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.
Encouragement: An Essential ingredient of Supervision - Anthea Millar
Supervision comes in many shapes and sizes, inspired by numerous models and theoretical orientations. Yet when ‘unpeeled’, it seems there is a common ingredient at the heart of all effective supervision practice: encouragement. This is also an essential value at the heart of our Cambridge Supervision Training courses and the book Practical Supervision: How to Become a Supervisor for the Helping Professions co-authored with my colleagues Penny Henderson and Jim Holloway.
Adler, over 80 years ago, took an optimistic view of human nature, believing that a need to belong and contribute to the group is inborn in each individual. However, humiliation and shame, disconnection and disgrace, inferiority and deficiency are deeply threatening dangers to us all, and prompt us to lose courage (feel discouraged) in making positive connections and contributions. So we may resort to patterns of self-destructive behaviours if, in our family of origin, we experienced these forms of discouragement. Adler also suggested that neither heredity nor environment is the ultimate determiner of personality. Instead he believed that this desire for pro-social behaviour is embedded in us, and we all have the capacity for constructive change (Ansbacher and Ansbacher 1956). And crucially, this change is most likely to occur in a relationship with a person who is encouraging.
Encouragement has been described as: ‘…the process of facilitating the development of the person’s inner resources and courage towards positive movement. The encouraging person helps the discouraged person remove some of the self-imposed attitudinal road blocks.’ (Dinkmeyer and Losoncy 1980 p 16). Looking more specifically at supervision, Lemberger and Dollarhide (2006) state that the process of encouragement can ‘..assist the supervisee to aspire to the highest possible level of professional competence. Encouragement is literally “entering the courage” and assets possessed by the supervisee….(it) can further buttress the working relationship between the supervisor and supervisee and open up new meaning-making opportunities for both…’ (p119).
In a bid to identify the many forms that encouragement can take, and having a bit of fun with alliteration, I have created a diagram that aims to illustrate my thoughts about the main Elements (or ‘E’s) of supervision. These elements are ordered to echo key phases in the supervision process, and are framed by encouragement.
Where there is a clearly contracted working alliance that is underpinned by a strong ethical framework, such as that provided by the BACP, both supervisor and counsellor can work more courageously. The increased courage comes from being supported by a set of principles that are not there to ‘police’ but to encourage mature reflection. Without the encouragement of an ethical frame, dilemmas can seem insurmountable; or of much greater concern, we may miss the dilemma altogether, and unwittingly enter into unethical practice, becoming both discourager and discouraged.
The Essential ‘E’s
Equality and Empathy‘To be human means to have inferiority feelings’(Adler 1964 p54). Adler suggested that the development of inferiority feelings result in large part from subjective childhood comparisons with other family members. As these feelings are so uncomfortable, we compensate by striving to overcome them through such patterns as superiority and perfectionism. Here’s where problems can arise in the supervisory relationship. This ‘slippery pole’ dynamic of inferiority and superiority will show itself as a discouraging power imbalance, that destroys a sense of equality.
Equality does not mean that the supervisor and supervisee need to have the same level of experience, values or theoretical orientation – what it does mean is that there is a cooperative partnership that acknowledges and honours difference. By not getting caught into ‘How am I doing in comparison to others’, and reflecting instead on: ‘What am I doing?’, we then offer a supervision space based on equality that encourages supervisees to risk disclosure of problematic issues much more readily.
Most counselling and supervision approaches have empathy as a fundamental basis to the relationship and I certainly see this as essential to offering an encouraging frame for the supervision work. However encouragement is always about authenticity, where a willingness to be honest (congruent) with a supervisee is as important as offering of empathic understanding.
Exploration and Enabling InsightEnabling the supervisee to present and explore what is going on, whilst keeping a careful eye on the client’s well being, is a complex task. As supervisors, we may be tempted to come in too early with our theories, interpretations and answers. Equally, with the aim of being empathic, we may delay intervention, listen attentively, but offer no focused input to the supervisee. One example of very many interventions that can encourage supervisees to explore and gain insight is the process of Socratic questioning (Millar 1999).
Using Socratic questions, the supervisor does not play the role of expert or authority. The skill of the supervisor is in having an idea of what direction would elicit the most useful information, clarification, or insight. Each new question is based on the supervisee’s previous answer or statement. Gradually, the supervisees are led to their own insight, and make their own conclusions as to what they are doing, and what they could be doing more effectively.
Education and ExtensionWhether in the role of supervisor or supervisee, taking risks and extending our skills is often deeply encouraging. Our learning can be particularly rapid after making mistakes or discovering gaps in our knowledge. However it is at exactly these moments that we can feel most vulnerable to inferiority feelings. By protecting ourselves from this discomfort, we are not protecting the client, and poor practice may be perpetuated. Supporting the supervisee to have ‘the courage to be imperfect’ (Dreikurs 1970) through feedback that will educate and extend, is an essential aspect of taking supervisory authority (Henderson 2006). So how can this verbal feedback be offered encouragingly so that it is neither punitive nor unhelpfully praising? (Dreikurs 1958, Dweck 1999, Kohn 1993).
Adlerian practice puts the emphasis on first identifying a person’s strengths, before presenting areas for development and change. This provides a firm base from which we can be more receptive to other forms of feedback. A similar process can be used both for identifying strengths and challenging areas for growth, as verbal encouragement, differentiated from praise, focuses on what the person is doing, rather than how the person compares with others. This is achieved by avoiding the use of single adjectival labels such as ‘good’ ‘unethical’, ‘clever’, ‘non empathic’, and also by keeping in mind the assets and positive intentions of the supervisee. By using descriptive language, paying particular attention to verbs, feedback offered is very specific, identifying what the supervisee has actually been doing. From this base, the supervisor may add their view, or provide educative information as appropriate.
EffectivenessLast, but not least, is the need to assess not only the supervisee’s competence, but our own effectiveness as a supervisor. Some crucial ways for the supervisor to ensure this include regular opportunities for mutual feedback between supervisor and supervisee, supervision for the supervision work, ongoing professional development and further supervision training.
Encouragement is a many faceted process that is the essential ingredient for supervision. But it is not easy. I have continually to deal with my own tendency to move into a superior and judgmental mode, but have discovered, gratifyingly, that when I am more encouraging, I actually feel more encouraged. So I would invite all supervisors to reflect on what they might develop further to ensure encouragement is at the heart of their supervisory practice. This practice will in turn encourage and enable the most important person of all: the client.
ReferencesAdler, A. (1964) Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. New York: Capricorn. (Original work published 1933)
Ansbacher, H.L. & Ansbacher, R.R. (Eds). (1956) The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Harper & Row
Dweck, C (2000) Self Theories: Their role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Philadephia: Psychology Press.
Dinkmeyer, D. & Losoncy, L.E. (1980) The Encouragement Book. New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Dreikurs, R. (1958) The Cultural Implications of Rewards and Punishment. The International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Vol IV, No 3, Winter 1958
Dreikurs, R. (1970) The Courage to be Imperfect. In Articles of Supplementary Readings (Chicago: Alfred Adler Institute 1970)
Henderson, P. (2006) Learning to take Supervisory Authority. In P.Prina, K.John, C.Shelley, A.Millar (Eds). UK Adlerian Year Book 2006. London:ASIIP pp 40-49
Henderson, P., Holloway, J. and Millar, A. (2014) Practical Supervision: How to Become a Supervisor for the Helping Professions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Kohn, A. (1993) Punished by Rewards New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Lemberger, M.E. & Dollarhide, C.T. (2006) Encouraging the Supervisee’s Style of Counseling: An Adlerian model for Counseling Supervision. The Journal of Individual Psychology. Vol. 62:2, pp106-125
Millar, A. (1999) The Use of Socratic Questioning in Classical Adlerian Therapy. In P.Prina, C.Shelley, C.Thompson (Eds). UK Adlerian Year Book1999. London:ASIIP