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Ever since I started playing blues myself, I’ve been fascinated to learn about other improvisational music styles. Couple of days ago I was listening to a radio talk show where two great Finnish hip hop artists were presenting their skills in freestyle rap. They discussed how the scene was spreading to Finland in the 90’s as more and more battles were organized in the underground scene, especially after the cult movie “8 Mile” was released.

While listening their thoughts about the technique and flow of freestyle rap, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in clinical supervision / coaching that I have been try to identify in my Wu Wei Coaching approach. Particularly highlighted became the predictable unpredictability which is studied in the thinking of complex responsive processes.

Freestyle rap

This is what Wikipedia has to say about freestyle rap: “When freestyling, some rappers inadvertently reuse old lines, or even “cheat” by preparing segments or entire verses in advance. Therefore, freestyles with proven spontaneity are valued above generic, always usable lines. Rappers will often reference places or objects in their immediate setting, or specific (usually demeaning) characteristics of opponents, to prove their authenticity and originality.

In practice the freestyle artists have been listening to other artists, practicing the beats and vocabulary alone and with their peers for years. In this process they have acquired, or are in a process of acquiring expertise of the craft. They have developed some common lines and vocabulary that they can use repeatedly in different contexts and also an ability to improvise on the spot. Sometimes they might prepare something in advance, although the authentic improvisation in the particular moment is most valued skill in freestyle rap. It is important to note that also the improvisation utilizes the repeated patterns of rhythms and vocabulary, but in a way that it has sufficient amount of novelty and unpredictability in it. In other words, the lines have to incorporate predictable unpredictability.

This is also very similar to what happens in clinical supervision. Supervisors have also been practicing their craft for years, both with mentors who are already experts and by themselves, reflecting their work alone and with other supervisors. They are very familiar with the common themes and shifts in identities that usually emerge in the dialogues. They have created vocabulary which they use to point out certain aspects of the emergent themes in the conversation.

Sometimes supervisors might prepare some aspects of their approach in advance, but it has to be authentic in a way that it uses the themes and words that are emerging in that particular dialogue. Otherwise it is easily seen to be quite mechanistic and superficial and there might not be connection between the supervisor and client. The dialogue needs to show emergent novelty which is at the same time touching the contents of the discussion and the case the client is presenting. Supervisor needs to be able to engage in a discussion where there is predictable unpredictability involved.

As the supervision is very much about dialogue and not just one person developing content, we will get even better analogue by studying “The Battle” in freestyle rap.

The Battle

One important practice of developing and showing the skills of a freestyle rap artist is “battle”. This is what wikipedia has to say about battles: “Battle rapping, which can be freestyled, is the competition between two or more rappers in front of an audience. The tradition of insulting one’s friends or acquaintances in rhyme goes back to the dozens, and was portrayed famously by Muhammad Ali in his boxing matches. The winner of a battle is decided by the crowd and/or preselected judges. According to Kool Moe Dee, a successful battle rap focuses on an opponent’s weaknesses, rather than one’s own strengths. … The strongest battle rappers will generally perform their rap fully freestyled. This is the most effective form in a battle as the rapper can comment on the other person, whether it be what they look like, or how they talk, or what they wear. It also allows the rapper to reverse a line used to “diss” him or her if they are the second rapper to battle.

It is in the battle where the importance of improvisation becomes highlighted. Battles can involve only one round per artist or they can be even more dialogical by involving several rounds by each artist. In theory it is possible to prepare the verses in advance, but most probably this would lead to inconsistencies in the emergent stories – the verses might not touch the context of the conversation. In other words, using preplanned verses might lead to losing of continuity and predictability which is needed to create a consistent story. Preplanned verses might also miss the ability to prove the authenticity of the improvisation. Authenticity would be proved by pointing to the different aspects of the context in the moment – what is happening in the environment and what is said. This doesn’t mean that preplanned verses can’t work, but the artist needs to be very sensitive to the emerging dialogue and know where to use those verses.

The supervisor must also be able to build a consistent story of what is happening in the environment and in the ongoing dialogue. The client will be forming the story together with the supervisor and thus the supervisor can’t control the course of the dialogue. Instead he needs to be very sensitive to what is happening in that particular conversation. It is possible for the supervisor also to use some prepared strategies, but those must fit to the emergent dialogue. Supervisor must also show that he is listening by asking questions, nodding and using the words and stories that the client had used.

In freestyle rap one successful strategy is to focus on the weaknesses of the opponent. In supervision a common strategy is to focus on the strengths of the client. By doing this the supervisor can point out ways that the client is already successfully dealing with his challenges. These strengths can’t usually be known in advance, but they become visible only in the ongoing dialogue. Thus the supervisor must be able to improvise within that particular dialogue. He must be able to notice and anticipate what kind of patterns are emerging so that he can adjust his talk accordingly.

Reflexivity and Anticipation

As we saw, both supervision and freestyle rap are utilizing the capacity of expert practitioners to see and utilize the predictable unpredictability of the emergent patterns of conversation. But how is this capacity built? I think that reflexivity and anticipation are the keys to understand this.

Ralph D. Stacey writes that instead of following rules, experts use practical judgement in particular environment. This expertise is built in reflexive practice. Reflexivity is about turning the focus of attention back towards oneself – subject and object are not separated but simultaneously present. This can be exercised in social processes together with more experienced people and with peers. In order to build expertise, one has to engage in reflexive inquiry. He must learn how to learn.

Contrary to written articles like this one, neither the rap artist nor the supervisor can prepare their lines well ahead. Instead they need to think and act fast. This means that the anticipation needs to play a big part in this process. It is quite evident that in order to participate skillfully in a dialogue, one needs to have a good sense of where that dialogue is leading to. The freestyle rap artist might anticipate where the opponent is leading the story and build strategies to counter these gestures. The same way both the supervisor and client are anticipating the course of their dialogue and building strategies to affect it. This is especially true if the supervisor is an expert who has great capacity to understand the ongoing dialogue. But what does this anticipation really mean?

Timo Järvilehto has studied the anticipation in nervous system from the point of view of his organism-environment theory. He writes: “In the state of anticipation nervous system isn’t waiting for stimuli, but instead it is organizing for action results. This preceding organization will determine which environmental constituents can be selected for realization of the actions of the subject.” So, in practice the process of anticipation is a process of organization. It is also important to notice that for Järvilehto, the result of an action isn’t something concrete but a possibility for further actions. Action result means a point from which behavior may acquire a new direction.

Expert freestyle rappers as well as supervisors are adapting to the ongoing situation by organizing towards some action results. Each new line, story and turn of a dialogue might conclude the previous action and change the course of the dialogue. This results to reorganization towards yet another action result. The expertise makes it possible for the actors to reorganize quickly towards wide range of possible action results and at the same time keep the reflexive process ongoing. This reflexivity-in-action will enable not just some previously learned organizations but also learning in the process. The expert practitioner is able to learn and improvise in the midst of the action.


To utilize G.H.Mead’s thinking, this blog post is a response. It is a response for many, many gestures that can be found from my particular environment and situation. Some of those gestures are touching the processes of how I understand my job as a coach and supervisor. That meaning isn’t inherent in the gestures. I bet the Finnish freestyle rap artists didn’t know that I would be listening the radio show and interpreting their dialogue in a way I did. And I don’t know how you are responding to this gesture of mine.

In Järvilehto’s view this post is an indicator of action result, not the result itself. The actual action result is a possibility for new action. If I would have been writing blues lyrics, the action result would have been the possibility to compose a song from those lyrics. In this case the action result isn’t quite as easy to see. Perhaps I’m structuring/practicing my thinking in order to be able to talk about improvisation and reflexivity during my “Wu Wei Coaching” presentation in LESS2012 next week? Or perhaps I made this post in order to be able to advertise that talk in Twitter and Facebook? 🙂 Who knows? Like every line in a battle or in supervision, every blog post provides possibilities for reorganization, of which the meaning is created only in the further responses.