by Rita Glover
Introduction – what is it really like being a supervisor?
This article has emerged from research that I carried out with experienced and accredited psychotherapeutic supervisors working on the island of Ireland. Supervision is a human-to-human encounter in which counsellors and psychotherapists regularly present and reflect on their client casework. The overall goal of the study was to create a reflective space for supervisors to consider what is it really like being a supervisor? In order to enhance our understanding of supervisors’ actual everyday experiences, of being with trainee, pre-accredited and experienced therapists in the supervisory space, a hermeneutic (interpretive) phenomenological approach was utilised in this research study (Heidegger, 1927/1962). Hermeneutic phenomenology as a research method seeks to capture peoples’ actual lived experience. So, with ethical approval from Dublin City University, research interviews were carried out with female supervisors from the island of Ireland. These supervisors had been practising for between three and 20 years within organisational contexts and in private practice. The participants were invited to talk about their standout experiences of specific supervisory encounters and were asked to reflect on the following questions: What are your actual experiences of being a supervisor? What does it means to be (or exist as) a supervisor? This resulted in many evocative experiential stories being captured across 22 research interviews.
There have been many excellent research studies that have inquired into how supervisors do supervision that have greatly added to our understanding about the functions, tasks and processes inherent in the supervisory endeavour. However, this study privileged the actual lived experience of supervisors, over inquiring into how supervision theories and conceptual models influence supervisory practice. Privileging, identifying and uncovering supervisors’ actual experience creates a reflective space, in which fresh insights about the hidden or taken-for-granted aspects of the human experience (Vandermause, 2011) of being a supervisor may emerge. I have found that this type of research is very fitting in a profession where we, as psychotherapists and supervisors, are most concerned to understand what our clients lived experience is really like and the impact that such experience has on our clients’ everyday emotional, psychological and functional well-being.
Responsibility pervades the world of supervision
The stories that supervisors told me often centred on concerning, troubling and anxiety-provoking supervisory situations with counsellors and psychotherapists. At all times during the research, the anonymity of supervisors and supervisees was protected and pseudonyms are used throughout the article. I spend significant periods of time lingering with evocative stories of participants’ lived experiences and pondering on emerging phenomena. Participants’ powerful stories showed that being responsible was a common, recurring lived experience. Supervisors regularly spoke about ‘feeling an enormous sense of responsibility’ or ‘carrying huge responsibility’, or trying to cope with the ‘the weight of responsibility’ and ‘the burden of responsibility’. Indeed, in bringing together the main messages emerging from all the interviews, it became clear that the phenomenon of responsibility persistently manifested in supervisors’ average everyday practice. The research findings strongly suggest that responsibility pervades the world of supervision.
The findings from this study also uncover how supervisors tried to cope with heightened experiences of responsibility, in concerning or worrisome supervisory situations. The hermeneutic (interpretive) phenomenological analysis of participants’ evocative stories revealed that burdensome experiences of responsibility were often intertwined with existential angst, which impacted on how supervisors related and responded to supervisees. Three main ways of coping with the weight of responsibility unfolded from the participants actual lived experiences.
Truth Seeking – a way of coping with the weight of responsibility
One of the main ways that participants tried to cope in concerning supervisory situations was by comporting themselves as truth-seekers. For instance, Pat, an experienced supervisor, told me about a supervisory situation in which she perceived that a supervisee, John, was being less than truthful about his therapeutic practices with clients. A lingering mood of mistrust permeated supervision sessions. Pat did not believe many of John’s accounts of how he worked with clients. She was experiencing untruth in the supervisory space. She told me: ‘There was withholding of stuff that probably he knew I wouldn’t want to hear. So he was trying to keep me away from what wasn’t going well’. In order to cope with this experience of mistrust, Pat began to comport herself as a truth-seeker. Regularly, she would probe and thoroughly investigate his interactions and interventions with clients. She said ‘I knew I was chasing… He would answer the questions but they were half answered… I was always left doubting as to whether I had heard it all’. However, Pat told me that her truth-seeking way of coping with heightened supervisory responsibility did not work, as the supervisory relationship with John broke down. Pat believed that she never really found out what John was actually doing with clients. So the burden of responsibility was not dissipated by this way of coping.
Leaping-in and leaping-ahead – ways of coping with existential angst
Participants also tried to cope with the burden of responsibility by “leaping-in” and/or “leaping- ahead” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 122) of their supervisees. Heidegger postulates that the acts of “leaping-in” or “leaping-ahead” are manifestations of the “phenomenon of care” and that caring or “solicitude” is a basic mode of being human (Heidegger, 1927/1962:121). In Heideggerian terms, solicitude is the type of care that is associated with taking care of others. As such, supervision falls within the realm of solicitude in terms of caring for supervisees and caring for the welfare of clients. According to Heidegger (1927/1962) there are positive, enabling modes of solicitude (“leaping-ahead”) and less positive, even disempowering modes of solicitude (“leaping-in”). Heidegger proffers that the act of “leaping-ahead” of the Other, can “liberate” and “free” him (Heidegger, 1927/1962:122). In being liberated, the Other can embrace his “potential-for-being” a human being and, in this instance, his potential to be a therapist (Heidegger, 1927/1962:122). Alternatively, the act of “leaping-in”, which is also a form of caring, may delay the Other’s development and stunt emerging autonomy. This form of solicitude, while often well intentioned, can create dependency, infantalisation or disablement of the Other.
These ways of trying to cope with heightened responsibility are illustrated through an anxiety-provoking story that Sinead, an experienced supervisor, recounted about doing live supervision with Carla, a trainee family therapist. During the therapy session a client disclosed physical abuse of a child. Carla did not immediately go into this with the client. Sinead, who was observing, became anxious about this and struggled with whether or not she should intervene. Initially, she decided to wait and allow the trainee more time to explore the physical abuse disclosure. After a further period of time, when this still did not happen, Sinead “leapt-ahead” of Carla. In an enabling manner she encouraged Carla to address the abuse disclosure. For a while, the act of “leaping-ahead” reduced the burdensome experience of responsibility that Sinead was carrying for the protection of children. She confidently expected Carla to act on her redirection. However, Sinead’s ‘anxiety’ re-emerged, when Carla did not follow her guidance. The fact that Carla did not immediately pursue the child protection issue meant that Sinead found herself in an intensifying spiral of ‘worry’. She struggled with existential angst but still managed to contain her inclination to “leap-in” and take over control of the direction of the therapy session. So, she gave Carla a little more time and waited and hoped that she would come back to this concerning matter with the client. However, as Carla still had not clarified the abuse disclosure as the end of the session approached, Sinead felt compelled to directly intervene.
The sense of responsibility that Sinead carried for protecting children meant that she could no longer wait for Carla to develop the confidence or strategies to address the abuse disclosure. So, under multiple pressures Sinead “leapt-in”. She said, ‘So I rang in and I redirected. So then she did ask about it but she did struggle around it a little bit’. Having “leapt-in” and taken responsibility for the therapeutic work away from Carla, Sinead’s anxiety and sense of responsibility reduced. However, she was aware that during live supervision she could, on occasion, ‘become a frustrated therapist… That has always been a struggle for me, that frustration’. As Sinead came to the end of this story, she seemed to be very aware of her tendency to want to “leap-in” in order to ensure that the clients got the best service and that children were protected. The push-pull between “leaping-ahead” and “leaping-in”, appeared to be an ongoing battle for Sinead. When she was able to comport herself as an appropriately responsible supervisor she was able to “leap-ahead” and educate or empower her supervisees. When she experienced heightened responsibility or when she was comporting herself as a ‘frustrated therapist’, there seemed to be a greater inclination to “leap-in” and potentially disempower her supervisees. This was not a comportment that Sinead wanted or was happy with. However, “leaping-ahead” and “leaping-in” were ways that many participants in this study tried to cope with existential angst and burdensome responsibility in concerning supervisory situations.
Resolutely responding to the call of conscience – a way of carrying the burden of responsibility
In this research study supervisors also talked about how they strived to cope when a supervisee had transgressed and strayed outside the bounds of safe and ethical practice. As such, a third common human experience emerged for supervisors when significant acts of omission or commission were disclosed by supervisees. In such circumstances, the “phenomenon of resoluteness” occurred (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 298). In Heideggerian terms, resoluteness is a phenomenon which happens in a specific situation and at a specific time (Heidegger, 1927/1962). According to Heidegger, resoluteness is a primal human response to the “call of conscience” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 280). Heidegger’s understanding of conscience is a “call to care” and a call to resolutely resolve something (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 280). Instead of having a disapproving or condemning flavour, conscience, in Heideggerian terms (1927/9162), calls people to pay attention to their potential and to exist authentically.
An example of responding resolutely to the call of conscience is demonstrated in the following evocative story as recounted by Dorothy, an experienced supervisor. Dorothy talked about a disclosure made by a supervisee, Sam, who lacked insight about a serious sexual transgression with a female client and who had minimised his unethical behaviour. She said ‘Listening to him, there was a sense of panic. Am I really hearing this? The first thought is like disbelief, is this a counsellor? I can’t let this go. I am telling him. I have an issue and I must discuss it in supervision’. Dorothy seemed to be compelled to immediately let Sam know that he had transgressed and that she would not be persuaded to collude with his transgression. It was almost as if she had been catapulted into resoluteness. She was not seduced by Sam’s denial or lack of insight about the seriousness of a counsellor having sexual contact with a client. Having rejected Sam’s minimisation, she resolutely upheld her responsibility to take action about his unethical behaviour. She went on to say, ‘That was very heavy stuff, very heavy stuff. I am left with no options. I know I have to go down a certain road. It was the responsibility! Weighty! I can’t get rid of it. How can I handle this… and find a way that is the least destructive and yet fulfils the requirement of supervision?’ Despite the unwanted burden of responsibility, Dorothy heard and responded to the “call of conscience” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 280). With the support of her supervision consultant, she resolutely took the necessary steps to address Sam’s misconduct, thus ensuring that clients were protected. While she was shocked and dismayed at Sam’s unethical behaviour, she also responded to the “call to care” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 280) for her supervisee. So a series of interventions were devised in order to supervise Sam through a remediation process and ascertain his potential to be an ethical counsellor. Dorothy went on to recount, ‘He was a better counsellor by then. He got the insight and could acknowledge the boundaries in a responsible way. It was a great relief from my perspective… But he is no longer counselling now, it ended after a year or so’. So, there was relief that she had discharged her responsibility to ensure safe and ethical practice; relief also that Sam had transformed from transgressor to reformed practitioner and had decided to stop counselling. In her wisdom, Dorothy did not collude with Sam’s minimisations about his unethical conduct. Instead she wrestled with the “call of conscience” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 280) and carried the burden of responsibility by acting in a resolute yet caring manner.
Existential analytic supervision consultation
These evocative stories, as recounted by supervisors, have shown how participants tried to cope with experiences of heightened responsibility intertwined with existential angst. All of the participants were experienced supervisors, who had extensive training in theoretical and conceptual models of supervision. They adhered to the ethical codes and frameworks of their accrediting organisations. However, these knowledge-based structures did not sufficiently mitigate the anxiety and weight of responsibility that they experienced in specific concerning supervisory situations. The findings from the research indicate that, despite being well trained in supervision approaches and techniques, in such circumstances participants’ responses were primarily ways of coping with their actual lived experiences. Yet participants’ actual lived experiences were often hidden, resulting in inadvertent consequences for their supervisees, clients and themselves.
In order to unconceal what it is really like being a psychotherapeutic supervisor, I am suggesting an existential analytic approach to supervision consultation. This approach to supervision consultation is designed to increase understanding of the human-to-human encounter between supervisor and supervisee and the human-to-human encounter between therapists and clients.
The focus here is on expanding the horizons of understanding (Gadamer, 1975) about human experiencing in the interconnected world of psychotherapy supervision, uninfluenced by assertions inherent in knowledge based structures about how to provide supervision
(Glover, 2014: 300)
Therefore, existential analytic supervision consultation is much less concerned with how supervisors do supervision but is more concerned with exploring what it is really like to be a supervisor? And what it actually means to be a supervisor? This way of undertaking supervision consultation seeks to uncover hidden or taken-for-granted ways in which supervisors cope with standout supervisory experiences and the impact these have on supervisory practice, supervisory relationships and client work. This supervision consultation position seeks to privilege, uncover and linger with supervisors’ actual, day to day lived experiences; it prioritises supervisors’ real life experiences over theoretical knowledge and models of supervision practice.
In order to do this the supervision consultant invites the supervisor to identify and focus on a specific standout supervisory experience. Supervisory experiences can range from being positive and enabling to being challenging, anxiety-provoking and responsibility-laden. The supervisor is then encouraged to recount, in detail, the story of the specific supervisory encounter in order to privilege, illuminate and give voice to her/his moment-to-moment lived experience, in the world of supervision. Together, the supervision consultant and the supervisor begin to analyse what was actually happening at significant moments in the human-to-human encounter with the supervisee. Gaining deeper understanding of the supervisor’s actual lived experience can provide insight into how the supervisor coped and responded in the standout supervisory situation. Fresh insight can help to bring into clearer awareness potentially hidden aspects of the supervisor’s actual human experience, such as being mistrusting, grappling with existential angst or being over-burdened with responsibility. This in turn provides an opportunity to the supervisor to more fully appreciate the meaning of her/his day to day existence in the world of supervision. Having privileged and understood what it is really like being a supervisor in standout supervisory situations, the supervision consultant invites the supervisor to acknowledge the influence of the actual lived experience on the supervision process, the supervisor, the supervisee and the client. As has been shown in the stories emerging from my research, the unacknowledged influence of supervisors’ actual lived experience can have unintended and inadvertent impacts such as the breakdown of supervisory relationships and the disempowerment of supervisees. Unacknowledged lived experience, therefore, has the potential to impede or thwart the primary functions of supervision which are fundamentally to support and educate supervisees and to ensure safe and ethical practice with clients (Kaduskin, 1976). Through engagement in existential analytic supervision consultation, supervisors begin to more immediately identify, pay attention to and interpret their human-to-human experiences with supervisees. Supervisors are encouraged to give voice to and share their actual experience with their supervisees, so that the supervisory pair can consider what is actually happening between them and how this might influence supervisory and therapeutic practices. Through mutual reflection on the human-to-human supervisory encounter, ways of coping, acting and responding can be existentially analysed and unintended consequences for clients, supervisees and supervisors can be minimised.
Conclusion – supervisory responsibility is inescapable
This research study created a reflective space for supervisors to consider their actual lived experiences of being a supervisor and to consider the meaning that they attributed to these. The findings from this under-researched area, suggest that an enduring meaning of being a supervisor is being-responsible. The evocative stories recounted by research participants tell us that responsibility is inescapable in the world of supervision. In concerning supervisory situations heightened experiences of responsibility were intertwined with existential angst. In order to cope with burdensome experiences of responsibility participants comported themselves as truth seekers, or by “leaping-in” and “leaping-ahead” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 122) of supervisees or by acting resolutely in responding to the “call of conscience” (Heidegger, 1927/1962: 280). In this article I am advocating that supervisors’ actual lived experiences of being in the world of supervision are privileged, through existential analytic style supervision consultation. This position does not devalue the many approaches to supervision consultation which are informed and influenced by counselling and psychotherapy theories and conceptual supervision models. However, there is a concern that the actual lived experiences of supervisors can get lost when there is an over-emphasis on models, methods and theories which focus on how to do supervision consultation. Therefore, existential analytic supervision consultation is advocated as a crucial addition to the prevailing approaches to supervision consultation, in order to enable supervisors to cope with the inescapable burden of responsibility inherent in the supervisory endeavour and to enhance effective and ethical counselling and psychotherapy practice.
Acknowledgement: My appreciation is extended to the supervisors from Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland who participated in this study.
Dr. Rita Glover (email@example.com) lectures on the Doctorate in Psychotherapy and the MSc in Psychotherapy programmes in Dublin City University, Ireland. She coordinates and delivers a part- time module on Psychotherapy Supervision as part of the Doctorate in Psychotherapy programme and provides supervision consultation to supervisors working in the not-for-profit and private sectors.
Gadamer, H. (1975). Truth and method. London: Continuum.
Glover, R. (2014). Being-responsible in psychotherapeutic supervision – A hermeneutic phenomenological study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University, Ireland. Available at www.doras.dcu.ie/20125/
Heidegger, M. (1927 /1962). Being and time. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Kaduskin, A. (1976). Supervision in social work. New York: Columbia Press.
Vandermause, R.K. (2011). Being wholesome: The paradox of methamphetamine addiction and recovery. A hermeneutic phenomenological interpretation within an interdisciplinary, transmethodological study. Qualitative Social Work, 11(3), 299-318.