ReVisioning superVision

By Vincent Kenny,

Director, Institute of Constructivist Psychology, Dublin

The central tenet of Kellian Construct psychology is that of “Alternativism” which proposes that there is no idea, belief, understanding or perspective that cannot be reconstrued with a bit of creative imagination. This is com­monly stated as follows: ‘Whatever exists may be reconstrued’. So one requirement for being an effective Constructivist supervisor is to be able to manifest this “creative imagination”.

The inventor of Personal Construct psychology, George Kelly, notes that: “It is not so much what a man is that counts as it is what he ventures to make of himself. To make the leap he must do more than disclose himself; he must risk a certain amount of confusion. Then, as soon as he does catch a glimpse of a different kind of life, he needs to find some way of overcoming the paralysing moment of threat, for this is the instant when he wonders what he really is – whether he is what he just was, or is what he is about to be.”1

The task of the supervisor is, therefore, to keep oriented to the learning orientation of the learner/trainee. In other words, the supervisor must learn about how the student learns to learn. It follows that there can be no fixed position or platform from which the supervisor may make his observations on the material produced by the trainee. Alternativism affirms exactly this – there can be no fixed Observer position which is capable of ‘seeing it all’. From this arises the idea of generating different ‘readings of reality’ within the network of supervision conversations, since it is the very process of consensually generating these ‘readings’ which brings forth the proposed ‘reality’.

For supervision activities, it is convenient to arrange three different ‘read­ings for reality’ by structuring the sessions as follows. Trainees are encour­aged to work in two’s or three’s, and then the relevant therapy session with a client is videotaped and later analysed by themselves in such a way that they arrive at the supervision session with three Observer positions already established:

(i)   The Observer position of the therapist who actually did the session

(ii) The Observer positions of the colleagues who witnessed the session, either actually or by viewing the videotape

(iii) The client’s implicit Observer position as recorded in the videotape itself (and thus accessible to further constructions).

The Alternativist philosophy is already on the way to being satisfied, because we have at least three different Observer positions from which to construct an understanding of what could be going on. Within the super­vision conversations, these three Observer positions are treated as instances of different ‘readings for a reality’ of changes and invariances.

The First-Order Reading into Reality can be taken as the client’s own (tacit) Observer position as he recounts his tale and makes requests for changes. This provides the basic elements of the material raised by trainees, as they try to understand and unfold the presented dilemmas towards a cons­tructive analysis and resolution.

The Second-Order Reading into Reality can be seen as the trainees’ diverse interpretations of ‘what is really going on’ in the case. Of course, from the Constructivist perspective there is nothing ‘really going on’ until we, as a conversational group, decide together on the most persuasive ‘reading’ we can put upon the elements. This means that whatever clinical formulation we come up with always remains our personal and collective responsibility, and indeed says more about us and our habitual Observer positions than it can ever say about the client’s ontological or existential position.

The Third-Order Reading into Reality is a necessary corollary of the Cons­tructivist refusal to privilege any one ‘reading for reality’, and it is where we turn our attention onto the reflexive nature of observing. How do the trainee’s interpretations identify and highlight features of their own ‘being someone in particular’, within a specific observer community and using a pre-emptive set of consensual criteria to determine the acceptability of explanations?2

The task for the supervisor is firstly to have grasped something of the cohering principles, convictions, values which the trainee brings to the conversations-for-change within the supervisory setting. It must also be clear that learning does not take place in an ‘instructional’ manner, but only through the re-cognising of the individual’s own patterns for constructing a ‘reality’ within any learning conversations. From a Constructivist position, anything that is said about the change processes of the person learning in a supervisory context can be applied with equal force to the change-seeking activities of those who come to therapy as ‘clients’, ‘patients’, ‘complainants’, etc. Within any one supervisory or therapeutic conversation, we can note the varying positioning of the learner as the focus of conversation shifts from theme to theme, from difficulty to difficulty, from personal issue to personal issue. The supervisor must be adept at noticing the many creative ways in which people act to ‘turn off’ the unwelcome perturbations (ignoring; pretending to pay attention; becoming hostile; changing the subject; etc.). A lot of conversational encounters will involve the Oyster Mode, with the learner reluctantly showing a small amount of change. The ideal is that of the person who cycles the notion of change and changing into his very identity. The fact that one has put oneself into a learning and change process (by entering therapy, supervision, etc.) makes it clear that a certain level of change is desired and requested, but paradoxically the request is often of exactly those personal properties which cannot be changed. To focus the work of supervision on these contradictory claims (‘I want change’/’I cannot change this’), it is useful to put forward another Constructivist principle – ‘Being oneself is not enough.’

This phrase challenges one to enter into a domain of ‘constructive transi­tions’, where we set ourselves adrift from the comforting certainties which simultaneously give a recognisable and meaningful shape to our lives and, at the same time, act as constraints on our personal growth. Leaving them behind involves a loss of certainty and coherence, and a gain of freedom of experimentation in one’s own living. As my good friend and Constructivist colleague, Bernadette O’Sullivan, wrote: “Participation in Constructivist supervision conversations is directed towards inviting the supervisee to explore and elaborate the ‘living with uncertainty’ central to any therapeutic venture which adopts a multiperspectival stance …’A psychology which emphasises questions rather than answers,’ writes Mair3, “inevitably raises problems for which no ready-made solutions are available.” It is with this awareness that the Constructivist therapist lives.”4

Exactly so.


(1)  George Kelly (1969) ‘The Language of Hypothesis’ in Maher (ed.) Clinical Psychology and Personality The Selected Papers of George Kelly, New York, Wiley.

(2)  Kenny, Vincent and Boxer, Philip (1992) ‘Lacan and Maturana; Constructivist Origins for a Third-Order Cybernetics’, Communication and Cognition … And The Unconscious? Vol. 25 No. 1, pp 73-100.

(3)  Mair, Miller (1977) ‘Metaphors for Living’, Landfield (ed.) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, University of Nebraska Press.

(4)  O’Sullivan, Bernadette (1995) Personal communication (ICP/Vico archives).