The relationship between a psychotherapist and their supervisor is a very important one. Supervision is a vital place to reflect on clinical dilemmas, talk about professional issues and learn from someone more experienced. It can also be a self-care exercise. It feels good to talk to a trusted colleague about our work in a confidential setting. As I learn and reflect more on psychotherapy supervision, it has made me think about the supervision I’ve received throughout my career so far. During a recent group discussion with other professionals, we asked ourselves, “What constitutes good supervision?”
From my own learning and experience, including trial and error with supervisors who did not meet my needs, I thought about the importance of the following elements in supervision:
- Political and social awareness
- Relationship to power and authority
- Supervisor/therapist compatibility
- Theoretical and philosophical values
I want to be able to learn from my supervisor and absorb the knowledge of someone more experienced who will positively inform the work I do. Therefore, I have chosen to work with supervisors who keep up to date with the latest research and enjoy both learning and developing others.
The way supervisor and supervisee think together is vital for a productive relationship. This doesn’t mean always agreeing with one another, but having a strong alliance where difficult issues can be discussed and resolved.
Ethics and client safety is paramount to the work we do. Therefore, an ethical supervisor needs to be able to explore, question and reflect honestly with their supervisee whilst always holding the client’s wellbeing and safety in mind.
Political and Social Awareness
We all exist in a social, political and cultural context. Therefore, this surely needs to be a part of supervision. Like in psychotherapy, a politically and socially aware therapist and supervisor will think about the place in society of their client and supervisee through their culture, sexuality, gender, age, class, ability and relationship to their identity.
Relationship to Power and Authority
This takes me to the supervisor’s relationship to power and authority and how they use, or potentially abuse, their role. A supervisor needs to hold their authority and personal power in a way that acknowledges the power imbalance in the supervisory relationship, whilst being open to being challenged and learning from others. Granted, this is a fine balance to strike and one which is entirely possible to hold if the supervisor him/herself is willing to have an ongoing enquiring relationship to their power and authority and be honest with themselves in these areas.
This relates to the point above. For a practitioner to be able to supervise others in an ethical way, they need to practice what they preach. Senior practitioners can fall into the trap of thinking they know it all and don’t need to be professionally supervised or have therapy. In my opinion, this attitude can lead to a fall in professional standards, and even to professional negligence or malpractice.
Lack of compatibility between supervisor and therapist can have significant consequences for career development. Often, trainee therapists end up with a supervisor who is allocated to them, rather than actively choosing the right practitioner for them. As a trainee therapist, this experience led me to staying in supervision with an allocated supervisor for way longer than I should have. In the end I left feeling resentful and frustrated with the lack of compatibility between us in theoretical approach and professional direction. My learning had stalled and was hungry for someone that could help me grow professionally. I was lucky to then find the right person from whom I learnt immensely as a professional.
Theoretical and philosophical values
I believe that supervisor and supervisee need to be on the same page on the fundamental basics of what constitutes effective psychotherapy or counselling. Also, on the level of training and skill needed to offer an ethical and professional service which is of sound therapeutic value to the client.
Arguably, without trust there is no relationship which can withstand the challenges of this key professional alliance. The supervisor’s role is, in my opinion, the most important support system of a clinician. Hence, there needs to be enough trust for the therapist to be open and honest, and feel able to navigate through difficult issues with their supervisor. Both are required to acknowledge and respect that mutual trust is vital for the benefit of all involved: supervisor, supervisee and, ultimately, the client.