Musings and Articles by CST Associates and Partners
Instead of covering a lot of ground in supervision, choosing to explore fewer issues can bring greater depth and clarity.g to explore fewer issues can bring greater depth and clarity
We’re in the business of talking, primarily, and we know that a natural part of speech is silence. When sitting and talking with clients in therapy, letting silences happen is vital because the quietest parts of dialogue often move us in the most useful directions. I experience this as a therapist and as a client. But in the different role of supervisor, I notice how I’m more likely to end pauses and fill spaces before they have much chance to deepen or ripen. By verbalising too soon – however inspired or confident I might feel in the moment – an opportunity for creative drifting or extended thinking might be getting squashed.
Discussing this with a colleague who said she tended to do a similar kind of ‘over talking’ when supervising, we both recognised the impulse to be brisk in supervision sessions in order to be truly effective supporters of our supervisees – who are themselves very often busy, pressured, fast- moving people. It’s worth noting here that my colleague and I don’t see ourselves as highly driven individuals. In fact, we are generally ‘rush averse’. But we’re also well aware of the need to hasten when time is tight.
For many supervisees, time spent in supervision feels like a luxury. Of course, every practitioner wants their supervisor to listen closely at length but also to talk about a range of practice issues, to ask questions, make observations, offer ideas, give opinions and so on. Every precious minute counts when supervisors have so much knowledge and wisdom to impart. My colleague and I joked about that touch of grandiosity, but we also recognised a serious point: in response to the diversity of needs, problems, doubts, demands, and challenges our supervisees bring, and in seeking to ensure they get the most from all their sessions with us, we find ourselves increasingly in ‘full on’ mode. This doesn’t mean we don’t manage to do any well-paced reflective work but it does increase the risk of missing important details, jumping to conclusions or making misjudgments.
The wider world outside the supervisory space often feels absurdly hectic. When the daily news frequently shocks and appals us too, it becomes even more sensible to step aside from the fray for a while, to pause and sigh and re-ground ourselves. Let’s not underestimate the simple benefit of a little respite from attending to the perennial problems of living. For any practitioner who is also directly involved in political activism or social justice campaigns, the need to rest and relax, to take a break from fighting the good fight, is doubly important. In this respect, I’ve often heard people talk about therapists and supervisors creating mini-sanctuaries of sorts – calm, benign spaces experienced as somehow separate from the seemingly perpetual onrush of daily life.
So, we want to be reliable, steady, grounded, unperturbed, and yet we find ourselves grinding through the gears and hitting top speed in sessions. Not always flat out, but often. What might be driving this? What ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ could be influencing us here? Perhaps some unrealistic personal and professional self- expectations are at fault. Distinguishing unhelpful personal imperatives (eg ‘I must always work as hard as I can or I’m no good at all’) from questionable professional assumptions (eg ‘I should be constantly up-to-date with supervision research’) helped my colleague and I to clarify the issue for ourselves. One key thing we acknowledged was how the ‘quality control’ aspect of supervising our peers – significantly at a time when we both had an unusually large number of trainees coming to us for supervision – had probably led us to set our own standards so high that we ‘overshot the mark’ from time to time. The mark we aim for is where we deliver the most helpful level of supervisory intervention. This moveable point, largely influenced by the nature of the client material brought to supervision, hovers somewhere between the supervisee’s and the supervisor’s responsibilities.
There’s a difficulty in finding the right balance. As appointed gatekeepers and entrusted guardians of the counselling professions, supervisors are inevitably obliged to keep a load of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ in mind. This applies when working with long-established practitioners just as much as it does with trainees and novices. Good ethical practice is not defined by a rigid set of regulations but, at the same time, it’s not rule-free either. In supervision we experience the tensions between what we can do and what wemust do. The rules (more aptly known in the current Ethical Framework as ‘commitments’) are there to be considered, discussed, exercised, applied, and tested – and to carry this out conscientiously in supervision can obviously take a lot of time.
If attempting to do too much within the time constraint is a problem, it has a straightforward solution: supervisor and supervisee(s) agree to experiment with doing less. This requires brief preparation and micro-contracting for the session. Don’t try to cover a lot of ground – you might end up touching on several topics or multiple aspects of client stories but only superficially or clumsily. Instead, decide deliberately to explore fewer issues (ideally with a focused supervisory question attached to them) and enjoy the benefit of greater depth and clarity. It’s a simple matter to divide the session time into no more than three or four segments, making sure the first (which may be the most urgent) really does focus on the presenting issue. If it needs more immediate attention, then supervisor and supervisee can explicitly acknowledge this and perhaps agree to reset the schedule. This mutually decided time management works with time-scarcity rather than against it. In practice, I’ve found it enables small but valuable periods of stillness and silence.