A conversation between Robin Shohet and Alan Rodgers

Alan:  Hi Robin, thanks for agreeing to meet for this interview.  I know you have said that you have been supervising and teaching supervision for 30 years. Can you say something about your journey as a supervisor through this time? How has your practice of supervision changed and evolved?

Robin: Well, I was extremely lucky that my first two supervisors were the two best I ever had. I was hooked on the value of supervision. I started work in a Richmond Fellowship therapeutic community for people who had come out of psychiatric hospital in 1976. I can say without much doubt that without the first rate supervision I got, I would probably have burnt out as the work was very demanding. I remember thinking this supervision is better than any therapy I have ever had, and it is very grounded in the work.

I left in 1979 and went freelance. I think basically I am unemployable. It is a tribute to Joan Wilmot and Peter Hawkins, my first two supervisors, that I even stayed three years at the Richmond Fellowship. As you mention, we have been working together teaching supervision for thirty years now. We formed the Centre for Supervision and Team Development together along with Peter’s wife, Judy Ryde, and the four of us and our families are friends, which is lovely.

We started teaching residential social workers as that was our background, but the biggest boost to our work came from writing Supervision in the Helping Professions. It was quite funny really. Peter and I would go away to write and he would be typing away and I would sit there making the odd comment. Then I would get inspiration and make a suggestion which he thought was good and he would have to rewrite some of his material. He was very patient, and in fact we made a good combination as he was great on theory and working in organisations and I wanted more introspection and focusing on counter transference and projective identification. So the early chapters such as ‘Why am I a helper?’ are more mine, and the later ones on models and taking supervision to organisations are more his.

Alan: When I first made contact with you and invited you to Limerick I was really struck by your availability – by this I mean your immediate response was positive, without hesitation, resistance or fear. Does this have something to do with your stated love of working in Ireland?

Robin: Yes. In the last few years I have been wanting to introduce a more spiritual side to my work in supervision and feel most able to do that in Ireland where I feel I have a very strong connection. My first freelance group was in 1978 with the Jesuit Community in Milltown Park, Dublin. Myles O’Reilly was on placement at the Richmond Fellowship and he invited Joan and me over to run a co-counselling group there.  I must have run close to 100 groups in Ireland since, going on from the Jesuits to CMAC (became Accord), IAAAC and many other organisations. My first workshop on Love and Fear in Supervision was for IAAAC and this helped to form a chapter on my last book Passionate Supervision. And now we are talking about running our certificate course in Limerick in 2009. I am absolutely delighted.

Alan:  What do you see as the main challenges the profession of supervision faces today? You mention love and fear and in previous conversations with you I know you have concerns about the emphasis on fear-based practices as opposed to those that encourage and promote accountability and responsibility. Can you expand on what you mean by this?

Robin: Yes. You have got me on a topic that is important to me, so I hope I don’t get too soap boxy. Let’s start with insurance. For people who are freelance therapists where we can choose our work, insurance does not make sense to me. We are focusing on the relationship as being an important part of the healing and we are having insurance, which is basically saying I am protecting myself from you. It’s like, if you will forgive the analogy, kissing someone with a facemask to protect yourself from germs. Hopeless.

And this is quite different from say car insurance where we are in charge of a vehicle that could kill someone through a moment of carelessness or bad luck like ice. We are supposed to be in ongoing relationship together, therapist and client. Let me be clear.   I am not saying don’t insure. I am just asking that we think through the implications.  You can’t even be accredited without insurance. I am currently beginning to co-write a book on Spirituality and Supervision and I talked about this to my co-writer, a very experienced practitioner. She said she had not really thought this through and was quite shocked and then said, “Ok.  I am going to take this on board. I am not going to re-apply for accreditation.”

Alan: As you know I have a growing love and passion for supervision yet my experience in Ireland is that of a growing possessiveness and restriction in and between governing bodies with accreditation a major factor in the process. Can you outline your experiences and beliefs in more detail?

Robin: In the early 90’s I organised two conferences on looking at the dynamics of accreditation. One of the exercises we did was to divide the participants into clients, trainees, therapists, supervisors and trainers and give them all tokens. It emerged that all the money landed up with the trainers who insisted on longer and longer courses. I am not immune from all this too. Since we offered a certificate in supervision, our numbers increased.  I think qualifications have their place, but not at the expense of giving away authority. In our supervision certification process we try and create conditions for as much autonomy as possible. Otherwise we get people jumping through hoops which is the very opposite of what we want.

Now it is important that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, so accountability is very important. Out of these conferences something called the IPN (Independent Practitioners Network) emerged. These are groups of people who meet regularly in peer groups to monitor their practices. And part of their commitment is to elect representatives who will go and support and challenge other peer groups, and so a cross fertilisation of ideas can emerge. Some of the groups formed in the early 90s are still meeting today.

It is quite shocking to me how subtly pervasive the fear culture is. It assumes there are clients waiting to sue, that therapists cannot self regulate and would be irresponsible if we did not check up on them. And if someone has bad intentions all the protection in the world will not help. You may protect yourself financially by being insured, but emotionally it is still an awful experience.

Alan: Yes, it seems so un-relational. As part of being in relationship with you, and experiencing your workshops, I find myself awakening to this fear-based subterfuge not just in supervision but also in life. Can you describe an experience or example of this?

Robin: A while ago a hospital in America decided to come clean about doctor’s mistakes and have an inquiry process, which included the patient and his or her family. Not only did their suing rates go down but they were able to really learn from their mistakes, as energy was not being used to cover them up. The suing rates went down because patients could accept mistakes happen and what they wanted most was the acknowledgement, relationship in fact. Suing is basically non-relational. Of course there is risk in being that open. Someone could take advantage, but that was not their experience.

Now this is where I get soap boxy. As supervisors and trainers I would like to see us be role models in a way that helps others to move from fear ridden structures to trusting ones. I see you wanting to do that and I want to support you and people like you who have great integrity and want to think about implications. In England the term therapist is being threatened so it can only be used by analysts. It’s in danger of becoming one fear driven political charade. I hope Ireland does not follow suit. I love coming here because I see how important relationship is in Ireland. The negative side has been a conformity which has been exploited by the church which I don’t want to see spread to therapy, but the positive side is really deep connection which I experience here. Have I answered your question?

Alan: Yes, thank you for being so open, I know this area means a lot to you and yes it really resonates with me because of my fear of being seen as rebellious rather than being seen to embrace difference through, as you might say, love-based practices. It is as if we go through therapy and come out the other side to only to be faced with a new professional super-ego of ‘shoulds’ etc. It seems paradoxical and may take from the importance of the supervisor being committed to knowing themselves as opposed to having knowledge. Does that make sense to you?

Robin: Yes. Knowledge can be used as a defence, as you are implying: the myth of the expert. Now there is expertise in areas – I expect my dentist to know about teeth, my lawyer to know the law. But in the area of human nature, we all have a lot of innate knowledge. And in this area I believe a good part of our job as trainers is to try and elicit what is already known, but perhaps not consciously – the real meaning of education comes from educare – to lead out. I don’t have an internal dentist or lawyer, but I do have an internal therapist, and think many, if not all, of us do. My mother, for example, hated psychology, did not like introspection, but could say some very perceptive things about people.

So yes, knowing ourselves as opposed to having knowledge. From my own experience, I had a psychotic episode at 21 after eating dope, not recommended. For a few hours, mercifully only a few, I was mad, which actually, by my definition, is believing our thoughts. I would point people in the direction of the work of Byron Katie (www.thework.com) who is brilliant on this topic. In my case, because of the dope my thoughts were a bit extreme. Amongst other things I believed that I was the Messiah, as I was in Israel at the time and my madness was full of Biblical images. This really helped me in my work with psychiatric patients, because I knew we were both quite similar. When I started in the 70’s, there was very little formal training and it was recognised that working on oneself was the best way to learn to be a therapist.  I was for a time a real group work junkie. I loved it. The point it that I wanted to do it.  I didn’t do it to get hours for a qualification. So I believe the best training to work with psychiatric patients is to find one’s own madness, with addicts it is to find one’s own addict, with abusers to find one’s own abuser etc.  In fact as we have all of them in us, find all of them: addict, abuser, psychotic, regardless of whom we are working with.

By the way, to finish that story, as well as my grandiose Messianic fantasy, I was also terrified of being busted by the police for dope. And then I heard myself say, ‘There is no fear.  The fear is inside me’. And from this mad, frightened place I went to a place of peace that lasted weeks. I really got how fear can be self created and that understanding this at a very deep level can lead to the opposite of fear, which is peace, or love, which I see as similar. And my life’s work is working with this love/fear polarity. In fact my next workshop in Dublin at the end of September is on love and fear in supervision.

I want to come back to an earlier point we touched on around rebellion. When I was researching for my first book, which was on dreams about twenty-five years ago. I came across a remarkable book called The Third Reich of Dreams. It was written by a journalist who collected dreams from Germans from 1933-39. In it she recounts dreams of people who consciously hated the regime. These obviously included Jews, but also many Germans. They had dreams that they were saving Hitler’s life, or that Hitler chose them especially for some honour, or that they were watching brown shirts marching and thought how ridiculous until they found themselves marching with them and they were so glad to belong. They were horrified by their dreams. At the end of the book there is an essay by Bruno Bettleheim who looks at our need for approval from authority, so that we may consciously disapprove of what the authorities are doing, but our unconscious need to belong and for approval from authority is still there. Interestingly those that actively opposed the regime, as opposed to simply disagreeing with it, did not have these dreams. Their conscious and unconscious were more aligned.

I will leave you and the reader to draw the parallels with psychotherapists. This need for approval, acceptance, to belong is so strong. So therapy is far more accepted than it was thirty years ago, which is great. But the cost is all sorts of restrictions – we become part of a world of targets, health and safety, insurance, accreditation hoops. I am wanting to encourage the questioning of all this. When we started all those years ago, we could take risks because the threat of law courts simply wasn’t there, and I know that the reality is different nowadays. But we don’t need to make it foreground as much as we do. I want to encourage at least some risk taking with people I work with, like that hospital I mentioned earlier. And I also know I am not immune from the need for acceptance, approval. I just try and remain as aware as I can of some of the cost, the implications.

All this target nonsense puts us into linear thinking and is often fear driven to find quick short-term solutions. One of my favourite quotes is ‘Today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions’. Can we dare to think outside the box, to embrace paradox, to be willing not only not to know, but to say so openly? If we start to dare to think outside the box, then we are far more likely to act in a different way.

Alan: Finally, and on a very different note, at one of your recent workshops here in Limerick you placed great emphasis on ‘beginnings’ as part of the supervisory relationship. It was almost as if your challenge to each participant was to track the relationship from its inception. You also spoke of slowing down and stillness as being part of this process. Do you see them as separate aspects of supervision?

Robin: There are two points there – beginnings and slowing down: an overlap but not the same. I believe that if we are very alert at the beginning of any relationship we see things that we may never see as clearly again. This applies to all relationships and I invite you to test the truth of this for yourself. Think about clients, friendships, your first meeting with your wife. As for encouraging people to slow down, that can be difficult. From a few coaches we get responses like, ‘this is too slow, boring, I don’t see the relevance, I want something practical, you can’t do this in the real world’. Maybe that way of being is just my belief system, but I know I like it when I slow down and I am happier when I do. So inevitably I recommend it to others. I use this slowing down a lot in group supervision where I encourage the group not to come up with solutions but to go into some kind of reverie and allow themselves to free associate and it is amazing, almost spooky what comes up. Definitely not linear.

Alan: It has been such a pleasure to talk with you again. It feels liberating and exciting to talk about supervision, and therefore life, in your company.  Thank you.

Robin will be co-running a supervision training in Limerick starting Jan 2009 with his partner Joan Wilmot. Further details from Alan Rodgers. This interview took place after they ran a workshop earlier this year in Limerick on Spirituality and Supervision.

Robin Shohet lives in Findhorn, Scotland and is co-founder of the Centre for Supervision and Team Development (www.cstd.co.uk) who have been running supervision courses since 1979. He is co-author of Supervision in the Helping Professions (Open University Press 3rd ed, 2006) and editor of Passionate Supervision (2008) Jessica Kingsley Publ.

Alan Rodgers runs a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist and supervisor.  He is based in Limerick city and can be contacted at 0879768575 or hartstonge@gmail.com