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.
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