The Music of Supervision:

The Music of Supervision:

chords, discords and improvisation...

Chords, discords and improvisation…

As I started to write this I became bored, as though the act of writing about creativity fossilised it. It took something novel to generate energy and fresh ideas – the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle, and in particular, the line ‘knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning’. (An analogy would be a literature professor whose long-marinated understanding of the tropes, techniques and structures of novel-writing screened them from the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic impact of a great work.)

The antithesis of creativity in supervision is not knowledge itself, but: rigid, hermetically sealed bodies of knowledge that the supervisor hasn’t emotionally or intellectually engaged with for some time. The same applies to over-arching ‘models of supervision’ which lurk oppressively at the corners of consciousness, and often inhibit what is happening in the supervisory session. (The latter is the membrane through which all the elements of the system are seen and felt.)

What do coaches and consultants want from their supervisor, and where can she/he deploy the creativity and imagination of their art in the crucible of the encounter? Firstly, they want help in understanding three dimensions: themselves and the other actors in the drama; the emotions generated by the interactions of these elements, including of course that of supervisor-coach/consultant; and the complexities of the wider system which includes inter alia an organisational culture. Beyond that, they want to feel supported and encouraged as they navigate the emotional shoals of client projections and, in the case of an OD consultant, process the often toxic emanations from the client organisation. Finally, they want to learn new perspectives to help them and their clients unlock mysterious blocks to progress.

‘All art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ wrote the art critic Walter Pater. The creative improviser – most obviously a jazz musician – usually operates within the structure of a set of chord changes and a rhythm, and when in the ‘zone’ can let their subconscious take over – they often feel the music plays through them, that they are merely a medium for something beyond. Sweet accords mingle with dissonance and provocative jazz scales that introduce tension. Meaningful interactions between people have something of that spirit, evoking a range of emotions and opening a portal to a new experience.

In supervision, too, there should be creative improvisation between supervisor and client, particularly as the client – coach or consultant – will often be highly skilled and knowledgeable in the same field. (That ushers in the possibility of duelling soloists, which can be emptily narcissistic or if there is a generosity at work, a stimulus to greater things.) But the supervisor is the musical director who shapes the session, providing support, and laying out the chord sequence of ideas and models which give access to subterranean levels that are often non-linear and irrational. (Interestingly while for Freud, dreams were the ‘royal road to the unconscious’, for Schopenhauer music was a portal to an underlying Real which lay beneath the world of appearances.)

The most generative parts of a session are often non-linear and access the irrational in an attempt to get beyond what Blake called ‘the mind-forg’d manacles’. In the encounter on this page author and reader are playing with the musical metaphor, and also the terminology and phraseology – of music. That is a prime vehicle for new ideas in a supervisory session – the introduction of a new discourse, which as with learning a foreign language, gives access to new understanding. If as supervisor you constantly use the same ‘language’, particularly if it is one the supervisee knows well, you are approaching a closed system….Language has its limits – for Lacan, for instance, our deepest levels of feeling and experience can’t be directly symbolised in words – but new ideas and images unlock free associations and take us deeper. But the discourses, ideas and images need still to be ‘alive’ to the supervisor – otherwise they take on the dull spirit of moribund knowledge. We need to read widely and cultivate our curiosity.

Certain magical glades of revelation emerge through reverie – dream-like moments when, unhindered by judgement, preconceptions, the past or future – we can let our minds drift around a phrase, word, slip of the tongue, mishearing, or idea to come up with an apparently oblique association which then triggers another image for our client. This associative chain leads to interesting perceptions of individuals and organisations. We can, for instance, ask OD consultants to take a metaphorical view of their client – musical, cinematic, literary, pictorial or sporting, say – which often unlocks not only their own emotional reactions but the likely effect of the organisation’s aura on employees and the environment, and the likely hindrances and aids to cultural change. These phases are evanescent and of course we often fall back on tried and tested approaches, just as a musician will resort to scales and favourite rhythms, but they should always remain a possibility.

As I sculpted this piece I cut a lot of empty flourishes away – much remains, inevitably, but I hope it is suggestive of possible approaches rather than prescriptive, as art and imagination should be free of rules and regulations. Each supervisor has to find their own way, filtered but not imprisoned by their training, experience and personality. Some will make more use of dissonant challenges than others – containment does not imply comfort – while others will be more accommodating; some will rely mostly on their intuition and capacity for reverie while others are more inclined towards the structure of a model. The wisest will use a wide repertoire, always ensuring that their knowledge is vibrant and alive, stimulating their client – and fellow improvisor – to new melodies and harmonies.

James Mackay is a Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s courses in Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy, and in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development

For the new brochure for the Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy including more details about module dates, the fee and venue or if you have any questions, please contact Rachel Kelly, Professional Development Manager.

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