Musings and Articles by CST Associates and Partners
Whilst training counsellors on a short course about supervision, my colleagues and I became interested in how to teach the trainee supervisors to take appropriate supervisory authority both under normal circumstances, which entails developing some interventionist skills and habits for good practice, and how to manage a relationship under threat because of a major difficulty, which requires a relationship- focused approach. Adlerian ideas about the importance of monitoring whether the superiority and inferiority dynamic is being expressed, and if so, how it is happening in the supervisory relationship have become useful to our teaching. Specifically we used Dreikurs’ (1953) and Sweeney’s (1981) explanations on the inter and intra-personal dynamics that arise from an individual’s feelings of superiority and inferiority. My colleagues, who call the preoccupation with success and failure (superiority and inferiority) “the slippery pole”, introduced me to these ideas and adapted Sweeney’smodel presented in the diagram on page 45.
What do I mean by taking supervisory authority under normal circumstances? It may include many ways to relate that require immediacy, may be uncomfortable, or simply take more initiative than is normal in counselling relationships, currently the major professional role of the trainee supervisors. It relates to the task of the supervisor and the expectations of the role to protect clients and uphold standards.
Examples of the relationship qualities normally required are subtle to convey, and trainees’ private logic (‘internal working models’, in the language of attachment theory) greatly affects how they hear the teaching. Specifically, and unhelpfully, trainee supervisors may conflate ‘taking authority’ with ‘being authoritarian’, a style they do not wish to implement because it would undermine some core Adlerian values about equality and encouragement, respect and regard. In the inevitably asymmetrical relationship that is supervision, the everyday challenge is to sustain these core values about relationship whilst undertaking the necessary tasks of supervision.
As trainers of supervisors, we need to explore the issues and model the skills involved. Especially when supervising trainee counsellors there is a real power differential arising from the tasks the supervisor has to undertake, and this can beneficially be openly acknowledged rather than denied. The Adlerian commitment to supporting clients to fulfil the tasks of their life through encouragement is paralleled in supervision, as assessment and giving feedback are core tasks for the supervisor. Furthermore, these tasks need to be done within honest exchanges and without attacking the self-worth of the supervisee. The concept of Social Interest is uniquely relevant to healthy supervisory relationships and indeed professional relationships ofall sorts, because of the emphasis on people’s “proclivity for being responsible, co- operative yet creative members of humankind” (Sweeney, 1981, p. 23).
Criteria for Best Practice
Making the contract sets the tone for the relationship. Is it a basis for a working alliance? Is it comprehensive or sloppy? What leeway is there for meeting the unique needs of this supervisee as well as this supervisor? Does the supervisor feel entitled to be clear about her or his own needs, such as adequate payment, or notice for missed sessions? Does the supervisee feel entitled to be clear too, to be able to request help without having to hide their vulnerability or their skill, to be understood at their developmental stage, and so on? Contracts are crucial at the start of the supervisory relationship, and also at the start of each session, especially when the supervisee has a big agenda. The contract conveys that this is a purposeful relationship that can be monitored and reviewed by both parties regularly enough to allow uncomfortable matters to be discussed before they become impossible to speak about. Contracting is useful in counselling, and essential in supervision.
Trainees on the supervision course came with habits and expectations from their experiences as supervisees that implied that contracting is a skill that many supervisors barely deploy. Training can usefully contradict this custom and practice. Trainee supervisors can use contracting to become aware of differing learning styles, and thus of the balance between theoretically-based interventions, intuition, and use of the senses that suits them, and that a different balance may suit each supervisee. The contract can spell these out, together with pragmatics about meetings, payments, cancellations, extra contact between supervisions, and so on.
It is helpful to see managing the time during sessions as a shared responsibility. If the agenda is big, supervisor and supervisee can decide the order of topics and renegotiate if some elements take longer than anticipated. Invitations to use creativity and to focus on a specific question for supervision under each heading can invite the supervisee into
healthy habits of preparation for supervision, and build their “internal supervisor” during the process (Casement, 1985).
Power and the Taking of Authority
Power issues do need to be explored during the training to be a supervisor, add comma in which ways to address supervisee expectations are identified. If the supervisee feels inferior, fears failure, and pervades the dialogue with anxiety and excuses, blaming or complaining, the power dynamic can be discussed, and the supervisee can be invited to express their concerns and to take responsibility for their part in the interaction. This situation and this interchange may thus form a paradigm for other relationships and model direct communication in ways the supervisee may take back to the relationships with their clients. Sensitivity is required, and sometimes it cannot be made all right. Either party needs to be able to say that the relationship is not working and propose an ending, but in particular the supervisor needs to be monitoring the efficacy of the relationship and the work coming out of supervision, and they both need to commit to having regular reviews of the supervision relationship. The Adlerian insight from the slippery pole is to bring encouragement into the situation through attending todescriptions in response to the thought, “What am I doing?” rather than preoccupationwith judgement by self or other.
14/8/2018 0 Comments
The encouraging supervisor helps supervisees remove some of their self-imposed attitudinal roadblocks and supports them to aim for their highest possible level of competence.
The word ‘supervision’ has oppressive connotations for some people. So before going any further, we need to emphasise the importance of establishing an equal, collaborative uncertainties, but provides an appropriate balance between support and challenge, ensuring that the supervisory role also carries authority. This involves knowing how to be authoritative without being authoritarian.
Before exploring some of the encouraging ways to put this support and challenge into practice, here are what we understand to be the three supervision tasks to be met:
1 To support and give courage to people engaged in emotionally demanding tasks.
2 To make sure they know how to do what is expected.
3 To uphold agreed standards and support the supervisee to work to them.
In our experience, the successful achievement of the core tasks requires the supervisor to ground their practice in these definitive essentials of supervision: creating a carefully negotiated working greement between supervisor and supervisee(s) developing a supervisory relationship that has mutual trust and safety as its basis; talking openly about personal and professional values and ethics in relation to the work that is being supervised.
Effective supervision is a collaborative process. The co-creation of a clear contract, through exploring both explicit and implicit hopes, fears, and requirements of supervisor and supervisee, lays the foundation for an encouraging, respectful and equal relationship. The explicit contract includes: Organisational arrangements – identifying the relevant policies and procedures of external agencies. Codes of conduct and ethics – naming the processes, boundaries, and (crucially) the limits of confidentiality in relation to the supervisor’s and supervisees’ codes of ethics.
The relationship between supervisor and supervisee that also has the potential to be mutually enjoyable. This is an essential value at the heart of our new book Practical Supervision: How to become a supervisor for the helping professionsand the Cambridge Supervision Training courses we run. Although we draw on diverse resources, our main approach rests on humanistic and Adlerian ideas and values, focusing on awareness of interpersonal relating, the importance of empathy, equality, and co-operation, and the central need for, and specific skills of, encouragement.
‘En-courage-ment’, with courage at its heart, develops the person’s inner resources and courage and enables the building and maintenance of a constructive working relationship. The encouraging supervisor helps supervisees remove some of their self-imposed attitudinal roadblocks and supports them to aim for their highest possible level of professional competence.
The theory and practice of encouragement was described by Alfred Adler nearly 100 ago, and these ideas are now extensively shared by ‘strengths based’ supervision approaches and ‘appreciative enquiry’, where the supervisor and/or organisation respects, values, and positively acknowledges the ability and potential of their supervisees. As most management texts now agree, people perform best when they feel appreciated, understood, encouraged, and accepted, ‘warts and all’. We can all feel shame when we make mistakes. The encouraging supervisory relationship provides a space where learning from mistakes, coping with uncertainty, and processing our emotions, are valued as normal and actually essential elements of our professional development. An encouraging supervisor does not ignore these mistakes
Even where there is a difference in experience and expertise it is possible for supervisors to create a climate of equality and collegiality with their supervisees. This provides a potent foundation that helps supervisees have the courage to be imperfect. Making mistakes and ‘not knowing’ are essential prerequisites for learning. Yet, as was identified in some US-based research, trainee supervisees often avoided bringing material that could have been central to their learning; this included personal issues raised by clinical work, perceived clinical mistakes, and negative reactions to clients. This non-disclosure, which is particularly relevant with trainees, can be prevented by the supervisor at the outset of the contract by saying something like: ‘In supervision it is important to bring me things you are worried about, or feel you have not done quite right, or that you need to know more about. This can provide valuable material that will invariably be useful as a base for further learning. If you avoid bringing any of these worries, I shall be concerned that you are not telling me essentials. I will be clear with you as we go along if I have any concerns about your ability to pass this course, and will discuss this with you long before I write any report.’
Part of what is involved in being an encouraging supervisor is to be able to name uncomfortable issues and offer clear feedback about the supervisee’s practice. Effective encouraging feedback is about enabling growth, learning and improved practice. It can be seen as an interaction, or a meeting point between the supervisor and supervisees, rather than something that the supervisor ‘gives out’ to them. The feedback channel works best when it is two-way. One-sided feedback in supervision invariably increases a power imbalance, even when the supervisor shares positive comments.
Encouraging feedback is different from traditional praise or rewards as it focuses on enabling both supervisor and supervisee to develop an inner sense of satisfaction and motivation. This involves much more than expressing positives. Different from praise, encouragement focuses on what the person is doing, rather than how the person compares with others. Verbal encouragement can be achieved by avoiding the use of adjectival labels such as ‘good’, ‘unethical’, ‘clever’, ‘non-empathic’, and by keeping in mind the assets and intentions of the supervisee.
By using descriptive language and paying particular attention to verbs, the supervisor can offer feedback that is very specific, identifying what the supervisee has actually been doing, without needing to evaluate it. For example, an evaluative label like ‘You’re hopeless with boundaries and get far too involved with your clients’, becomes: ‘I notice that instead of the allotted half-hour, you regularly stay for one hour with your client, and that you made an additional home visit out of work hours when it was this client’s birthday.’
Why is it that some clients find their way into supervision from the beginning, while others barely get a look in?
How do you decide which clients to take to supervision? That sounds like a straightforward question for any of us to ask, as part of good reflective practice. However, scrutinising a question can often be more productive than replying to it – so, instead of giving an answer, let’s look at some of the basic premises underlying this one. I reckon four key assumptions are made.
The first assumption is that deciding which clients to take to supervision must be a conscious, deliberative process. Really? If you say you consciously decide, does this mean they are never unconsciously selected as well? We could get clever (or pretentious) on this point by engaging with neuroscientific findings about the reality of ‘free will’ and so on – but let’s work instead with an ordinary notion we’re all familiar with: the hunch.
They say a hunch is stronger than a guess but not as strong as an intuition. Although we employ ‘the professional hunch’ a lot of the time, we tend to underestimate its true value. Of course, we make carefully considered decisions too, but let’s not overlook the sudden wisdom of our hunches. For example, when it ‘comes to mind’ that I need to take a particular client to supervision, even if I then wonder about what’s going on with me and that person, I’m still not ‘choosing’ to take them for any obvious reason – but this does become clear later in supervision. When a piece of client work is seriously baffling or disturbing, I am very likely to take it, but other clients arrive in the supervisory space without any conscious intention on my part.
The second assumption is that choosing is necessary and unavoidable because it would be practically unworkable to take all your clients. This depends on what kind of supervisory arrangements you’ve devised for yourself. I know someone who runs six to eight therapy sessions a week. She has one-hour fortnightly supervision with me and two-hour monthly co-supervision with a colleague. This set-up means she can fulfil her self-imposed requirement to ensure all her client work is supervised. I admire her commitment, but some therapists might feel over-supervised in that situation.
One of my past supervisees had 15 appointments per week and saw me for one-and- a-half hours every month – ie the recommended absolute minimum* – so several of her clients were never mentioned, let alone discussed. I asked her to write a caseload summary every other month, with a thumbnail description of the work with each client, plus brief queries. With this ongoing information about all her clients, I could request we give some time to certain cases that caught my eye, but which she did not choose or intend to bring. Preparing in advance for clinical presentations of clients is often essential, but I believe it’s just as productive sometimes to bring them ‘unrehearsed’ and ‘unrefined’ – not so time efficient, perhaps, but still valuable for therapeutic insight and learning.
The third assumption is that supervision is always for the benefit of clients, therefore as many clients as possible should be taken to supervision. We assume supervision can benefit clients, and very often we feel it to be the case. In fact, we’re in the peculiar position of believing it’s beneficial, while knowing there is hardly any research evidence to support our belief. It would be more accurate to state that supervision is primarily for the benefit of supervisees. To put it in plain terms: we trust that whatever good stuff a supervisee derives from their supervision sessions, one way or another, it really does get passed on to their clients.
I hope that what you get mostly from supervision is support, understanding, challenge, development and encouragement for yourself, so that you are then well resourced, refreshed and ready to maintain the same or similar beneficence for your clients. If clients do benefit from supervision, it is mostly through a subtle, indirect transmission. The point is this: in order to gain the benefit of the supervisory space for yourself, it’s not a good idea to squeeze as many clients as you can into the room.
The fourth assumption is that clients themselves have no say in the matter. In principle, if they’ve read in your contract that you consult confidentially with a supervisor, any client could ask if you talk about them in supervision. A few practitioners tell some of their clients about their supervisory discussions anyway, and the remote supervisor can become a useful transferential figure. So, in some cases, the client’s own intentional input into the supervision process is central to the work.
What intrigues me is how certain clients leap straight into supervision from their first encounter and settle themselves there for a long time. They may be welcome, but who actually invited them? And then there are clients who suddenly ‘pop in’ while you’re presenting another case. I’m sure some clients unconsciously let the counsellor know they need to be supervised. In this sense, clients ‘bring themselves’ to supervision.
In contrast, people you conscientiously put on your ‘take to supervision’ list may never show up. They ‘get lost in transit’, or you always run out of time. Or, if you do introduce them, you soon find yourself trailing off. In this instance, it’s important to ‘hear’ what that individual’s psyche could be telling you about their absence from supervision. Perhaps some clients unconsciously instruct us not to share anything of their story with anyone. With this in mind, we can invigorate our sense of choosing who we take to supervision – reluctantly or otherwise.
In BACP documents, the figure of one-and-a-half hours per month is always stated as the minimum for accreditation purposes. I’ve met many practitioners who wrongly take this to mean a ‘sufficient’ or ‘correct’ amount.
1. Wheeler S, Richards K. The impact of clinical supervision on counsellors and therapists, their practice and their clients: a systematic review of the literature. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 2011; 7(1): 54–65.
2. Davies N. Research and literature overview of supervision within the counselling professions. Good Practice in Action 043. BACP 2016.
Jim Holloway is a senior accredited counsellor and supervisor, a partner in Cambridge Supervision Training, and a co-author of Practical supervision: how to become a supervisor for the helping professions (JKP 2014).
Summer 2017 Private Practice 25
Jim Holloway considers what we might learn from the apocryphal tale of the colleague who dozes off when in the supervisor’s chair
Over the years I’ve been in practice I’ve heard several therapists say they once had a supervisor who fell asleep in a session. You might have heard this a few times yourself and perhaps wonder, like me, if it’s really true. I’ve never experienced it myself, in almost 25 years as a supervisee with many different supervisors, but I suppose it might yet happen. (From the other side, in the supervisor’s chair, I would like to point out that I’ve never nodded off when supervising – as far as I know. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I would remember if one of my supervisees ever had to wake me up in the course of a session.)
One of the best measures to take against compassion fatigue is to get right away from the world of work fairly regularly
Whether told with gentle good humour, fierce indignation or a combination of both, the story of the sleeping supervisor is worth probing. It’s a subtly potent little tale that seems to have a life of its own in our professional circles, rather like a piece of folklore. This sort of micro-myth must exist for a purpose, surely, so it could be useful to take a closer look at it and explore what kinds of meaning it might carry. One very direct approach, as a purely personal experiment, is to take a few minutes to imagine seeing your current supervisor fall asleep during one of your sessions, and then observe as vividly as you can what you think and feel as the scene unfolds in your imagination. This exercise might seem a bit weird, but I did it myself and found the effect surprisingly moving and productive. If you try it for yourself, I think you’ll find the thoughts and feelings that arise may yield some unexpected information about the current state of your relationship with your supervisor.
As you create the scene in your mind, you might be aware of tender and concerned feelings towards him or her. Is she unwell, or distressed, or just extremely tired for some reason? If you feel the urge to help, what can you say or do? Alternatively, you might get primitive sensations of being lost and abandoned, and start to feel anxious, scared or angry. Notice where your thoughts take you. Maybe you begin to wonder about what kind of parallel process might be taking place. Most of us are familiar with the phenomenally sleepy way in which we sometimes react to clients, and we know this embodied effect can be unconsciously transferred into the supervisory relationship. Might that help to explain why the supervisor has apparently drifted off? Sitting silently for a minute or two while she dozes is not what you expected from the session, no doubt, but something constructive could emerge from the strangeness of the experience, if you let it develop with full awareness in your imagination.
You might take the view that almost everything that occurs in supervision is potentially relevant data to be used in the service of the client, in which case you can probably find it quite easy to stay curious and reflective. But perhaps you’re simply not in the mood for a sensitive reverie and instead you get busy exercising your sharply critical mind with immediate contractual concerns about professional ethics and fitness to practise: your supervisor is seriously letting you down and is probably over-working or suffering from an undisclosed illness. That may or may not be the case, but either way it could still miss the point, which is the plain fact that you’re totally pissed off with your supervisor for falling asleep in front of you. How dare she? You tell yourself this situation is absolutely not your responsibility and you’re not going to rescue her or somehow make excuses for her. The session feels like a waste of valuable time and is definitely not what you’re paying for.
Now, there are many angles we could take here, but let’s talk about money. What difference does the fee make? If you imagine a colleague dropping off drowsily in a peer group or co-supervision session, I guess your response would be strongly affected by the greater equality in the collegial relationship because no money changes hands. The true significance of your ethical commitment to care for colleagues is heightened in this sense, because no one is in charge and no one is paid to take control. When you pay your supervisor for their professional service (whether one to one or in a group) the equation is different. The way I see it, a proportion of the fee I’m paying my supervisor is for their self-care. At a basic level, the supervisor needs to charge enough for each session so they can make a good living without having to run so many weekly sessions that they become over-stretched and exhausted, and also so they can afford planned time off from working, whether just an occasional half-day or a whole week or two.
This is about organised resilience. One of the best measures to take against compassion fatigue as a therapist or supervisor is to get right away from the world of work fairly regularly. For me, a daily break is essential too. I’m a firm believer in the benefit of taking an afternoon nap for half an hour – a wonderfully simple luxury for which I feel grateful every day – but of course I must make sure it’s affordable. It may sound odd to state that my supervisees (and therapy clients) are paying me to switch off in my own time, not theirs. But in relation to the mysterious tale of the sleeping supervisor, this reality is exactly what the supervisor must wake up to.
Bullshit in supervision shows up when we say the ‘right thing’ instead of the real thing,
I first came across the idea of a bullshit detector in a rather unexpected context, namely Michael Carroll’s scintillating chapter on spirituality in Integrative Approaches to Supervision, where he says he got the idea from the American philosopher Sam Keen. Adapting Keen’s concept of a spiritual bullshit detector for use in the field of professional supervision, Carroll identifies five things to beware of:
1. Highly charismatic supervisors who are seen as unquestioned authorities.
2. Supervisors with double standards: they ask from you what they do not do themselves.
3. Superior supervisors who set themselves apart and avoid collaborative peer relationships.
4. Supervisors who neither encourage difference of opinion nor invite challenge and criticism.
5.Deadly serious supervisors who have no sense of humour and are never playful.
So, here’s an immediate health warning: if you recognise your supervisor in this list, you could be exposing yourself to harmful levels of bullshit. Obviously, I want to believe nobody reading this column currently has a supervisor who is anything like that. In private practice, we usually select our supervisor using our own initiative, according to our particular requirements, but many practitioners in other work settings are allocated a supervisor, and do not have a choice. However, even if you seek out your own supervisor independently, you might still encounter a significant amount of bullshit. Our detectors, I would argue, need to be well tuned at all times, in all professional circumstances.
In a world full of bullshit, each of us can do our profession a favour by minimising our own production of it. Reflecting on its occurrence within the supervisory frame, what comes to mind? For me, it describes the quality of what is spoken when the speaker doesn’t really know what they’re talking about but believes they mustor should know. What’s behind this might be a fear of seeming stupid or incompetent – the dark edges of shame, perhaps. If I bullshit regularly in order to hide my secret feelings of inadequacy, I might never find out whether those feelings are justified in the first place, and so I learn nothing new. When, for some reason, I pretend to be something I’m not, bullshit seems to provide an effective disguise.
Bullshit in supervision can be a type of dissimulation (making one thing appear to be another), which sounds more polite but is just as obstructive to genuine dialogue. It also shows up subtly when a supervisee or supervisor says theright thing instead of the real thing. That kind of convenient bullshit is probably something we all come up with occasionally in the ordinary flow of interpersonal relating, but keeping it out of the professional supervisory space as much as possible strikes me as a practical and ethical necessity.
The trouble is this: in highly verbal and inventive individuals, as many therapists evidently tend to be, bullshit (whether spoken or written) can be marvellously distracting, often seductive, sometimes almost hypnotic. I know this partly because I’ve been on the receiving end of it (I guess we all have, in one kind of relationship or another) and also because I’m perfectly capable of delivering it. Let’s not overlook our own little bits of bullshit. If you’ve constructed a bullshit detector and decided on the calibration markers (like the handful in the list above) that make sense for you personally, then be prepared to apply the detector not only to others but also to yourself.
As a practical anti-bullshit device in supervision, I like the simplicity of a brief personal story told ‘against myself’. Like a teaching tale, it paints a picture and attaches some real emotion to the learning point. Take the following example of me being a bullshitter while supervising – or ‘poopervising’, if you like. This happened several years ago when I was a novice in the role, a fact that offers a partial explanation, perhaps, if not
a full excuse.
A new supervisee, an integrative therapist who had recently qualified, talked about The Therapeutic Relationship by Petrūska Clarkson.
I owned this important book without having done more than skim it but – bullshit alert! – I immediately reacted as if I knew the text, since I was at least aware it contained Clarkson’s seminal and much-quoted stuff about the five relationship modalities, and a close colleague had only recently told me he couldn’t imagine working effectively in therapy without fully appreciating her five-level model. All this added up to a major bullshit-manufacturing opportunity in my head, and it extended for several long minutes as the supervisee, apparently encouraged by my sage-like nods as she spoke candidly about her struggle with the book, suddenly asked a really well-formed and very pertinent question about it. I wince to recall the crap I offered in response. Regrettably, my reply could only be expressed in the false language of bullshit due to my having already taken a phoney position.
Thanks to that experience, one small but vital calibration point on my internal supervisor bullshit detector became firmly set: never give the impression of being familiar with something (a text, theory, author, research study, even just an acronym) that you’re really not. It’s disrespectful to myself and others not to simply state my lack of knowledge at any given point. As it happens, there is a bit of a twist in the tale too: I still haven’t read the whole book.
1. Carroll M, Tholstrup M (eds). Integrative approaches to supervision. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2001.
If we never embark on edgy or experimental strategies, we risk becoming stuck in the work and limit what we can offer our clients
If your supervisor asked, ‘How are you resiling right now?’ it would sound like an odd question, but in the context of supervision it’s actually a regular and familiar enquiry – we just put it in different language. What might we be doing when we resile?
When we resist things, we can usually figure out what’s being resisted and why – on reflection, if not immediately – and we can become more conscious of how the resisting is done and what, if anything, can be changed for the better. To describe, understand and appreciate your action of ‘resistance’ involves using active verbs: you block, defy, turn against, push away, and so on. The fact that as a profession we haven’t taken the verb ‘to resile’ into our customary lexicon could be significant in this respect. When you think of yourself resiling, what actions come to mind?
I will resist a tasty etymological digression at this point, except to note that ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin resilire, meaning ‘leap back’ or ‘rebound’. I like that – a definite sense of movement there – and it also connects the action of being resilient to the vital concept of boundary.
In supervision, we tend to bang on about the importance of maintaining clear boundaries of all kinds, and properly so. But consider this: in actual practice, a great deal of effective work is done right at the very edge of, or just beyond, a boundary of some sort, despite – or perhaps due to – the counsellor feeling pulled out of shape by the process. Tight boundaries are good, and slack ones are bad. All the same, I can imagine an inflexible, rigidly boundaried practitioner missing out developmentally and therapeutically by never embarking on ‘edgy’ or experimental strategies, avoiding all leaps in the dark, not risking any creatively spontaneous interventions, and thereby often becoming ‘stuck’ in the work with clients.
I know that endurance of being-in-stuckness is sometimes necessary in longer-term therapy and can often be the start of a truly liberating movement in the client. But, if a therapist or supervisor or any practitioner becomes an expert ‘stuckist’ – too set in their ways, impervious to innovation and dismissive of novelty – then I would say they are almost certainly limiting or diminishing what they can offer to their clients and colleagues. Moreover, they increase their susceptibility to boredom.
One of my supervisees (who isn’t at all boring and has let me use, anonymously, what follows here) told me about a long-term client he called ‘a permanently stressed-out workaholic’. For session after session this client seemed to rebuff all possibility for change in his life. There were no apparent shifts in perspective, no new behaviours, no fresh insights, no reframing of anything at all. Now you might be thinking ‘resistant client’ and/or ‘bored counsellor’. And both of them, you could say, were showing true resilience: the client kept rebounding by coming to every session in exactly the same shape each week; and the counsellor was always dutifully prepared and held the space for him reliably and regularly every time.
In supervision, the counsellor talked about sitting back with the client (often but not always a sensible position when things feel immoveable) and claimed not to be bored or frustrated – but I certainly was, and after a while did not resist saying so. My willingness toresile, to continue to return again and again to all this unchanging sameness, was rapidly fading. How come? With my supervisee’s agreement, I sat in a different chair and voiced my feelings about the situation as if I were the client. By opening up the parallel process in this way, we realised it was more a case of ‘bored client’ and ‘resistant counsellor’. That’s over-simplifying the dynamic, but essentially my supervisee discovered that, distracted by the permanent array of presenting problems, he had been unconsciously resisting a deeper relational connection to the client, who we guessed (correctly as it turned out) was really desperate for closeness. The client had assumed he couldn’t get that quality of relationship without keeping a tight grip on all his many issues; although he was totally fed up with suffering them, he believed they made him worthy of being bothered with, as if he was nothing without them. So, a paradox became clear: due to his phenomenal resilience, he wasn’t getting what he needed from therapy. The notion that resistance and resilience are concurrent or convergent actions, which I think this brief story illustrates, does not mean they are identical or never separate. For example, resistance can often be absolutely non-negotiable. Some things in your professional life must be resisted in order to maintain safe boundaries – no ifs and buts, no excuses. When in doubt, your safety as a private practitioner is enhanced if you take to supervision what it is you feel you’re resisting and what you wonder if you might be resisting, so you can then discern whether your resistance is in the service of your clients or detrimental to them. This ethical enquiry has a clear effect on the nature of your subsequent resiling: do you return to the client exactly as before or do you rebound in a different way with either a boldly revised or a subtly altered view of the client? I think that is essentially what it means to resile
What do we mean when we describe ouselves as "Professional"?
A therapist who wanted help with his application for BACP accreditation recently contacted me. He was young and keen, with a lot to say about his professional attitude, rigour and integrity. He used the word ‘professional’ so frequently I began to feel it was losing any real meaning. After acknowledging his commitment to a thoroughly professionalised approach to psychotherapy, I asked – more out of curiosity than exasperation – what the term actually meant to him personally.
I’ve asked myself before what it really means to me too. This self-enquiry can go deep, if you let it. First of all, I think it’s simply about the good feeling of doing something well. At another level, it’s to do with my self-respect and earning the respect of my peers. The mutuality of this esteem among my co-professionals relates to a deeper need to feel genuinely recognised and appreciated by others.
In that respect, gaining BACP’s public ‘seal of approval’ can have profound private significance. Others I know find the formalised and institutional aspects of professional practice Less significant than their personally felt sense of vocation as a helper or healer. One counsellor took the view that if bodies like BACP didn’t exist, she would be working with her clients in the same way she is now. She believed that the strength of her convictions about the meaning and purpose of her therapeutic work would not be diminished in a ‘de-professionalised universe’, as she put it. That’s quite a statement. What difference do you imagine it would make to you to be practising in such a world?
Useful provocations often arise in these reflective dialogues. For example: am I truly professional in my role or is it more truthful to say I behave in such a way that I appear to be professional? If that is indeed sometimes the
and courage. It’s a key professional task to find the time, make the effort and call up the courage.
You might agree that a sense of professionalism builds quite slowly at the start of a career – and ideally continues to grow for as long as the career lasts. I doubt if any of us ever achieve a complete understanding of our professional persona, which is then done and dusted. That sounds like a barrier to lifelong learning. We might even say that a steady commitment to continual learning is a defining trait of true professionalism.
Is CPD the only thing you need to sustain your professional identity and prevent it from becoming jaded? Reflecting in supervision on the current state of your working life, with all its ups and downs, is in itself a resource for the nurture of this identity. Maintaining a sound professional practice is not merely a bureaucratic, timeserving achievement. Any concept of professionalism is pointless unless it’s animated and energised by what we actually do in our relationships with clients, and how we conduct ourselves around the work. In this sense, the certificates on your wall – while hard won and proudly displayed – are only details.
To return to the therapist I mentioned at the start, his response was, in short, a hesitant yet brave declaration of his relentless perfectionism. He ‘confessed’ – his word – that he set such high standards for himself, he could hardly bear to discuss his difficult cases (which he called ‘failures’) in supervision. Another ‘confession’
was about his strong need to impress me. Here was an ambitious practitioner (and I have his permission to say this, slightly disguised) whose highly professionalist approach looked and felt to me like an elaborate performance. Naturally, he wasn’t exactly delighted to hear this when I gently let him know. What he had not yet realised, we might say, is that it is perfectly professional to confess to not being a perfect professional.