Robin Shohet and Joan Wilmot have been co-running their certificate training in supervision in Limerick City which begun in January 2009. It is the first time that the Centre for Supervision and Team Development has brought the full training programme to Ireland. This interview took place after one on the training weekends.
Alan: Hi Robin, thanks for agreeing to meet and talk again. If its ok I would like to begin by referring to something I have become so aware of since I met you, throughout your workshops and as a participant on your Supervision training – namely that supervision and being a supervisor is paradoxical. It feels a little like the more I learn the less I know, the better I think I am becoming, the more frustration follows and yet my love of the work grows. You seem to have a way of turning things on their head, promoting exploration, play and therefore learning.
Robin: Thank you Alan. You have mentioned many qualities dear to my heart – paradox, knowing less, love and play. I have to say that sometimes I feel a fraud. Supervision is my calling card but really I am doing what I love – helping to create a learning community where people (including me) can feel safe and flourish. Of course ego comes in and says look what I did, but that’s what ego does. It’s its job to try and claim everything and I do more than my fair share of that. But something magical does happen when I can be open to both leading and following, teaching and learning and above all communicating to people that it is ok not to know, essential even, and trusting my own and others’ deep wish for truth.
Alan: I think you may have highlighted your own style in that answer; open, honest and experienced enough to know that you still have much to learn. In fact as a member of your supervision training I have been deeply struck by you and your partner Joan Wilmot, in terms of emphasis on co-creation and continuous learning. You both continue to authentically participate in and answer the questions and tasks you have created. I wonder if this is a part of the “community” aspect of the work you refer to? The other feature of your approach that feels empowering is your encouraging of people to really be their full self, to move towards those edgy places where much pleasure can be found and being real in the supervisory relationship seems to come more naturally. Perhaps this comes also from your very purposeful focus on feeling ‘safe’ as part of the working alliance?
Robin: Well, safety is very important to me. And the paradox is that risks have to be taken otherwise the so-called safety is sterile and very unsafe. I didn’t realise I was doing it, it just came naturally, but I try and support the risk taker. Another important aspect of my work is to really try and ensure that no-one is shamed. There is no point in pretending otherwise, trainers and supervisors have a lot of power, and however much I might encourage group participation and believe in the wisdom of the group, at some level the role carries power. I know I can be very persuasive so I experience it as a gift when someone challenges me or disagrees with me. Joan does that for me. When I am being my most eloquent she will turn to the group and say, “Do you think he does any of what he is talking about?” The group will laugh and because I know she is right, I can join them. In fact it is a relief when that happens for me as well as others as at that moment I begin to believe my own eloquence, a danger for all those in power, which is why Kings had Fools. Joan helps to make it safe to comment on me and I really appreciate that.
Alan: Again I hear you embracing the paradoxical and contradictory aspects of being human which I believe is vital in promoting safety for the client or supervisee. You seem to disarm the power, not with ‘niceness’, but with honesty and awareness of the potential hurt if power is used from a place of unawareness or shadow. I often wonder if there is enough external supervision of trainings and trainers in this regard? I do experience you as available to challenge and very open to feedback, not in a way that disavows your ‘power’ but in a way that suggests you are comfortable with your authority and experience. For me, this leads to empowerment as part of the relationship or training experience. Your words have also reminded me of the importance you place on feedback as part of the supervisory process. Can you expand on this?
Robin: What I am very cautious about is what you have mentioned to me is the compliant trainee who feels that they must not rock the boat or they will not qualify. I deal with this by suggesting that perhaps everyone who has got this far is good enough and there will have to be a very good reason for them not to get the certificate. In other words I try and minimise the power of pass/fail. And I would be prepared to fail someone, but so far have never been in that position whether by luck or ignorance or simply expecting people to self regulate And with reference to feedback, when there is criticism of me or the course, I take that as a form of supervision. The four members of our Centre also supervise each other when we give courses. And we try and encourage group members to give each other robust feedback, which is done in the spirit of learning.
Alan: If its ok I’d like to go back to something you said earlier, that you find supervision magical…a place for people to explore and find truth. I know that I love this work and profession because it allows for a continuous search for meaning. I see it as the spiritual aspect of supervision that I am hoping you might say something more about now. Can you expand a little on spirituality and supervision?
Robin: Well, yes and no. On the one hand I am delighted you asked and on the other hand I am extremely cautious around talking about spirituality on the lines of Lao Tzu’s ‘those that know do not speak, those that speak do not know.’ So as long as we take it as a given that I do not know, I will say that I have recently being running workshops on Fear and Love in Supervision. And something extraordinary happens in the room, or at least seems to. My starting point is that fear covers the love that is always there in everyone of us, and gradually by staying with the fear in the room, being alert and attentive, love seems to emerge. Not a personal love, but a kind of impersonal love. I described it as the Holy Spirit entering the room, but as a Jew I am not sure what that means and the language is bound to put some people off. So back to not being able to describe what happens. On a more concrete level, I invite people to join me in a hypothesis that everything they have ever believed is not true, that our beliefs are just stories that we have made up to give us security and they might no longer be useful and in fact holding on to them stops us from feeling the security within. People get an almost tangible sense of freedom. And I love that. Is that spirituality? I don’t know.
Alan: It sounds something like what spiritual teachers describe as breaking the egoic conditioning of being human. Letting go of the constructs we use to defend against being present and being. Its back to the paradox of how much more can happen if we allow stillness. However, as you mentioned earlier, the ego will endeavour to come in, to pollute with thoughts and knowledge as it fears the loss of its grip on its drive bring us anywhere but now.
Robin: Exactly. I have a great respect for the ego’s cleverness. At the beginning of Supervision in the Helping Professions, I tell a Jewish joke about a rabbi and a cantor (singer) who both get a rush of blood and prostrate themselves in front of the Ark saying, “Lord, Lord in thine eyes I am nothing.” When the shamash or caretaker does the same, the rabbi turns to the cantor and says, “Look who thinks he is nothing.”
Alan: The ego thrives on comparison and competitiveness. I wonder if this has anything to do with your style in leading groups and workshops. You don’t seem to ask questions about how long one is working, how much experience people have or if people are new to supervision. Is this a conscious effort to reduce hierarchy, comparison and other potential ego-based knowing about somebody?
Robin: Yes, with the proviso of above ie the ego will always find a way. And I find the best way of dealing with that is to accept that is what the ego does, as I said earlier. Groups are good for that as we laugh together at our tricks knowing they belong to all of us.
Alan: It’s really enjoyable looking at the work this way but I am aware we are coming to the end of our conversation. However, before we finish I would like to prompt you to say something about your views on accreditation. I know when we spoke recently I was expressing some frustration regarding the ‘professionalisation’ of this work. It feels like the emphasis on qualifications and accreditations is growing to the point of losing sight of why we do this work. I think we can hide behind these mechanisms, subtly creating obstacles to relationship – which seems so contradictory. I know you are passionate about this aspect of supervision, can you say something more about this?
Robin: Well, I have resisted accreditation but we would need to go into much more depth about this also. As long ago as the early 70’s Carl Rogers was writing about the dangers of certification. He saw them as leading to freezing and narrowing the profession and discouraging innovation.The whole issue is very complex because there are obvious benefits, too. I organised two conferences in England in the early 90’s to look at the dynamics of accreditation – not for or against or how to but what are our transferences on to the whole issue – authority, anti authority, need to belong, need to be accepted, security, fear of damage etc.. Out of this something called the Independent Practitioners Network developed – peer groups that are accountable to each other.You have to stand by each other’s practice, which can be very challenging. A friend of mine had a complaint against her, and the group had to share the responsibility for dealing with it, which took up huge amounts of time, but ultimately was very rewarding as the whole group learnt from it. I would love to see something like that emerge in Ireland, a forum for support and challenge which is ongoing. I worked on myself in a supervision session. Initially I was angry about all the different factions and requirements. I stopped and said I didn’t trust my anger, and I realised I was upset and was almost in tears. I have been so privileged in my work, been able to practice without jumping through hoops, had incredible freedom. I so much want to see that for others, and would do anything (well not quite) to help to create a system that honours people’s integrity and promotes trust whilst still honouring the need for accountability. If anyone wants to contact me about this, I would welcome a dialogue.
Alan: I hope people will take you up on that. I just want to say thank you again for taking time to talk with me. I really appreciate your commitment, your openness and your availability. It feels right to play and explore with all things supervision, and all things human.
Robin: Thank you, too. It has been a real pleasure doing our certificate here in Limerick and I appreciate your getting it together.
Robin Shohet (www.cstd.co.uk) is co-author with Peter Hawkins of Supervision in the Helping Professions (OUP, 2006) and editor of Passionate Supervision (Jessica Kingsley, 2007). He and his partner, Joan Wilmot, will be running a Certificate in Supervision in Ireland in 2010. For further details contact Robin directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.