By: Patricia Berendsen M.T.S., RMFT, OAMFT/AAMFT Approved Supervisor
Supervision is a journey for both the supervisor and supervisee. It balances tenuously between letting go and the temptation to rescue on the part of the supervisor. As a supervisee, the tension is between dependence and autonomy. This organic process can occur in predictable stages in the supervisee’s development. Vanderheyden illustrates the importance of these stages from a developmental perspective. She emphasizes the necessity of self-awareness and the use of self needed to create a safe place for enriched learning to take place. Ideally, supervision is a co-created experience in which it is sometimes difficult to tell who is the teacher and who is the student. It is essential that both supervisor and supervisee have “a beginners mind” and remain open to the lessons that are awaiting them in the supervision journey together.
Definition of Supervision
Hess (1980) defines supervision as “ a quintessential interpersonal interaction with the general goal that one person, the supervisor, meets with another, the supervisee, in an effort to make the latter more effective in helping people.”
Loganbill, Hardy and Delworth (1982) describe supervision as “an intensive, interpersonally focused, one-to-one relationship in which one person is designated to facilitate the development of therapeutic competence in the other person.” The British Association of Counselling states that the “primary purpose of supervision is to protect the best interests of the client.” Others suggest that supervision is a structure that facilitates the “development of clinical and professional competence.” (Haynes, Corey & Moutlon (2003). Feminist authour’s Porter and Vasquez (1997) comprehensively define supervision as “a collaborative, respectful process, personal but unintrusive, balanced between supervisory responsibility and supervisee autonomy. [Feminist] supervision emphasizes an open discussion and analysis of power dynamics, and targets the best interests of the supervisee. It is a process that remains focused on the social context of the lives of the client, supervisee, and supervisor.
Qualities of a Good supervisor
Carifo and Hess (1987:244) describe qualities of an ideal supervisor as similar to that of a good psychotherapist. They are: empathy, understanding, unconditional positive regard, congruence, genuineness (Rogers, 1957), warmth and self-disclosure (Coche, 1977); flexibility, concern, attention, investment, curiosity and openness (Albott, 1984: Aldridge, 1982); Gittermann and Miller, 1977; Hess, 1980).
Brigid Proctor (1988) emphasizes the importance of the atmosphere created by the supervisor. The task of the supervisor is to help the supervisee feel received, valued, understood on the assumption that only then will s/he feel safe enough and open enough to review and challenge him/herself, as well as to value him/herself and her/his own abilities. Without this atmosphere, s/he is unlikely to be open to critical feedback or to pay close attention to administrative details.
It will also be the case that a beginning therapist often comes to supervision stressed, anxious, angry, and perhaps afraid. It is the assumption that only if s/her feels safe enough to talk about these uncomfortable feelings, and fully acknowledge them for him/herself will s/he be ‘cleared’ [available] to re-evaluate practice. “The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of being human. As soon as we start choosing and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are– with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses– we are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.” (Vanier, 1998, p. 23)
Process of Supervision
As a supervisor, the roles can range from that of a coach, facilitator, supporter, instructor, educator, and colleague. Initially, as with any psychotherapy, contracts need to be established and boundaries set for the supervision process to proceed. There needs to be a ‘fit’ of some sort which is mutually determined. Although it may be preferred, it is not necessary that the supervisor needs to espouse the same treatment philosophy per se as the supervisee or vice versa. What is important is the desire to grow in his/her profession and to be able to dialogue comfortably about and appreciate the differences that arise during the supervision process.
Supervision is just that. A process. Certainly, it does have a beginning and an end. However, what occurs between those times can range from being magical to exasperating and frustrating. In this sense, isomorphism (Doehrman, 1976 and Mcneill, 1989) can be seen very clearly. Oftentimes, as the supervisee is struggling with a client, the supervisor is struggling similarly with the supervisee. The responsibility is two-fold …but rests primarily on the supervisor to model self-awareness. The supervisor may additionally consult with colleagues about how transference and counter transference may be impacting the supervision process (although not always negatively) and highlighting psychotherapeutic issues. The supervisee as well, cannot abdicate responsibility when this situation arises, as self awareness is one of the essential elements of becoming a good psychotherapist.
Feminist theory which has deeply impacted the transformation of supervision models suggests collaboration “working with” as an alternative to strictly hierarchical models of supervision looking over” or ”being above” another. This collaborative style requires a demonstration of trust and reciprocity. “Reciprocal visibility” (Turner and Fine, 1996) between the supervisor and therapist demystifies and diminishes the inherent power dynamics and creates opportunities for mutual transparency. “Covison” is a term that is used as a means of addressing implied hierarchy in therapeutic language of “supervision” (Porter and Vasquez, 1997). Turner and Fine argue that even when power issues are addressed, “the supervisory relationship can be more or less level but never flat.” (in Todd and Storm 2002 p.230)
Supervision is also impacted by gender, age and cultural background. The greater the disparity, the greater the need for the supervisor to work doubly hard to facilitate ‘joining’ in the supervisory relationship and to determine and explore how the supervisor and supervisee’s background and attitudes are affecting how one sees and works with the client, the supervisory relationship and within the clinical setting.
Ekstein’s (1969) unique description encourages the consideration of blind spots, deaf spots and dumb spots. Blind spots are where one’s own personal patterns and processes get in the way of seeing the client clearly. Deaf spots are those where the therapist not only cannot hear the client, but cannot hear the supervisor either [and vice versa]. Dumb spots are those where supervisees and supervisors are ignorant about what it is like to be in the position of the client, understanding what it means to be in someone else’s shoes.
A Developmental Perspective
From a developmental perspective supervisees (and supervisors alike) go through stages. The first stage is usually characterized by the supervisee’s dependence upon the supervisor and feelings of insecurity. Although the supervisee is highly motivated, s/he often is anxious about his/her skill, insight and ability. The notion of needing to be objectively self-aware (through the use of video/audiotape, live supervision) can be unnerving to some. Similarly, the supervisor may also experience an isomorphic phenomenon displaying or feeling similar types of anxiety. The supervisor knows all too well, that the supervisee is carefully scrutinizing his/her behaviour and supervision style. This stage of the supervisee’s development is usually focused on concrete reporting of information contained within the file, behavioural descriptions of what occurred in the session. Sometimes, premature conclusions are made without a thorough evaluation of the context and/or systemic factors. Keeping the format structured and positively focused at this phase of development assists the supervisee with the containment of anxiety, uncertainty, and the emotional impact of sessions with clients. This will support the supervisee to grow in confidence and competence in developing clinical formulations and counselling skills.
The next developmental phase of the supervisee is often characterized by a vacillation between dependence and autonomy and between over-confidence and overwhelmed. Personal experience leads me to propose that longer placements (6-9 months) are more conducive to enhanced learning and integration for the supervisee. The supervisee can settle into the agency and/or the program and go through the “seasons of therapeutic influence”. When the placement is too short (2-4 months), the supervisee risks leaving the placement in the overwhelmed phase of his/her development and may experience a pivotal professional crisis. The supervisee may subsequently question his/her suitability to the field and doubt whether s/he has the skills and qualities to do the job well. Unbeknownst to the supervisee, this experience is normative and passes during the longer placement. Most supervisees come to find their “therapeutic footing” and their confidence is restored during a lengthier placement. Over and over again, I have witnessed the power of the ‘supervision process’ …but only if the both the supervisor and supervisee are able to ‘hang in there’ long enough for the outcome to reveal itself.
The third developmental juncture often includes more autonomy and is more collegially focused on the part of the supervisee. This phase tends to be more process-oriented. The supervisee is more confident and begins to integrate theory and practice with more accuracy. The supervisee is often more adept at matching the needs of the client with the various modalities available. Similar to the analogy of a person attempting to drive a standard (versus automatic) car, in this stage, there is considerably less jerking when one changes gears and the ride is much smoother! The supervisee begins to learn to observe him/herself and the client from multi-level (helicopter approach) and multi-systemic perspectives. The supervisee can see the bigger picture more easily. During this stage, the supervisee begins to take more risks in “the use of self” during supervision and counselling sessions. Oftentimes, the personal issues that may impact therapy arise and cannot be ignored. Ideally, at this developmental stage, the supervisory relationship, strengthened through collaboration mutuality and trust, allows and supports the supervisee in exploring these personal/professional issues more comprehensively.
It is important that the supervisor resist the temptation to rescue the supervisee. The supervisor needs to be the container of strength, encouragement and support. At this stage, the supervisor is required to hold the tension of the challenging circumstances the supervisee may be experiencing. This process is often difficult- not unlike the experience of a butterfly trying desperately to free itself from the cocoon. One might wish to speed up the process by ‘breaking open the cocoon’. However, it is the struggle of the butterfly to free itself from the cocoon that is the necessary action which ultimately strengthens the emerging butterfly’s wings to fly. If the cocoon is opened prematurely, the butterfly will emerge with wings that are not capable of supporting the butterfly’s urge for flight. Thus, rescuing the supervisee, may unintentionally cripple the unfolding development of the emerging therapist.
The last developmental stage could be characterized by integration and synthesis. Theory and practice co-mingle more easily and accurately. The stage is defined by allowing the experience and knowledge that has been acquired to deepen and take root. An Unknown Sufi Teacher once said, “Knowledge without wisdom is like an unlit candle.”
Observing supervisees at this stage of their growth and training can be magical. The supervisor is a witness of synthesis- as things seem to “come together” for the supervisee. Their education, life, professional, and therapeutic experiences, merge, creating something bigger and better than the supervisee could have imagined. It is at this stage of development that the supervisee’s professional identity becomes more visible and defined. Often a comfort level with seeing him/herself as a professional emerges.
Reflection and Self-Awareness
The role of supervisor is both an honour and a privilege. It is not everyday that one gets to impact the inner workings of another with the knowledge that the influence of a supervisor may resonate into infinity. My personal view is that the “strategic use of self” is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools one has within any context, both as a supervisor or as a therapist. I also believe that although the use of self is a gift to share with others, the weight of responsibility is equally as great, so as to “do no harm.” As part of ethical practice, self-awareness, reflection and evaluation is essential. To refrain from this practice is to make oneself a liability to the profession. To this end, engaging in awareness of personal issues that may intersect with one’s professional life and work with the assistance and support of chosen and trusted colleagues is paramount.
Although supervision is an organic process, it tends to unfold in somewhat predictable patterns in the development of the supervisee. The first stage: dependence upon the supervisor and insecurity. The second stage: vacillation between dependence and autonomy and vacillation between over-confidence and overwhelmed. The third stage: autonomy and collegiality. Finally: integration and synthesis, where theory and practice co-mingle more easily and accurately.
Ideally, strength-based supervision is a co-created supervisory experience in which it is sometimes difficult to tell who is the teacher and who is the student. Collaboration and mutuality assist in the unfolding development of the supervisee. Since, both supervisor and supervisee are influenced by the supervisory process, it is imperative that self-awareness be optimized to enable enhanced learning to occur. It is important that both supervisor and supervisee have “a beginners mind” and remain open to the lessons that are awaiting them along the supervision journey together. Our effectiveness as supervisors is related to being “present with all our experiences as they are, in a fresh, open-minded way.” (Welwood, 2000, p. 141)
The integrity of our profession is inextricably linked with the education, training and supervision of its potential members. The bottom line is- that as supervisors, we are charged with the responsibility of being the gate keepers!
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