The art of supervision
Wright, N. (2001) ‘The Art of Supervision’, The Christian Counsellor, January-March, Issue 8, pp33-36.
Francesca, an experienced pastoral counsellor, looked down at her clasped hands and the silence seemed deafening. Something about her response left Dave, her new supervisor, feeling deeply unnerved and he could feel his own level of anxiety rising. “Why doesn’t she say something…?”
There has been growing recognition in recent years of the need to provide people engaged in pastoral, caring and counselling roles with their own spiritual, psychological and emotional support. We have witnessed unprecedented growth in the range of resources available so that textbooks dealing with various theories and models can now be found quite easily on the shelves of Britain’s libraries and universities.
Nevertheless, in spite of all that has been written on the subject, real supervision can feel both daunting and perplexing for those who find themselves responsible for this task. In practice, the many different factors involved in supervision can so easily leave the budding supervisor anxious, confused or, worse still, paralysed. This short series of 4 articles in The Christian Counsellor has been written with these realities in mind.
The Bible conveys a picture of God who is firmly committed to developing people – people who are often far more complex and ambiguous than modern textbooks would allow. My own experience as supervisor over the years has convinced me that supervision is more akin to a creative art form than a precise technical science, with openness to the Spirit being of paramount importance. I hope that what is written here will help inspire new heights of vision and excellence in this exciting and developing field.
My aim in this first introductory article will be to:
· Explain what I mean by supervision
· Outline the relationship between supervision and other caring roles
· Explain why supervision is important – including its potential benefits
· Offer core questions for personal reflection
Three subsequent articles in The Christian Counsellor will explore:
In lexical terms, super-vision means, quite literally, ‘over-sight’ which explains its traditional associations with one person overseeing the work, learning, behaviour and/or welfare of another. In the Bible, Jesus Christ is described in this role (1Pe 2:25), as are church leaders (1Pe 5:2) as shepherds of God’s people.
In social work and counselling, supervision is characterised similarly as a supportive relationship with developmental orientation; albeit with less emphasis on formal or relational authority. Generally-speaking, the notion of acting in some sense as ‘guardian’ of both supervisee and his/her work with clients is a common underlying theme.
The nature of the relationship between supervisor and supervisee has its own impacts on what takes place in supervision and it can be helpful to distinguish between the following forms, although these may well overlap in practice:
Managerial: with line-manager
Non-Managerial: with external consultant
Formal: fixed session
Informal: ad hoc contact
Group: supervisor-group or peer-peer
The dynamics inherent in these forms will be explored in greater depth throughout this series.
At an experiential level, supervision can also hold different meanings for different people. This is particularly important when introducing the concept to new supervisees. Some years ago, for instance, as a shop floor worker the word carried emotionally-charged connotations of hierarchy, raw power and job insecurity. On moving from industry to work in social services, I encountered a radically different approach that focused primarily on the developmental support of the supervisee. It is this latter form, amended to take into account a Biblical perspective and pastoral counselling context, that I will introduce and explore in these articles.
Relationship to other roles
At first glance, the supervisor-supervisee relationship mirrors significant aspects of the counsellor-client relationship; particularly in terms of one person supporting the development of another with the Spirit acting as facilitator.
Supervisor « Counsellor « Client
In light of this similarity, it can be helpful to compare parallel/transferable skills used in these disciplines (e.g. listening, clarifying, summarising) but it may be equally important to clarify distinctions in order to avoid role confusion.
In my experience, the principal difference is that, in supervision, the primary focus is on the development of the supervisee in role rather than on issues or a more broadly therapeutic nature. Whereas a pastoral counsellor may address a client’s personal anxiety by exploring the influence of earlier emotional experiences, a supervisor is more likely to address a counsellor’s anxiety by exploring its origins and impacts within the counsellor’s immediate work context.
Counsellor: “Does this remind you of other times you have felt like this, perhaps as a child on your first
day at school?”
Supervisor: “When you feel like this during a counselling session, how does it affect your behaviour
towards the client?”
The actual intervention that a counsellor might make with a client will, of course, depend on the counsellor’s model and approach. This principle applies, too, for supervisors from different disciplines and backgrounds.
One factor that counselling and social work-based philosophies and models do share in common, however, is a strong person- as well as task-centred orientation, with pastoral supervision incorporating Biblical reflection as a fundamental and central component. The most important resources that the counsellor brings to a relationship are his or her own qualities and abilities under the inspiration of the Spirit and, therefore, a particular challenge for pastoral supervision is the development of new knowledge and skills in the context of personal development as a disciple of Christ.
Supervision can provide a number of positive benefits as well as reduce the some of the negative impacts (e.g. potential for stress, collusion, abuse) of interpersonal work on the counsellor and client. Some of the key benefits are summarised well by Pattison who comments that:
“The supervised person is supported and so better able to support others without yielding to unrealistic messianism or hopelessness… The supervision process permits the integration of new and old experiences and assumptions (and) it enables the integration of theory, theology and practice which can otherwise easily be compartmentalised. Some kind of supervision is necessary if dysfunctional habits are not to be learned, perpetuated and disseminated… It is one of the few ways of preventing burnout. Without supervision, people
perish.” (Contact Journal, 1996).
I find Pattison’s description helpful since, as well as defining benefits for the supervisee, it also draws attention to benefits and practice implications for the client/client group with whom he or she is working. The British Association of Counselling, for example, identifies care for the client as the principal rationale for supervision and this ethos is implicit in the Association of Christian Counsellor’s equivalent guidelines. In this respect, supervision provides not only support but an important context for personal and professional accountability.
In future articles in this series, we will explore further the outworking of this ministry; drawing on Biblical principles, case studies, models and experience to enhance supervision practice.
Questions for reflection
The following questions are offered for reflection in light of the various issues raised in this article:
1. What are the thoughts and feelings that arise for you when you hear the word ‘supervision’?
2. What associations might your supervisees carry when they meet with you?
3. How might the dynamics created by 1 & 2 above influence what happens within your supervision sessions?
4. How would you describe your supervision in terms of the categories in Figure 1?
5. In what ways might issues between the counsellor and client be mirrored and/or enacted in your relationship
as supervisor and counsellor?
6. What methods do you use to in your supervision to integrate a theological dimension?
7. Is the focus of your supervision more task than person, or vice versa?
8. Which aspects of your supervision practice would you most like to improve?
9. Who supervises you…?