Musings and Articles by CST Associates and Partners
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.