Salutogenisis in Coaching Supervision: Freedom and Coherence – by Mary Hughes

Hello everyone,

we have a marvellous piece of writing for you from Mary Hughes in this blog posting. Mary is an expert coach supervisor and change agent par excellence.

Here she raises what it means to encourage a ‘sense of coherence, as a a coach supervisor and she raises some really interesting questions for us all about what it means to be free. Enjoy!


A sense of coherence is useful in coaching, whatever you might mean by ‘coaching’ – or, indeed, by ‘coherence’; the colours worn by the coaching profession are, after all, sufficient to rival the rainbow, what with ‘Life’, ‘Executive’, ‘Business’, ‘Voice’, ‘Agile’, ‘Style’, ‘Leadership’ etc.

I am a coach supervisor, and my work with those whom I supervise moves me, often, to think about a sense of coherence and I am curious to explore this a little not least because I take a systemic approach to my work and, years ago, studied art with a delight in gestalt that persists today.

To be specific here, I mean Antonovsky’s Sense of Coherence, (Antonovsky, 1979) the components being:

  • comprehensibility;
  • manageability; and
  • meaningfulness

Derived from other literature about coping (optimism, self-efficacy, learned resourcefulness etc), I enjoy the familiarity of the trio but am always struck by its freshness in the mix of cognitive (comprehensibility), behavioural (manageability) and motivational (meaningfulness), which seems unusual.  I observe that clients regularly dip into this deliciously rich mix as they tell stories, reflect and think as skilled masters of their craft. I notice how this meditation on their practice produces meaning which sets them free to continue with confidence, commitment and curiosity.

Freedom is a personal value of mine but one I work to develop because, as my clients find, it is only half the story and can be, as Janis Joplin sang (and Kris Kristofferson wrote), “Just another word for nothing left to lose”.  Having nothing left to lose can become a hunger, starved of meaning, capable of, on one hand, destruction and, on another, satiating itself with greed and gluttony – gorging on meaning of any sort. I am thinking of how many freed peoples are tempted by backward looking revenge because the past is the only place with any meaning to feed on, so that energy is focused onto purging the ills of yesterday.  So I, and my clients also need hope, but not in the sense of wishing everything will turn out our way to a pre-scripted or aspirational ‘good outcome’ (or any sense of being a ‘Pollyanna’), but as a necessary companion to freedom.  Hope as trust in the greater scheme of life, beautiful in its complexity and gorgeous design from whence emerges meaning. I discover that these conditions are necessary for my own coherence – in Antonovsky’s sense. Or as Theodore Zeldin puts it:

Freedom is not merely a right, but a skill to be acquired, the skill to view the world through different lenses other than one’s own, the skill to imagine what no-one has imagined before, to find beauty or meaning or inspiration.  Each life is a fable about freedom.”

(Zeldin, T. 2015)

At a recent group supervision session, I introduced the salutogenic coaching model originally developed by Gray, et al (2014). Though the language was new, it slid without pause into the supervision conversation and the ideas absorbed as rain into a river.   I noticed Antonovsky’s work and the model felt, quite simply, normal – as though stitched into the professional apparel of coaching constantly experimented with and adapted, to find the best fit and style for the occasion.  Being pretty experienced in their work may have had something to do with the ready acceptance this group of coaches showed, although I intend to test whether this really is a factor (work in progress!).

Developing a sense of coherence may ultimately be what inspires, motivates and thereafter propels a coach (and supervisor), almost as if they had no choice, to be a very good coach (and supervisor) because it helps liberate us through finding meaning and so hope?  Part of the process includes David Clutterbuck’s notion of “wonderment” which, if lost would mean losing “…excitement at what may lie behind the next door of knowledge” and result in feeling, “far less liberated in the coaching and supervision I do”. (Clutterbuck,  2009).  Maybe just by attending more to the patterns so generously given to me by those I supervise is what I shall resolve to do in the development of my own approach to salutogenic coaching.  These patterns could light the way, constellations to new doors of knowledge and liberty.

I reflect that there is never a Sense of Coherence (at least in coaching) scored as a goal, a place of desire or an item ticked off. Rather it is more a sense of being who Gray (2018) defines as when at our ‘best self’.  A weighty part of this is sometimes awkward to articulate to an audience that wants ‘things and products’, particularly as it is an emergent process and unpredictable.  As such, the coach supervisor and coach starts over with every client, this demands skills about being able to form a sense of coherence at that point and develop it, rather than the skills to apply coherence driven from and by a market place.

This is somewhat in contrast to a common, popular view that there is a set of common competencies for all coaches and coaching to conform with.  Certain we can all offer persuasive thoughts about why this is so, the systemic operator that I am is however fascinated by other thinking, the sort that chips away at the icon.  Particularly that which explores that there may be a sense of coherence between what coaches do, say, believe and (perhaps hardest of all) who they are in order for them to (in the parlance) demonstrate ‘Mastery’.  Indeed, research by Tatiana Bachkirova suggests promoting a capabilities approach which aligns practice, “…with a more expansive view of the world that acknowledges complexity, unpredictability, and the intersubjectivity that we create.” And one that would, “… reflect the principles of human agency, diversity and equality that are among the values appreciated by coaches and coaching communities…” (Bachkirova, 2015).  Appreciating that this is simply a ‘bright idea’ (of mine) and no more, I am interested in the companionability of Tatiana’s thinking with Antonovsky’s most famous words to the effect that health is not about the absence of disease, but the process by which people manage their sense of coherence.

Ah, but (as I am told often) the coach (and the supervisor) needs to earn a living and this is all about a business too, one still too young to warrant organised dissent.  Maybe…  But what if that business had a Sense of Coherence of its own; or better, a respect for the skills needed to develop one and sustain it, whilst adapting always to complexity, unpredictability and intersubjectivity? Maybe coaching wouldn’t need an orthodoxy. It might just benefit from considering the notion that an absence of a problem isn’t because it has been solved, rather that there is no solution because there is no problem (with apologies to Marcel Duchamp and Aaron Antonovsky).

Mary Hughes, Associate – grays