The Supervisor – Counsellor Relationship

Carmel McEvoy


“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

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 

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 

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

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,

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.