Wright, N. (2001) ‘Supervision Dynamics’, The Christian Counsellor, July-September, Issue 10, pp14-18.
Introduction In two previous articles (The Christian Counsellor, Jan-Mar & Apr-Jun 2001), I introduced the concept of supervision in pastoral care and counselling by summarising:
· What I mean by supervision
· The relationship between supervision and other caring roles
· Why supervision is important – including its potential benefits
· Key qualities of a good supervisor
· Supervision models and approaches
· Core supervision skills
I emphasised that the most important resources brought to the supervision relationship by a counselling supervisor are, “his or her own qualities and abilities under the inspiration of the Spirit” and that, “the supervisors’ character, attributes and personal values have as much influence on what takes place in supervision as his or her professional skills.”
In this article, I intend to develop this interpersonal theme by exploring various dynamics (that is, forces/influences) at work in supervisory relationships in the following key areas:
Spiritual (super-natural) e.g. activity of the Holy Spirit
Personal (‘inner-world’) e.g. beliefs, thoughts and feelings
Interpersonal (relational) e.g. supervisor-supervisee
Contextual (environmental) e.g. agency/role/location
Learning to recognise and work with dynamics can provide valuable windows of insight into the experience of the pastoral counsellor and the world of his or her client(s). I think of the relationship between these dimensions as itself dynamic so that a shift in one dimension (e.g. personal - a supervisor’s respect for the counsellor’s approach) can result in corresponding dynamics in each of the others (e.g. interpersonal - encouragement of the counsellor’s work).
In the Bible, we see each of these dimensions illustrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ; for example, when dealing with his disciples: Mt 16:16f (spiritual – Peter), Jn 21:15-17 (personal – Peter), Jn 15:1-17 (interpersonal – vine and branches), Mt 17:1f (contextual – high mountain). We also see them in our own work with supervisees. You might have noticed, for instance, that it seems possible to have all the right interpersonal skills, supervision models etc. worked out and yet still to struggle in supervision practice. The point this article will seek to make is that one possible reason could be the presence of underlying dynamics. The example of Francesca and Dave cited in the first article of this series reflects such an experience:
Francesca is Latin American and employed as a pastoral counsellor at a day hospital in London. Dave, her new supervisor and line-manager, expresses concern that whenever he meets with Francesca for supervision, she sits looking at the floor and becomes very reluctant to talk. This confuses Dave because, when they are working together in the hospital, Francesca appears to be happy, friendly and fairly confident. Dave is concerned that the blockage in their communication during supervision is beginning to undermine his own confidence as supervisor as well as to cause tension between them.
Before reading further, you might find it interesting to pause and brainstorm/write down as many different factors as possible that could explain the blockage described here (e.g. managerial role, cultural norms) and then to bracket them as spiritual, personal, interpersonal or contextual. It is worth considering that any one of the factors you have listed, or a combination of these and others, could explain what was taking place.
In this particular case, Dave as supervisor could test his own hypotheses by, for example, discussing his observations sensitively with Francesca, finding out whether other colleagues have experienced similar difficulties (bearing in mind confidentiality) or, perhaps, noting whether he elicits similar responses from other supervisees.
Dynamic turbulence Supervisors often comment that identifying dynamics and their underlying origins can be quite difficult – especially when experiencing them emotionally mid-supervision(!). I have, therefore, listed below some of the most common factors that are known to create dynamic disturbance (see: Hughes & Pengelly – Staff Supervision in a Turbulent Environment, 1998), along with various examples. You may, of course, find it helpful to add your own additional factors. Note especially that the spiritual dimension pervades all others.
In order to discern and work with spiritual dynamics in supervision, I would suggest that the pastoral supervisor needs at the very least to live in close relationship with Jesus Christ (Jn 15:5), pray continually (1Th 5:17), seek wisdom and power from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2: 1-16), study the Scriptures (2Ti 3:16f), reflect theologically (Mk 8:14-21), have an attitude of love (1Cor 13:1-7), be fully clothed in the ‘armour of God’ (Eph 6:10-18) and firmly rooted in the church (Heb 10:25). In my own freelance supervision, my wife prays during each session and I believe that this brings additional spiritual vitality (cf Mt 18:19f) as well as personal encouragement.
Personal and interpersonal dynamics may be experienced quite differently by supervisor and supervisee, even within the same interaction. Transference (transferring unconscious feelings from the past into a new situation) and countertransference (experiencing the transferred feelings of another person) are two examples. Parallel process is another phenomenon where issues taking place unconsciously between counsellor and client can be mirrored or ‘acted out’ in the relationship between supervisor and counsellor.
Contextual dynamics, often subconscious to the supervisor but impacting profoundly on the supervisee, can have a significant effect on what takes place in supervision and so it is worth checking through the factors listed above periodically when planning/reviewing supervision and, perhaps, seeking feedback from colleagues. You may also find it helpful to seek feedback from supervisees periodically during review sessions, explaining that this is in order to help you provide them with the highest possible quality of service.
Working with dynamics In practice, the dynamics generated by the four dimensions described here can vary according to many different factors, but perhaps most noticeably according to whether supervision is managerial (i.e. that conducted by the supervisee’s line-manager) or non-managerial (e.g. that conducted by an external third party). It is apparent that the power differential inherent in managerial supervision can create turbulence in all sorts of areas; e.g. belief about authority (spiritual), how disclosed material might be used (personal), crossed-wires in communication (interpersonal), reconciling agency expectations (contextual) with personal support needs.
In order to help tackle the managerial ‘see-saw’ responsibilities of accountability vis a vis personal support, I find that it can be helpful to air explicitly but sensitively the managerial dynamic and the problems it may raise and, at the same time, to reiterate my commitment to on-going support and development of the supervisee. This may be expressed in something like the following words:
Supervisor: “I’m conscious that there may be times when our formal roles will make it difficult for us to discuss certain things within supervision. Nevertheless, I am committed to building the kind of relationship with you that will enable us to work through such times positively and constructively if and when they do arise.”
This means learning, within each supervision session, to maintain a dual focus on both content and process whilst engaging with the supervisory task – easier said than done in practice but well worth the effort!
Groups are another environment where dynamics [e.g. competition (Mk 9:33f), exclusion (Mk 9:38ff) and/or collusion (Lk 23:18-24)] can be particularly hard for the supervisor to identify and deal with (see: Doel & Sawdon – The Essential Groupworker, 1999). I remember once posing an apparently uncontroversial question to a team of social work staff during a group session which was, to my surprise, met with very awkward silence. Aware that there were dynamics in the group that I had not anticipated, I decided to switch focus from content to processby asking the team:
Supervisor: "It seems to be difficult to discuss this issue (content) in these terms. Do you think it might be helpful to explore what this (process) might be about, bearing in mind that this (sub-task), too, could be difficult for us?”
This provided the team with an opportunity to air some of its concerns about discussing the particular issue in open forum and, hence, remove some of the underlying tension within the group, thus enabling it to move forward. The rule of thumb that I have learned to apply in supervision (whether one-to-one or group) is, therefore, as follows:
If you find yourself struggling in a supervision session, consider what dynamics might be present that could explain the struggle.
In the following final article (The Christian Counsellor, Oct-Dec 2001), we will explore further key methods and resources available to support the pastoral counselling supervisor in each of the areas covered by this article and by others in this series.
Questions for reflection
The following questions are offered for reflection in light of the various issues raised in this article:
1. In your supervision practice, do you tend to focus mainly on personal, interpersonal or contextual issues? Do you
need to broaden your focus to include attention to additional areas and their associated dynamics?
2. What methods do you use to raise awareness of, include and integrate a spiritual dimension in your work with
supervisees, including those who are not Christians?
3. The section entitled, ‘Dynamic turbulence’ lists a number of Biblical principles essential to the Christian
supervisor when discerning and working with spiritual dynamics. Which of these things are your strong points
and which need greater attention?
4. If you were to use the sections/bullet points listed under ‘Dynamic Turbulence’ as a checklist for your own
supervision practice, what practical steps would you need to take to ensure that each is taken into account
before, during and after your supervision sessions?
5. The section entitled ‘Working with Dynamics’ describes certain contexts (e.g. managerial, groups) in which
dynamics can be particularly complex. What kind of dynamics might be most prevalent in other supervisory
6. Which dynamics do you find most difficult to identify and work with and what support might you need to deal
with them more effectively?