Jim Holloway considers what we might learn from the apocryphal tale of the colleague who dozes off when in the supervisor’s chair
Over the years I’ve been in practice I’ve heard several therapists say they once had a supervisor who fell asleep in a session. You might have heard this a few times yourself and perhaps wonder, like me, if it’s really true. I’ve never experienced it myself, in almost 25 years as a supervisee with many different supervisors, but I suppose it might yet happen. (From the other side, in the supervisor’s chair, I would like to point out that I’ve never nodded off when supervising – as far as I know. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I would remember if one of my supervisees ever had to wake me up in the course of a session.)
One of the best measures to take against compassion fatigue is to get right away from the world of work fairly regularly
Whether told with gentle good humour, fierce indignation or a combination of both, the story of the sleeping supervisor is worth probing. It’s a subtly potent little tale that seems to have a life of its own in our professional circles, rather like a piece of folklore. This sort of micro-myth must exist for a purpose, surely, so it could be useful to take a closer look at it and explore what kinds of meaning it might carry. One very direct approach, as a purely personal experiment, is to take a few minutes to imagine seeing your current supervisor fall asleep during one of your sessions, and then observe as vividly as you can what you think and feel as the scene unfolds in your imagination. This exercise might seem a bit weird, but I did it myself and found the effect surprisingly moving and productive. If you try it for yourself, I think you’ll find the thoughts and feelings that arise may yield some unexpected information about the current state of your relationship with your supervisor.
As you create the scene in your mind, you might be aware of tender and concerned feelings towards him or her. Is she unwell, or distressed, or just extremely tired for some reason? If you feel the urge to help, what can you say or do? Alternatively, you might get primitive sensations of being lost and abandoned, and start to feel anxious, scared or angry. Notice where your thoughts take you. Maybe you begin to wonder about what kind of parallel process might be taking place. Most of us are familiar with the phenomenally sleepy way in which we sometimes react to clients, and we know this embodied effect can be unconsciously transferred into the supervisory relationship. Might that help to explain why the supervisor has apparently drifted off? Sitting silently for a minute or two while she dozes is not what you expected from the session, no doubt, but something constructive could emerge from the strangeness of the experience, if you let it develop with full awareness in your imagination.
You might take the view that almost everything that occurs in supervision is potentially relevant data to be used in the service of the client, in which case you can probably find it quite easy to stay curious and reflective. But perhaps you’re simply not in the mood for a sensitive reverie and instead you get busy exercising your sharply critical mind with immediate contractual concerns about professional ethics and fitness to practise: your supervisor is seriously letting you down and is probably over-working or suffering from an undisclosed illness. That may or may not be the case, but either way it could still miss the point, which is the plain fact that you’re totally pissed off with your supervisor for falling asleep in front of you. How dare she? You tell yourself this situation is absolutely not your responsibility and you’re not going to rescue her or somehow make excuses for her. The session feels like a waste of valuable time and is definitely not what you’re paying for.
Now, there are many angles we could take here, but let’s talk about money. What difference does the fee make? If you imagine a colleague dropping off drowsily in a peer group or co-supervision session, I guess your response would be strongly affected by the greater equality in the collegial relationship because no money changes hands. The true significance of your ethical commitment to care for colleagues is heightened in this sense, because no one is in charge and no one is paid to take control. When you pay your supervisor for their professional service (whether one to one or in a group) the equation is different. The way I see it, a proportion of the fee I’m paying my supervisor is for their self-care. At a basic level, the supervisor needs to charge enough for each session so they can make a good living without having to run so many weekly sessions that they become over-stretched and exhausted, and also so they can afford planned time off from working, whether just an occasional half-day or a whole week or two.
This is about organised resilience. One of the best measures to take against compassion fatigue as a therapist or supervisor is to get right away from the world of work fairly regularly. For me, a daily break is essential too. I’m a firm believer in the benefit of taking an afternoon nap for half an hour – a wonderfully simple luxury for which I feel grateful every day – but of course I must make sure it’s affordable. It may sound odd to state that my supervisees (and therapy clients) are paying me to switch off in my own time, not theirs. But in relation to the mysterious tale of the sleeping supervisor, this reality is exactly what the supervisor must wake up to.
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