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.
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.
Jim Holloway believes the revised Ethical Framework gives us an accessible set of refined terms to help guide our work
I got an odd look the other day when I suggested to a wonderfully conscientious supervisee that the new Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions1 is a supreme work of fiction. I admit that was very pointedly postmodernistic of me – not my preferred mode as it happens, but it can sometimes stimulate useful new thinking.
In this case, after a slightly tense discussion, my supervisee sat back and realised the essentially paradoxical nature of the Framework. In the plainest terms, the paradox is this: we say all these fine things in it about how superbly we conduct ourselves, and it’s obvious we don’t behave like that, because if we did it wouldn’t be necessary to write it all down. A good way to develop this idea is to ask yourself how you would be practising differently if the Framework didn’t exist.
We might say the Ethical Framework is fictional only in the sense that it’s aspirational – it points you to the best version of yourself, which, unless you’re a living saint, isn’t going to appear.
We sit in the frame to talk and then something happens. We are the work that animates the frame. all day every day. And this hints at another basic but more personal paradox: the very best version of me is one in which I accept my imperfections.
Another supervisee told me she had no trouble at all accepting the new Framework as both excellent and flawed. She said she feels similarly about her religion: for her, it is at once emancipatory and restrictive. This led us to talk about how counselling as a vocation might have a sort of religious aspect for some counsellors, with BACP as a type of church. Could the Ethical Framework be mistaken for scriptural dogma? I really hope not. Although it could be aptly be described as our trade association’s ‘Articles of Faith’, it has not been delivered to us as a divine revelation, and its chief scribe, Tim Bond, is not a holy prophet (as far as we know!). However, it does tell us there’s a strong moral code to be followed and we’re committed to following it.
While not primarily proclaimed as such, isn’t supervision itself a morally based activity? Our professional lexicon seems to favour the word ‘ethics’ over the more pious-sounding ‘morality’ – though of course the Ethical Framework does lay out a list of desired moral qualities for us to nurture in ourselves. (By the way, have you noticed that ‘fairness’ has been dropped from the list, and ‘competence’ has been renamed ‘diligence’? Something to ponder, briefly. I think the two new additions, ‘care’ and ‘identity’, complement the others well but need a bit of discussion to make good sense of them as active personal virtues.)
Although it’s packed with enormous nominalisations (‘justice’, ‘wellbeing’, ‘integrity’, and so on), the Ethical Framework does give us an intelligible and manageable structure for remembering first principles, realigning values, giving shape and finding direction. In supervision sessions, ethical principles are often named but I’ve noticed how rarely supervisees refer to or include the Framework as a whole. I wonder about that. Perhaps there’s a clue in the title: it’s a framework, not the work itself. We sit in the frame to talk and then something happens. We are the work that animates the frame. And, in fact, we’re still building the frame. I remind supervisees that the evolved document we have now is the result of painstaking collaboration between hundreds of peopleoveraverylongperiod–morethanthree decades in fact, if we take the new Framework as having begun its life as the first BAC Code of Ethics and Practice in 1984. That code must have had its critics back then, just as the current Framework does now. Not all my supervisees seem aware of the major concerns some BACP members have raised about the new Framework; or, if they are aware, they don’t hold particularly strong views about them. The debate is important and I feel we owe it to our fellow professionals to keep up with the arguments, even if we don’t always know where we stand. For a clear summary of the ideological, statutory and legal issues, I recommend Peter Jenkins’ helpful article and the eloquent correspondence in Therapy Today between Arthur Musgrave, Els van Ooijen and Tim Bond.
Despite perhaps being read by some practitioners as a worthy collection of numbered rules, the Ethical Framework clearly expects us to think for ourselves – and we expect this of ourselves, surely. See the very last sentence (item 78): ‘We will take responsibility for considering how best to act... and will be ready to explain why we decided to respond in the way we did.’ We know from experience that describing our work in regular supervision is the best method to practise being ‘ready to explain’. The way I see it, because the Framework has wrestled for years with some vague, unwieldy or obtuse terminology to do with values, qualities and principles, we now have an accessible set of refined terms to help us shape our explanations. By using this shared language in actual practice, we contribute to its further refinement. And the whole point of learning this language is to comprehend and contain the moral and ethical uncertainties brought into the supervisory space through our clients’ stories. The ethical world we seek to construct may be a fiction, but it’s always real people who live in it.
1. BACP. Ethical Framework for the counselling professions. Lutterworth: BACP; 2015. [Online.] http://www.bacp.co.uk/ admin/structure/files/pdf/14237_ethical-framework- jun15-final.pdf (accessed 18 April 2016).
2.JenkinsP.WhatiswrongwiththeEthicalFramework? Contemporary Psychotherapy. [Online.] http://www. contemporarypsychotherapy.org/volume-7-no-2- winter-2015/what-is-wrong-with-the-ethical-framework/ (accessed 18 April 2016).
3. Letters.Theunethicalframework?TherapyToday2016;27(1). [Online.] http://www.therapytoday.net/article/show/46
Jim Holloway is a BACP senior accredited counsellor and supervisor, a partner in Cambridge Supervision Training, and co-author of Practical Supervision: How to become a supervisor for the helping professions (JKP 2014).
What BACP means to you:
I recently read a surprisingly persuasive account of how organisations don’t really exist. No matter what their purpose, size or structure, they are ‘legal fictions’. A limited liability company, for example, can be accurately described as a figment of our collective imagination: it can’t be pointed at or touched, it’s not embodied by any person or group of people, and often not even located in one particular place. It’s only an ‘entity’ in law. That could explain why many organisations of various kinds try to represent themselves to the general public through an individual figurehead or ‘personality’.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s something I invite new supervisees to play with, if they are BACP members. Say you had to choose someone to be the face of our professional body, as you perceive it, who would you select? I don’t mean a highly personable and articulate PR person, however valuable she or he would be in reality. The fun is in making up at least one idiosyncratic character who captures the subjective essence of what BACP actually means to you. Notice and include any seemingly random associations, however stereotypical, fantastic or daft, that come to mind. This is not a subtle branding exercise: it’s about your unique, genuine, uncensored version of ‘BACP’, in your very own head. For myself, right now, I conjure up Harpo Marx in drag – all turquoise and lavender, as it happens – intently making stacks of sandwiches out of policy documents, membership forms, committee reports, research papers... and occasionally honking his/her horn to get my attention. (What can I say? It works for me.)
Many trainees or novice practitioners seem concerned not to say 'the wrong thing'. Well, let's be clear: very often those are precisely the things that need to be said! In my experience, most supervisees enjoy having a chance to be free and frank when envisaging BACP in this way. The playfulness of the exercise helps to bring ‘unallowed’ feelings or ‘professionally incorrect’ attitudes – and even perhaps an indication of some important shadowy stuff – out in the open, with good humour and without shame. I believe this is vitally helpful in supervision, for two main reasons. Firstly, I want my supervisees to be true to themselves and not constrained by taking up a deferential or ingratiating stance in relation to the profession or me. While being ethically minded is an essential requirement of the job, this doesn’t oblige us to be nice and polite and proper all the time. Many trainees or novice practitioners seem concerned not to say ‘the wrong thing’. Well, let’s be clear: very often those are precisely the things that need to be said! The supervisory space is nothing much if it isn’t full of candour. Secondly, issues around power and authority need to be addressed openly in supervision and not dodged or dismissed. In private practice we act mostly on our own authority, but there is a higher authority to which we’re answerable, and it has the power to impose sanctions and withdraw our individual membership. That’s what thousands of us have signed up to, and it’s a big deal, both intellectually and emotionally, to be part of such a prodigious and powerful association.
Remembering the argument that they don’t really exist, institutions seem especially likely to attract our best and worst projections and fantasies: we fill them in or flesh them out, as it were, through the power of our subliminal imaginings. To help make these transferences more conscious, I invite supervisees to say what they know about their typical pattern of relationship to authority. The story they tell about their personal power and what they do with it is always relevant. Some perceive BACP as a potent enabling force, like a nurturing family, so they feel empowered; others experience it as officious and demanding, so they feel oppressed. What follows from that? I want the supervisee to be aware of the next movement they make in response, and they usually find it useful to reflect on this in terms of parent/adult/child dynamics.
This process is reliably helpful when a supervisee is very anxious about applying for accreditation; even more so after they have made an unsuccessful first application. When a supervisee is despondent or frustrated, feeling let down or unjustly treated, then the restorative function of supervision is obviously invaluable. I believe there’s added value to be gained by recognising that the intellectual and emotional struggle to become accredited is necessarily difficult and painful. Not everyone finds it excruciating, but I believe going through the process is very much like an initiation. In other words, it’s about growing up.
I don’t want to oversimplify this, but if ‘BACP’, in your head, is: (a) too much like a mother or father you must please and have approval from, or (b) too much like a parental authority you must criticise and do battle with, then you are probably not in a truly grown-up relationship with BACP. Many supervisees in private practice adopt a kind of reluctant pragmatism (‘There must be a less bureaucratic way, but I will do my best to jump through all the hoops because I need to become accredited’), and to be fair I think that is how a lot of us actually move closer to mature autonomy. The experienced practitioners I supervise have matured enough to know the childlike positions they can get themselves into, and how to make the necessary adjustments. Some less experienced supervisees wince, and some laugh, but most do both, when I point out that the letters BACP really do not stand for Big Anonymous Critical Parent.
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