Reflective Supervision

I believe it is necessary for counsellors to go beyond the certainty of training programs, the confidence of qualifications and the comfort of the model, framework and techniques that provide us our initial bearings. Regular supervision over a year or over many years with quality supervisors is worth every penny (dollar) and effort to procure. Supervision based on an alliance with a practitioner’s unique learning style and personality structure opens doors, enabling the paradox and complexity of human beings to be welcomed into the consulting relationship. The melting pot of supervision can shine light on client work, the counsellor’s identity, role boundaries and ethical challenges, as well as the powerful collective forces in society impacting on ordinary people. Supervision at its best is a re-sourcing well, allowing for spontaneity and creativity to arise alongside the testing measure of collegial practice. It is the antidote to burnout, staleness and grandiosity.

I have noticed a curious phenomenon following my own supervision and in providing supervision to others: the solutions and ideas developed in the supervisory session are seldom what is acted on with clients. Rather supervision seems to free the practitioners’ confidence and creativity to respond with freshness in the moment. The reflective process continues to be active for some time following supervision. Often a shift occurs in the counselling stance or way of holding the client in the mind resulting in a leap forward just before the next client session. Occasionally these shifts in awareness occur whilst sleeping. I awake knowing what needs to be attended to or how to be in the next session with a client. Even more curious are the times when clients arrive already in a new place as if they were aware of the shift in the practitioner, as if they had participated in the supervisory process.

The Supervisory Lineage

I consider myself fortunate, indeed blessed in having at every point of my professional developmental pathway a supervisor of exceptional quality. Each provided a strong sense of personal connection and a daring degree of freedom in which to explore the reality of my professional experience. The challenges in my earlier work as an occupational therapist and lecturer and more recently as a psychotherapist and trainer were engaged with in such a way that my supervision sessions consistently made a difference to my practice. They provided encouragement to enquire, reveal, wonder, feel, and think rather than intellectualise, worry or self-doubt - all of which I am prone to. The fruit of sharing with my supervisors the struggles and uncertainties in my consulting work over the years has become a solid confidence, calmness and willingness to be surprised. This lineage of supervisory engagements is alive and active within my flow of consciousness, available as an ongoing inner dialogue. Images, or rather presences arise in moments of musings - about sessions, about me in my work, about my client ­ adding to the reflective conversation. As I write, moments of connection, insights and people who have been there for me come to mind:

Joyce Reid’s pacing as she smoked in our weekly ‘meetings’, passionately respectful of the paranoid man who knew things through the television and trusted no one (1967); Dr Ron Hemming’s warmth and delight in the depths and uniqueness of the undercurrents in a person’s life drama as expressed through their psychosis, his fine psychoanalytic musings that revealed a secret garden of meanings to a young O.T. (1970s); Dr Max Clayton’s persistence when a year of weekly supervisory sessions conducting my first psychodrama group would regularly trigger a shame attack before I arrived, leaving me speechless and minus memory (1979); Lynette Claytons’ rock steadiness in the supervisory hour following the weekly three-hour psychodrama session which she was present at, her later insistence when supervising me as a trainer to focus through holding authority in relation to the training standards rather than my favoured fallback of self-doubt (1980s), her unshakeable belief that I could do it; Dr John Manner’s willingness to share the shadows that fall on the therapist in walking alongside the terrible experiences of traumatised people (1990s); Dr John Penman’s sustaining attention to the nuances of connection in the long dry work of extraordinary minutia in my traumatised client’s struggle (2000s).

I am not alone in my consulting room. I am in good company. The supervisory process is with me and sends me awareness, ideas, dreams and, sometimes, disturbed sleep. My inner supervisor is there to appreciate a particularly satisfying launching session when the sparkle returns to a client’s eyes and life is juicy again. The inner supervisory relationship formed from the experience of supervision carries depth, colour, fearlessness, enduring reliability, and a power of attention and thought-fullness that is sustaining to the practice of counselling.

Group Supervision

There are special opportunities for learning when practitioners form small groups or pairs for supervisory purposes. There are also some pitfalls. Because people seek supervision to both validate competence and expand learning there are special vulnerabilities and dilemmas of power that make supervision more prone to the possibility of shaming and anxiety than does the counselling relationship. This is particularly sensitive in group supervision where people are exposing their competence and (fear of) inadequacy before peers and perhaps line supervisors and managers. In addition there may be rivalry elements emerging from differences in therapeutic training and traditions as well as differences in personality structure and style. The stakes are high in terms of standing-in-the-world, relationships between equals, social friendships, referral systems and indeed financial generativity.

Because of the potential for shaming, flooding, or fragmenting the counsellor in their role, I like to negotiate a clear structure for group supervision that reduces the risk for individuals in group supervision. I work to avoid a supervisee presenting a concern then having the experience of:
the supervisor or members of the group taking over the counsellor relationship vicariously and inserting their own preferred response as if they are the better counsellor
the supervisor or group members becoming experts in the matter based on partial information (as if the supervisee needs a tutorial)
the crowding of the space with ‘me too’ stories
being accused of counter transference as if this is a fault to be corrected
sharing one’s inner process as counsellor and having others respond as if I am the client
There is some danger in group supervision that the supervisee might end up feeling like a client who is too dysfunctional to ever be a counsellor ­ and then needs a recovery process from the ‘supervision’ (visit to the dentist phenomenon). At some time, I have experienced being on the receiving end of all of these responses in a group supervision. The comfort is that the recovery process has produced a more sensitive supervisor.

Sharing a common training experience or psychotherapy model as a basis for a shared language and picture of the work reduces the risk of being critiqued, discounted or intruded upon by colonising forces in a group. I participated in a one-year study group with people of diverse training and qualifications which focussed on a common interest in self psychology and engaged a number of self psychologists as supervisors. This group was able to maintain mutual respect and increasing freedom of professional disclosure as trust developed in one another. Similarly I have been part of a supervision group formed following a workshop on counselling sexually traumatised clients. The group included those from diverse professions and continued to meet regularly for a year. In my own workplace at The Wasley Institute we have experimented with a number of versions of peer supervision. The current model involves the presenting supervisee first informing the peer group as to the form of participation requested in responding to the material presented e.g. ‘what I am most interested to hear from you is what you notice your inner experience/response to be as I talk about my work with this client’, or ‘I want to hear your associations to this client’s story’, or ‘I want to hear what premises you would use to think about this ethical dilemma I am facing’.

Whilst not absolute about this, on the whole I do not view group supervision as a forum for resolution of interpersonal collegial conflict arising from organisational structures and authority relations. While such concerns are well managed in individual supervision these can easily contaminate the reflective group space in which client-counsellor relationships need protection. Collegial conflicts may emerge in the group supervision setting, however they are better managed in meetings designed to attend to colleague relatedness and may benefit from the assistance of an organisational consultant or group facilitator.

Susanna Howlett