“Two individuals sit in a room, talking. An ordinary counselling session. They are not alone. Pathways trampled by hundreds of other people move through the counselling room. The air buzzes with unseen voices. Some are subtle entrances – invited and uninvited guests. Some break in, some intrude, some are dragged in by both. And their presence affects the talking pair. And who will talk to whom when the counselling talk is over? Will the client share with another, a talk about a talk? And the counsellor? The counsellor will talk to another, the supervisor. How will the client be presented or re-presented? How will the counsellor bring self, and the relationship, into the supervision room? Another room, peopled with even more people, all of whom share in some way in the lives of the counselling room…. Is it any wonder that supervision is complicated and complex?”¹ This lengthy introductory quote from Carroll surely prompts the question: what precisely is supervision? In its simplest definition, supervision may be described as a vehicle to facilitate the counsellor or worker explore and develop his or her counselling or work practice. The counsellor brings to supervision issues, which concern him or her in the counselling relationship, with a view to exploring more growth facilitating interventions to support the client in his search tor change. Williams suggests that supervision is the ‘cornerstone of counselling’.² It involves a relationship between a supervisor and a supervisee where the supervisee is supported in an honest and objective exploration of his or her professional activity. Ensuring the support of the counsellor or worker, supervision also safeguards the well-being of the client, promotes professionalism and the on-going development of the worker; inspires the confidence of the public, ensures ethical standards and is likely to facilitate the organisation or agency in achieving its objectives or goals.
In this paper I shall examine the theoretical framework of supervision, beginning with an exploration of the purpose of supervision. There can be no supervision without a relationship, so it is appropriate that I then consider the supervisory relationship and how it is similar to and different from the counselling relationship, the necessary skill for the supervisor, the appropriate management of the supervisory process and how supervision may be most effectively used.
The Purpose and Function of Supervision
In order to establish a satisfactory and healthy supervisory relationship it is necessary that the counsellor and supervisor have certain clarity about the purpose and functions of supervision.
The two key purposes of supervision are the welfare of the client and the development of the supervisee.
Supervisors monitor the work of supervisees to ensure that the client is guaranteed professional support and is not harmed by the counsellor’s bad practice or unethical behaviour. Different ways of monitoring are used, with some supervisors requiring audio or visual recordings of sessions with clients, while others use live supervision or rely on presentations from the counsellor, or combinations of these methods. Whatever method is used, the task of the supervisor is to ensure that counsellors are working within their capabilities and with clients who are appropriate for them.
From the supervisee’s perspective, supervision facilitates his or her growth and development as a counsellor. Through the support of supervision, the counsellor gradually grows in confidence and autonomy, with more confidence in developing her own particular style over time. The counsellor is also facilitated in developing greater self-awareness, thus becoming more alert to self, her clients and the relationships involved.
The functions of supervision are frequently summed up as educative, supportive and administrative or managerial. Proctor, however, uses the terms formative, restorative and normative.
While training courses provide the formal education for counselling, supervision facilitates ‘learning by doing’, where the supervisee is facilitated in reflecting on his work with clients. This reflection supports the counsellor in gaining a better understanding of the client, becoming more aware of his own responses and reactions and the dynamics in the relationship. It also helps him explore other ways of working and allows him examine his interventions and their consequences.
The supportive or restorative function of supervision gives the supervisee a forum to look at his own issues in terms of how counselling relationships are affecting him: it provides the containment side of supervision. It also supports the counsellor as he struggles with finding his own style and exploring various ways of working. The administrative or normative function of supervision acts as a type of ‘quality control’ and ‘has an eye to all aspects of the work’ ³ including issues of supervisee accountability and responsibility, and the welfare of the client.
Supervision has a very important function or role in all our lives as carers, since, as Hawkins and Shohet put it. ‘It is not only our lack of training or experience that necessitates the need in us, as workers, to have someone look with us at our work, but our inevitable human failings, blind spots, and areas of vulnerability from our woundedness and our prejudices.’(4)
The Supervision Relationship and the Counselling Relationship: Similarities, Parallels and Differences
Like counselling, supervision can only happen in the context of a healthy, supportive relationship between the supervisor and the counsellor or supervisee where the supervisee experiences Rogers’ core conditions of empathy, congruence and non-possessive warmth. As mirrored in counselling, if the supervisor is congruent or transparent, releasing his perceptions, insights and reactions to the counsellor or supervisee, the counsellor can trustingly use the relationship in exploring her counselling or work issues.
A supervisee who feels judged will be careful to stay on ‘safe’ territory rather than exposing areas where she may be ineffective, unhelpful or even harmful in her dealings with clients; while a supervisee who feels valued will risk exploring the unknown. Good supervisors offer respect and honesty, are flexible and open to negotiation, and are able to share their own work in a facilitative manner and create clear boundaries.
Counselling involves a relationship between two people where the client’s issues are the focus of attention. Supervision, on the other hand is a ‘triadic relationship’ involving supervisor, supervisee and client. The primary focus of supervision is, as in the counselling relationship, the client, who, Carroll suggests ‘is at the heart of supervision’. Counselling provides containment or emotional ‘holding’ of the client, while containment in supervision includes holding the supervisee in her or his counselling task and provides an additional layer of containment for the client’s material.
While the counsellor remains focused on the relationship with the client, alone, Hawkins and Shohet suggest that the supervisor requires ‘helicopter ability’. By this they mean that the supervisor needs the ability to switch perspectives: be able to focus on the client whom the supervisee is describing, the supervisee and her process, the here and now relationship with the supervisee, be aware of one’s own process, be able to see the client within his or her wider context and facilitate the supervisee in doing likewise.
In the counselling relationship the counsellor is the ‘professional’, and while supervision involves a relationship between two professionals in a similar field, the supervisory relationship may also involve power differences. The word ’supervision’ implies inequality, and while ‘mentor’ has been suggested as an alternative, neither does it eliminate the problem. In spite of difficulties with semantics, counsellors and supervisors strive to empower their clients and supervisees, respectively, so that they become their own experts. Just as the counselling relationship acknowledges the potential of the client, recognising him as the greatest expert in his own life, Marken and Pave believe that the ideal supervisor behaves as a ‘fallible fellow-traveller’ rather than an expert; and trusts the supervisee’s capabilities and strengths.
The supervisor maintains the structure and keeps the space open where the supervisee can develop in a safe environment exposing weaknesses as well as strengths. The supervisee, on the other hand, has responsibility to be proactive in using the relationship to voice fears, difficulties, inhibitions, make mistakes and take risks. Bond suggests that responsibility for the supervisor-supervisee relationship is shared, with responsibility for structuring the sessions shifting from the supervisor to the supervisee as the latter gains experience and grows in confidence.(5)
While a good supervisor will offer supervision skills, commitment, empathy, valuing of the supervisee and congruence, the responsibility for identifying what she or he brings to the supervision agenda lies with the supervisee. Quoting Proctor, Bond says: ‘…it is a fantasy that as a supervisor I can gain access by demand to what is essentially a private relationship between counsellor and client, or worker and group. In reality, the work people do with other people is predominantly ‘unsupervised’. What someone brings to supervision is selective and subject to ‘presentation’. …I can encourage my supervisee to give me more appropriate access to a practice. I cannot control the courage, honesty, good will or perception which determine the presentation she chooses to offer me. Ideally, then, both supervisor and supervisee take responsibility for the relationship, the focus of which relationship is the client.
Though many similarities, differences and parallels may be found in the counselling and supervision relationship, the latter while supporting the supervisee, ultimately enhances the quality of support for the client, who is the primary focus of the supervision relationship.
Necessary Skills in the Supervision Relationship
Working with any model or supervisory method necessitates the use of facilitative skills. What are these skills which the supervisor must develop? As in counselling, the most important tool of the supervisor may not be classified as a skill but rather a genuine way of being present to the supervisee. The s upervisor offers an attitude of attention, detachment, reverie, non-directiveness, critical self-awareness and containment. He, therefore, has the capacity to offer a healthy, growthful and learning relationship to the supervisee.
At the early stage the learning relationship is characterised by a pupil/teacher relationship but gradually it moves towards a colleague/colleague relationship. The supervisor offers a relationship that facilitates the supervisee in self-discovery learning, allowing the seeing to emerge, thus enabling the beginner to learn for herself. The teaching role also means that the supervisor will point out any obvious errors and listen for any recurring lacunae relating to supervisee’s skills and conceptualisations. Supervisors sometimes recommend helpful reading material, relevant to a particular issue which may help the supervisee.
While supervisees are encouraged to deal with personal issues in their own therapy, counselling skills are necessary in supervision to encourage the supervisees reflect on their personal reactions arising in the context of their work with clients.
As in counselling the good supervisor is an active listener to what is and what is not said.
The supervisor must learn to monitor the professionalism of supervisees ensuring that clear boundaries are maintained within counselling and supervision. Care must be taken to ensure the safety of both the client and the supervisee, challenging any breaches of ethical standards.
Ability to evaluate and assess the work of the supervisee is essential, particularly in the case of student counsellors. On-going evaluation is most helpful and final assessment should not spring any surprises if supervision has been characterised by honest dialogue in the course of the supervisory relationship.
The supervisor must be able to help the supervisee identify strengths and weaknesses, encouraging him to rejoice in his strengths and work on the weaknesses. Making appropriate interventions is probably one of the key skills in supervision and the supervisor has to decide what intervention is appropriate for a specific supervisee in a particular context at a specific time in his or her development.
A good supervisor will give and receive clear, specific and balanced, feedback in such a way that it is owned. It must also be given regularly.
Ability to offer support and affirmation is necessary in supervision. I find the supportive aspect of supervision helpful in ‘containing’ clients’ emotional material as also the opportunity to discuss my work openly with someone else in a relaxed atmosphere. Affirmation gives me confidence to continue with enthusiasm and I value the opportunity to explore different ways of working.
The twin of support seems to me to be challenge, a necessary skill for any supervisor who has the interest of the supervisee, and more, importantly, the client, at heart. At one of my supervision sessions I explained that I was finding a client tedious and boring at times since she continually stayed ‘up in her head’. My supervisor sitting back, remarked, casually, ‘I wonder how long you could work with someone like that?’ I saw this as a challenge and on reflection realised that I was losing empathy for her. Above all the supervisor must strive to protect the client, ensuring that the supervisee is working within her capacity and with clients that are appropriate for her. The supervisor might warn the supervisee against taking too many clients and be alert to possible abuses.
Managing the Supervisory Process: Models and Methods
While there is no one ideal supervision model that works in all situations I will now examine Hawkins’ and Shohet’s Process model, the Developmental model and the Cyclical model.
The Process Model is possibly the simplest and most commonly used process. This model presents supervision as a series of six separate foci located within two interlocking matrices: the client-counsellor system and the counsellor-supervisor system; or the therapy matrix as reported on by the counsellor and explored in the supervision session, and the therapy matrix as reflected in the here and now in supervision. In the first of these matrices, the first mode directs attention to the content of the session with particular emphasis on the client’s perspective, making connections from material in one part of the session with that from another, and with content from session to session. Then, in the second mode, there is the reflection on the supervisee’s interventions and possible exploration of effective alternatives. Here the supervisor challenges the supervisee to explore, or brainstorm in search of other ways of working with a client.
The third mode explores the dynamics of the process and relationship, examining boundaries of the session, intangibles, metaphors, images and hunches in relation to what the client presents.
In the second matrix the supervision process becomes the vehicle through which supervision issues are addressed. The fourth mode focuses on the counsellors counterransference issues, and brings these into the awareness of the supervisee in the here and now of the supervision session. In the fifth mode parallel or mirroring processes affecting the interaction between the supervisor and the supervisee are examined as clues to the dynamics which may be happening in the counsellor- client relationship. If the client is aloof the supervisee may act this out in the supervision session. The sixth mode concentrates on the supervisor’s countertrans ference reactions. These are experienced as changes in mood or unrelated feelings in the supervisor, such as sudden tiredness, boredom or embarrassment; these may throw some light on the unconscious material of the therapy session.
Good supervision work will involve all six processes, though not necessarily all at once or within the one session. Various modes may be appropriate in different situations for different supervisees and for the same supervisees at different times, so the supervisor must be alert and sensitive to find the appropriate mode for the supervisee in a given situation.
The Developmental Model
Although counsellors will progress professionally at various rates, degrees or levels of development are identifiable. Stoltenberg and Delworth outline a four- level developmental model.
Level I, or the first stage, is characterised by trainee dependence on the supervisor, and lacking trust in his own intuitions or judgements. This is a “self-centred” stage where the supervisee asks: “Can I make it in this work?”
Level 2 is client centred, with the supervisee asking: “Can I help the client make it?” The supervisee has overcome his initial inhibitions and fluctuates between dependence and autonomy.
With increased insight and greater experience, the supervisee at Level 3 shows more stable motivation, has more professional competence, with only conditional dependence on the supervisor. This is the process stage and the supervisee is asking: ‘How are we relating together?’
When the supervisee reaches Level 4 he has reached the ‘master’ level characterised by personal autonomy, insightful awareness, personal security, stable motivation and an awareness of the need to confront his or her personal and professional problems.’ (7) This level is ‘process – in – context – centred’ and asks: ‘How do processes interpenetrate?’ (Stoltenberg and Delworth)
In this model the supervisor plays a more significant role at the early stages gradually leading the supervisee to self-confidence and self-reliance.
This model is more descriptive than informative. It is weak on methodology and practical suggestions, offering little more than a common sense description of the progressive development of the supervisee.
The Cyclical Model
The Cyclical model of supervision hangs on five anchors or stages in the counselling process: the Contract, Focus, Space, Bridge and Review.
This model spells out the importance of the supervisor and supervisee establishing a suitable contract at the outset which creates an understanding round the supervision relationship, ground rules, boundaries, accountability and expectations. A good contract makes for good working relations and an ordered and intentional start. The ‘focus’ stage sharpens attention to supervision issues, objectives, priorities, presentations and approaches to supervision issues. It supports the supervisee in discerning what to bring to supervision and how to present it.
The ‘space’ stage is the heart of the supervision process where the work with the client is examined. Here the supervisor encourages collaboration and investigation, and offers challenge, containment, and affirmation.
The ‘bridge’ is the stage in the process where supervision work is carried forward into the counselling practice. The five elements of this stage start with a consolidation of what has come out of the supervision, then introduces new information, goal setting and action planning in the context of what is considered appropriate for the prospective client.
The ‘review’ stage focuses on reciprocal feedback and the concept of grounding in supervision. The work is evaluated, and where appropriate, a joint assessment statement is written, followed by recontracting where this is agreed as appropriate and useful.
This is possibly the most comprehensive model, including all the stages of supervision from the beginning to the termination or recontracting of the supervisory relationship. While it provides a good structure and presents a logical sequence, I experience it as something of a tedious list of items. The breakdown and description of each section in Page and Wosket, however, (9) provide some practical suggestions and a helpful way of working.
Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Supervision
From the supervisee’s perspective there are a number of reasons why he or she might be, consciously or unconsciously, inhibited in making the best use of the supervisory relationship. The context of the relationship is significant. If, for example, the supervisor has also the role of assessing or evaluating the work of a student counsellor, the latter may be anxious that exposure of what she perceives weaknesses may make for negative assessment. A professional counsellor, on the other hand, who attends regular supervision and has no reason to fear assessment, is likely to be more open and less threatened. The latter, however, may have long established patterns or models of working and a supervisor’s challenge to change may be resisted, since change is always threatening.
There is a threat to the supervisee’s independence, autonomy and adequacy. One has to admit a certain dependence in sharing ignorance, vulnerability and confusion. There is a risk of criticism or shame. The other side of this coin is reflected in the supervisee who takes on a dependent role. In Games People Play in Supervision, Alfred Kadushin points to the ‘treat me, don’t beat me’ attitude where the supervisee is happier to explore her own issues rather than those relating to the client. He also draws attention to the supervisee who seeks to control the level of demands made by the supervisor, by using seductive flattery, or the ‘be nice to me because I am nice to you’ approach.
There is a power differential in the relationship, implied in the very word ‘supervisor’. The supervisor has more experience, knowledge and skills. There is the authority dimension and one may be reminded of a parent-child relationship. While male/female power issues have improved, Maye Taylor points out that research indicates that while most power abuse occurs in counselling where the male is therapist, this is mirrored in the supervision relationship, where research points to difficulties where the supervisor is female.(10)
The supervisee brings with her, and is affected by, previous experiences of supervision. From my teaching days, I am likely to bring with me notions of inspection.
The supervisor also brings some fears or inhibitions to the relationship. He or she may feel the need to appear smart or “the expert. or the supervisee can project these expectations on to the supervisor.
There may also be in the supervisor a fear that the counsellor may be more effective than he is himself as a counsellor or professional. The supervisor may need to be liked and is therefore reluctant to offer supportive challenge.
Whatever the fears on either side, congruence and openness in the relationship is probably the most effective way of coming to terms with these issues.
In summing up. we can say that supervision is about creating a healthy space where the supervisee can explore his or her work practice in the presence of a supervisor who offers attention, support, challenge, empathy, containment, and generally aims to create the conditions to facilitate the supervisee in becoming his own internal supervisor. Taylor suggests that supervision has three purposes: ‘transmitting the values and ethics of the profession of counselling and psychotherapy; controlling and protecting the services provided by the counsellor undergoing supervision; and assisting the beginning counsellor to integrate various technical inputs into a conceptual framework.’(11)
In supervision, the supervisee learns by doing, and is, ideally facilitated in his own learning. Alan Lidmila says that a good supervisor is content ‘to allow seeing to emerge rather than try to tell the novice what there is to see… (he) does not try to teach the novice but tries to enable the novice to learn for him or herself… If (the supervisor) is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind… for the vision of one man lends not wings to another.”:
1. M. Carroll. Counselling Supervision: Counsellor Training and Supervision Series, Cassell, London, 1996; Preface
2 T. Bond. Counselling -Supervision – Ethical Issues’, in S. Palmer. S. Dainow and P. Mimer (Eds.) Counselling. BAC. Sage Pubs. London, 1996; 436
3 Ibid, p.49
4 P. Hawkins. Supervision in the Helping Professions, Open University Press, 1989. and R. Shohet p.42
5 T. Bond. Counselling – Supervision – Ethical Issues‘, in S. Palmer, S. Dainow and P. Milner (Eds.) Counselling. BAC, Sage Pubs. London, 1996; 436
6 T Bond. ‘Counselling – Supervision – Ethical Issues,‘ in Counselling, BAC, 1996.434
7 Ibid. p.51.
8 M Carroll. Counselling Supervision; Cassell, London, 1996, p.373.
9 S.Page and V. Wosket, Supervising the Counsellor, Routledge, London and NT. 1994.
10 M.Carroll, op.cit.
11 M.Marken and M. Payne. Enabling and Ensuring Supervision in Practice, p. 16.
12 M Carroll. Counselling Supervision; Cassell, London, 1996, p.37
Carmel McEvoy is a practising psychotherapist.