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  • Henry Campion

Attachment Theory in Coaching Supervision

(Final draft of my contribution to ‘Neurobehavioural Supervision: Applied Neuroscience In The Context Of Coaching Supervision’ by Paul Brown PhD, Saba Hasanie MBA and Henry Campion MB.BS. In ‘Coaching Supervision: Advancing Practice, Changing Landscapes’ (2019) Eds: Jo Birch & Peter Welch, Ch 3.)

Attachment plays a key role in how we relate to one another. The ‘attachment pattern’ which develops in infancy becomes internalised as a working model for relationship throughout life. Since relationship is core to the work of both coaches and coaching supervisors, it makes sense for them to be familiar with attachment theory.

The initial role of the attachment system is to ensure the survival of the infant. When it feels threatened or distressed in any way, it strives to find a safe haven with food, warmth and protection in the arms of its mother (or primary care-giver). Table 1 shows how the infant’s attachment pattern depends on how the mother habitually reacts to its distress. A positive response is likely to lead to a secure attachment pattern and a negative response to one of three insecure patterns.

Table 1: Development of Attachment Patterns

Mikulincer & Shaver (2016) describe how the attachment pattern which emerges from these primary care experiences becomes embedded in the neural connections of the infant’s brain as a ‘prototype’ internal working model. This then underpins a more dynamic current working model which evolves in response to later relational experiences and which serves to modify the prototype attachment behaviours (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Generating the Inner Working Landscape.

The majority of adults are securely attached: they are self-confident and ready to trust in others. Those with insecure attachment have greater difficulty relating to others; they either tend to avoid intimacy or social interaction (‘avoidant’) or become anxious, or both. These behaviours emerge most strongly under stress (Table 2).

Table 2: Characteristics of Adult Attachment Patterns

It is easy to see how the attachment pattern of the coach can have a profound impact on their work with coachees. For example, while a secure coach will be open to whatever the coachee might bring, an apparently self-reliant (or ‘avoidant’) coach is likely to have difficulty in responding to the coachee’s emotions, causing them to steer the coachee towards a more cognitive stance.

This may be exacerbated in that self-reliance, though a product of insecure attachment, may lead to a coaching style that relies on the coach’s profound sense of their own rightness, one of ‘knowing the answer’. (For an interesting example of this see Kets de Vries (2018)). In contrast, an anxiously attached coach may come across as over-emotional and approval-seeking, distorting the coaching relationship and causing the coachee to distance themselves from the coach. It is not difficult to generalise these patterns to organisational settings.

Figure 2 describes in attachment terms the working relationship between supervisor and coach. In the process of any supervision it may be that an especially strong relationship develops between supervisor and coach, just as it can between coach and coachee. Although some coaching models and rules of practice strongly disavow the development of any kind of (mutual) dependency, this flies in the face of neuropsychological reality: it is in the nature of effective relationships to be interdependent.

Figure 2: The working relationship between coach and supervisor.

A key element in the relationship is trust. Trust calms the amygdala – those parts of the right and left hemispheres dedicated to first line scrutiny of stimuli for their emotional loading, and especially danger – and in so doing opens up the brain to the possibility of creating new pathways or enlarging old ones. As the primary task of the brain is to secure the well-being of its owner, to rely on the known is much safer than relying on something new. So adaptive change can only take place when the emotional conditions are right. The amygdala are the guardians of that process.

This process can be important, for example, in the sense of rightness associated with the self-reliance pattern mentioned earlier. Though self-reliance may be a valuable attribute in many circumstances, the forming of effective relationships where growth is of the essence, as in coaching and supervision, is not one of them.

A concept many coaches and supervisors will be familiar with is the ‘internal supervisor’ which enables the coach to grow professionally within the supervisory relationship. Figure 3 suggests how this might happen.

Figure 3: The gradual development of security within the supervision dyad.

In therapy, the treatment of attachment disorders depends first and foremost on creating a secure attachment relationship. While supervisors are not therapists, they can still model the qualities of a secure attachment figure. A suitably experienced supervisor can, within contractual and ethical boundaries, also help the coach to address attachment issues for the benefit of both their coachees and themself (while recognizing there may be situations where, just like their coachees, the coach needs to consider therapy).

Such issues might include understanding more about their own and their coachees’ respective attachment patterns and how they might interact; and for an insecurely attached coach, making a shift towards the ‘earned security’ of becoming more securely attached (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Working with attachment in coach supervision.


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