effect.

The challenges of peer supervision

As a forum run by coaches, it is vital that participants do not fall into the trap of simply coaching their peers, rather than supervising them. The focus needs to be on the super-vision of the supervisees’ practice. Referring to the 7 eyed model (Hawkins and Shohet) can help ensure that the focus remains on the key areas for exploration.

Bachkirova and Jackson highlight the importance of peer supervisors being honest and open about the limits of their competence and development, so that the learning process can be supported and poor supervisory practices do not set in.

There needs to be real commitment to the growth and development of everyone within the group – generous sharing and listening is critical.

The group format can throw up particular challenges around unspoken hierarchies, risking competitiveness and unhelpful dynamics. Moreover, groups can have blind spots and fall into group think. All of these issues needed to be guarded against and dealt with if they occur.

The nature of the long-term relationships can result in the group falling into patterns of behaviour; essentially becoming too cosy and failing to match support with challenge. Again, these issues must be addressed should they arise.

The group needs to be able to weather the departures and arrivals of members that are an inevitable part of the flow of life. These moments will impact the group dynamics, and can require concerted effort to move forward positively.

Peer supervision best practice

Although they may sound slightly daunting, these ‘watch outs’ demonstrate the great learning to be gleaned from peer supervision. Edna Murdoch tells us that ‘who you are is how you supervise’, and this opportunity to gain self-knowledge through feedback from supportive colleagues, along with the group experience itself, can bring with it deep personal and professional learning.

Here are some helpful guidelines to ensure the peer supervision process works optimally:

  • Good contracting is vital for peer supervision, and to guard against some of the challenges and risks outlined above. This entails getting everything out in the open, agreeing ways of working, acceptable levels of challenge, models, techniques and approaches. And, just as with coaching, re-contracting is needed at times of change, difficulty or disruption.
  • In my supervision group, we have created a ‘living document’ that covers our agreed approaches and output. By regularly revisiting the document (about once a year), we ensure that the group is continuing to meet people’s needs, is functioning well, and is evolving and growing as a learning forum.
  • Getting the most out of the process requires highly professional standards in terms of the scheduling, preparation, feedback and contracting. The advice is to behave as if it is paid for. And to ensure that the administrative tasks are evenly spread across the group.
  • It is important to access other forms of supervision, alongside peer supervision. These additional sources of learning and insight can then be brought back into the group, helping the group grow and develop their supervisory skills through sharing their external experiences. Relying purely on peer supervision alone is not best practice.
  • And ideally, there is benefit for the group if everyone is a trained supervisor – or at the very least, committed to their development as a supervisor, even if only within this peer forum.

And finally…

In conclusion, my experience of peer supervision has added deeper meaning to my journey as a coach and has demonstrated how working with supportive peers can be immensely enriching, uplifting and revelatory. Indeed, these peer supervision relationships have been incredibly sustaining and at times have really lightened the load. Being part of a peer supervision group over the last decade has, for me, been a great gift. As Martha Beck says, ‘The meaning of life is what happens between people’.


Good resources for further reading about peer supervision, including books mentioned above:

Full Spectrum Supervsion, Edna Murdoch & Jackie Arnold
The Heart of Coaching Supervision, edited by Eve Turner & Stephen Palmer
Reflective Practice and Supervision for Coaches, Julie Hay
Supervision in Action, Erik de Haan
Reflective Practice, Gillie Bolton
In Love with Supervision, Robin Shohet & Joan Shohet
Supervision in the Helping Professions, Peter Hawkins & Robin Shohet

About Liz Cox

Liz Cox

Liz Cox is an experienced executive coach working with individuals, teams and boards across a number of sectors. Liz has a Masters in Coaching and Behavioural Change from Henley Business School and is a successful business entrepreneur, having founded and run her own market research company, Directions. She is a non-executive director on the board of The Big Picture, a global design research agency.

Email: [email protected]

Image: Airfocus