Once you have found a supervisor, (See How to Choose a Supervisor) or have had one allocated to you, how do you make good use of supervision?
Remember, there is always an element of quality assurance in any clinical supervision. And rightly so. We need to be accountable for what happens behind closed doors with clients. And we need to feel free enough to trust, to feel safe enough to face our mistakes, our inexperience and our blind spots. All of us are growing and learning, which means none of us are perfect, including your supervisor.
I believe the key to successful and useful supervision is getting to the place where you can name your doubts/fears/hopes/mistakes/insecurities…and strengths! Once you have this, everything falls into place. Be honest: with yourself, with your supervisor. The ideal is to be able to let it all hang out. And you need to have wisdom about how much you wish to disclose, depending on your situation.
If you have chosen your own supervisor, you have the opportunity to really fly. You have the opportunity to grow and to deepen your practice. You should be building a good rapport, and will have the choice to go elsewhere if this person does not provide a shame-free zone.
If you have an external supervisor, and you work for an agency or government department, you are hopefully also in a fortunate position. It is important to get clarity about the limits of the confidentiality and what will be reported back to your organisation, if anything. Then you will know where you are heading. Some of this will change over time, and safety will develop if the boundaries are clear.
If you do not have an external supervisor, you may choose to be more circumspect about which aspects of your personal experience you choose to share. You do have a duty of care to your clients to make good use of your clinical supervision time. Presenting a case, checking what personal issues may be impinging on your work, case conceptualisation, case planning…all of these are part of what you need to process. But you may decide that some triggers or issues which arise for you personally are best taken elsewhere. I strongly recommend that, if you do not feel safe to share these with an internal supervisor, then you seek out another confidential, professional context to sort these out. It may be group supervision, it may be a therapist, or another supervisor. Your clients deserve your best work.
Gentle Curiosity and Exploration
These are qualities you want to develop in yourself, and hopefully you will find them in your supervisor. It may take a little while to settle in, but once you are both in a rhythm, supervision is a place where you can ask yourself, “What is going on in the room with my client, and in me?” A supervisor will sit with you in this puzzle, and reflect back, try on a few things, play a hunch (or not), and generally help you to sort it out. You both look at the case/situation/moment/issue together and both nut it out. When it works well, you will feel really satisfied with the supervisory process of searching for new ways through.
Sometimes you just haven’t got a clue, and you have direct questions. It might be about what is normal, or acceptable, or best practice. You might want some ideas about resources and where to find them.
Sometimes an issue arises in session, and you realise there is a gap in your learning. That’s ok. As a general rule of thumb, supervisors do include elements of teaching in their work from time to time, and especially if you are newish to counselling. It is really your responsibility to follow up on upskilling if you find you are constantly using supervision for seeking out information, rather than depending on your supervisor for this.
Your supervisor may have given you a supervision preparation form. It is important to use this, or some other way, to prepare for supervision. You may have a particular client you need to talk about. Or you may have a theme that is emerging from a number of clients. For example, you may find you are seeing a whole lot of young mums who are grieving the loss of a baby, or there may be three male clients who remind you of your dad. Sometimes you have a few clients who are always cancelling. These are all relevant matters to bring along.
Go back through your notes and check out the themes/issues/problems you want to sort out in supervision. Take some notes, including naming some of your hunches and ideas. It may be helpful to have a “supervision notebook” so you have a record of all your significant supervision sessions.
As a supervisor, I generally expect that there will be a genogram, a summary of the case thus far, and any basic relevant information. Think of supervision of a service you want to get the most out of in the time given: have a focus. Or two, or three.
The research shows that supervision, especially external supervision, is effective in managing potential burn-out. This is not a small thing: You work in a field where there are many issues impacting on your psyche, your emotions, and your body. It can spill over into your life, and impact your health.
This is where the safety and trust really comes home to roost. Your supervisor needs to be monitoring you for signs of vicarious trauma or exhaustion. That can’t be done if you are hiding in your supervision sessions.
This brings us to shame. If you are in a demanding and/or unsupportive workplace it can be difficult to face that you are impacted to a significant degree by the work you are doing. Actually, it is hard to admit it to yourself… Shame is a sneaky little sucker who wants you to bury your head under the doona and say it’s not happening, even as your inner child screams, “The sky is falling!” over and over. Listen to your wobbly moments. Check out if they need to face the light. We are human beings often working with trauma which is highly contagious….so it is likely that, at some stage, you will catch a bit of it. That doesn’t make you weak, or unprofessional, or unsuited to the work. But it may mean you need a break, or some strategies above and beyond your usual ways of coping.
Supervision is usually the place to put words to what may be happening. A good supervisor will help you get to a place where you can make the choices you need in order to recover,
All of your work in supervision is focussed on whatever will make your work with clients more effective. It is not therapy. However, there will probably be moments that are therapeutic. It depends on your supervisor, and the models that have been agreed upon. It depends on where the work takes you both, and on your willingness to explore some counter-transference. Ultimately though supervision is there to enrich your work with clients.
Sometimes your supervisor may ask to see case notes, or a tape of your work. (It depends…) Or you may do role plays to fine-tune /explore a situation with a client. Sometimes you might use a new tool as part of the supervisory exploration, and then you will have it in your tool kit as well. Sometimes you may “play” with a modality to loosen things up to make supervision shift something. How open are you to this?
A final note:
Supervision is your time, in order to support you in your work with clients. Use it well. It can be a rich and rewarding experience. You need to go to supervision at least 10 times a year (if in PACFA etc) so make good use of every session.