The Supervisor’s Field of Knowing
There are important elements of clinical supervision that are sacrificed on the altar of focusing on cases. You can’t reasonably know everything that matters about every case. As a supervisor you will only know…
- what you are told about a case,
- how it is told, and
- what you observe about your supervisee’s work…
- by hearing them tell about it,
- by watching a recording, or
- by engaging in live observation.
Don’t Pathologize Supervisees
Being a clinical supervisor is not the same as being a counselor/psychotherapist. To be a clinical supervisor for other counselors, it is true that you must first be a psychotherapist; however, the transferable skills are vastly misunderstood. Therapists who become supervisors must rid themselves of trying to lead supervisees to conclusions…a bad habit that is often cultivated in therapy itself. It is a practice that implies something is wrong (with you) and I know what it is and you don’t…in effect “I will show you what is wrong with you.” It is not only ineffective and annoying…it is also pathologizing. This bad habit moves your supervisee into the role of therapy client and it moves the supervisor into the role of frustrated therapist. That is not how any of this should work.
To be an effective supervisor, you must see areas for personal development; and only engage in a manner that is about personal development and not about mental health. After all, they did not come to you for therapy. At the same time they must know that you see them as their whole self (which is also a vulnerable self). Almost all of my supervisees ask me for a therapy referral without me requiring it or asking them to do so.
We encourage therapists in training to drop their ego. But that doesn’t mean we should crush it in supervision. We teach therapists that their client’s improvement is their own. While we might be gratified in their improvements, the psychotherapist’s role is that of facilitator. The improved outcomes in the client’s mental health, relationships and quality of life are due to the client’s efforts.
It is their engagement in the “work” of therapy, both in session and outside of the therapy session, that makes the difference. The client’s victory is their own. To facilitate effectively as therapists we have to have both a high level of self awareness, other awareness, heart fullness and conceptualization skills.
Those are the transferable traits for supervision. If the supervisor can “be” those characteristics in a manner that is authentic and grounded, then supervisees will develop competency under that supervisor’s process, no matter what the supervisor’s theoretical orientation is…just like in therapy.
Whether it is masters, specialist or doctorate level, we all accept the fact that it takes years to become an effective psychotherapist (whether it be counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy or psychology). We spend years in graduate school and in clinical training. Competency is informed by education (knowledge), supervised practice and/or consultation. In other words, beyond education…people need experience. That experience is then supervised or guided, ideally by a more senior clinician who is further ahead on the journey.
We don’t expect education alone to result in an effective psychotherapist. Practical experience is where it all comes together…or not. Some clinical supervisors have a graduate course in clinical supervision. Others may have a doctorate in counselor supervision. Increasingly, others participate in supervision continuing education. It has been my experience that education is the foundation… it is not the finale. It is supervised supervision and consultation for supervision that keeps bad supervisory habits from setting in.
Harm…It Can and Does Occur in Supervision
When you listen to people describe their supervisory experiences, there is a broad range of feedback. Just as it is when you talk to people about their therapy experiences. Some people feel that they have been tremendously helped and positively influenced by their experiences. Others report benign to mild impact, while some others report harm.
The primary mode of harm is through abuses of power.
- One of the main ways that I see this play out is that supervisors view their supervisee’s behavior through the lens of what they would do (clinically). If it is not how they would do it…they struggle to see the merit of the supervisee’s decisions. They lose sight of the supervisee’s right and need for autonomy. After all, the whole goal is for them to ultimately practice independently and to be themselves as therapists.
- Next, supervisors fear liability as a result of supervisee’s actions and treat supervisees as if they are not to be trusted. This can result in micromanaging or overzealous behavior, particularly when the supervisor is also the director/employer.
- Another abuse of power involves cultural encapsulation. The supervisor lacks awareness of the role of multicultural competency. They think that race, ethnicity, national origin, first language, gender, sexual orientation, religious differences etc… are not impacting the supervisory relationship. As a result, the supervisor fails to adequately bond/build rapport with the supervisee. The supervisee feels misunderstood and worse, they don’t get the guidance they need to manage multicultural factors in their work.
The Power Differential
There are many pitfalls for supervisors.
- The supervisor has power to either support someone on their journey toward licensure and help the supervisee improve their competencies and establish their counselor identity,
- or to obstruct the licensure process (if it is warranted) in their role as gatekeeper to the profession.
These facts are ever present in the mind of the supervisee. Therefore a supervisor should not dismiss this reality and behave as if the supervisee is not vulnerable to the supervisor. They count on the supervisor to do the right thing and to be trustworthy with their short comings. It is critically important that supervisors don’t pounce and overreact because of their own fears.
Supervision of Supervision
Because of the power differential between the supervisor and supervisee, it is vital that the supervisor discuss their mindset about supervisees and supervision with other experienced supervisors. Experienced supervisors can support less experienced supervisors by being a sounding board.
Supervision of supervision or consultation for supervisors can help new and even experienced supervisors reduce their abuses of power. It can help supervisors work through relational problems in supervision, as well as their own fears about the liability risks of supervising.
Experienced supervisors have knowledge about common pitfalls. They have lived experiences that are beneficial for other supervisors. They have more objectivity in their role a supervisory consultant. They can help supervisors recognize their blind spots. In some cases, they can refute poor information or poor supervisory intervention strategies for more effective ones.
Supervision isn’t something you just “do”…it is a highly cultivated quality and set of characteristics. The positively impactful supervisor creates the conditions for a counselor/psychotherapist to grow and flourish.
More Transferable Skills
To impact counselor development, the supervisor must impact the counselors themselves. Thereby impacting their work with all of their clients while at the same time not delving too much into the work of the supervisee’s therapist. At best, the supervisor sees their supervisee’s strengths and difficulties (or challenges) and spotlight their supervisee’s strengths. This must be done with a delicate yet precise understanding and use supervision theory and methods to support expanded thinking, skills, emotions, ideas and even the expanded self of the psychotherapist/supervisee. This can all be achieved in the context of supervision accompanied by therapy and intentional professional and personal development strategies.
It is the supervisee’s role to meet the supervisor part way. But they will only do so if the supervisor is knowledgeable, safe, caring, structured and flexible. The supervisor is responsible for the supervisory relationship. Just like the therapist is responsible for the therapeutic relationship.
The chief difference being that the supervisor has several layers of responsibility, including:
- the supervisee,
- the therapy client,
- the employer,
- the supervisor themselves, and
- the community at large.
Still, the supervisor must relinquish their familiar role of treating the client in favor of cultivating curiosity, engagement, empathy, therapeutic skills, professionalism and wisdom in their supervisee.
In short, if you are a supervisor and you have complaints about your supervisee…look first to yourself with the support of your own supervisor or consultant who is further along the journey. Ideally, this will be someone who cares about therapists and supervisors more than they care about being right or being needed, for that is the Supervisor’s Way.
Copyright © 2018 Ruby Blow. All rights reserved.