Endings, beginnings; re-vision and supervision.
An article in a recent Le Figaro asks: ‘The Notre Dame fire: where does this strange sadness come from?’ The point is made that the cathedral, in its resonant symbolism – of France’s history and literature, and Paris itself – evokes deep feelings of loss, anger, nostalgia, and also shame at the neglect of this iconic building, feelings which transcend religion. Sometimes it takes an event of incalculable import to mark moments of transition in national and personal histories and to unearth subliminal emotions and powerful memories.
Making sense of these happenings across time and space falls to anyone in a panoptic role, with the provisos that: they are not hidebound by short-term tactical imperatives, that their vision is ‘true’ i.e. not overly biased by political or egoistic drives, and that they are not inclined to fit events into prefabricated theories, ideologies or models. This is hard for all of us, but historians, the more thoughtful journalists, artists (in the broad sense) and social scientists with a wide purview, are amongst those best placed to take on this role.
This is true too of a supervisor operating within the Tavistock Institute’s tradition: their vision has to be ‘meta’ in the sense of being beyond and above (and yet also within) and thus able to see patterns and identify themes, and understand the symbolic topography of the system. And a supervisor has to be imbued with a sense of paradox and duality, able to get beyond the reductive dichotomous thinking that almost always fails to identify what is really going on. He/she should see reality as complex, processual and Protean, much in the way the poet T.S. Eliot did when he considered endings and beginnings.
‘What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time’. T.S.Eliot, Little Gidding
As Eliot suggests, the end is a transition to a new beginning, a harking back to the beginning of the relationship, and to the voyage, we have taken in life since our birth – the succession of beginnings and often painful endings that we have lived through. For the supervisor, every stage in the process recalls the beginning and prefigures the end, which in turn announces a new beginning. This applies not only to their interactions with their immediate client – the coach or consultant – but also to the client’s clients, and any other system in which they may be embedded. So an ending and a beginning is at once particular and idiosyncratic, and also representative of so much more. (The important point of this poetic digression is that the supervisor needs to be able to see below surface issues to the subterranean elements that shape our reactions and create assonance or dissonance.)
In the case of Notre Dame: the cathedral was within a half hour of collapsing entirely and has been severely damaged: and now, with plans for renovation (perhaps incorporating modern elements) this near end ‘is to make a beginning’. For many Parisians who have been aware of the church since infancy, this traumatic event has returned them to a landmark of their lives, and allowed or perhaps forced them to ‘know the place for the first time’. Similarly, for the supervisor the wit to offer a change in perspective to the client is crucial, enabling him or her to see anew, to probe and understand the denotations and associations that swirl around events, people, and the interactions between them. To borrow Schein’s analysis, sometimes this is achieved by joint exploration with the client, by showing them a new model or theory, or by diagnosing an issue and offering a way forward. So the supervisor plays a number of roles. But the link between them is the creation of a crucible from which new configurations can emerge.
James Mackay is a Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s course in Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy.
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