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.
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.