Throughout the three decades I’ve plied my trade in the counsellor’s chair, I’ve been required to submit to regular one-to-one supervision. I am now on my eighth supervisor, all bar one of them, women.
Throughout the three decades I’ve plied my trade in the counsellor’s chair, I’ve been required to submit to regular one-to-one supervision. I am now on my eighth supervisor, all bar one of them, women. Strictly speaking, my first wasn’t a supervisor at all, at least in name. In those days, the National Marriage Guidance Council still used the term ‘tutor’. It was an interesting term, emphasising the educative or teaching aspects of the supervisor role. In my youth, only the posh kids had piano tutors, whilst my first brush with supervisors were the school dinner ladies who made us clear our plates, or the park keepers who chased big kids off the little kids’ swings. Later, working as a student at a frozen food factory, the foreman wore a white cap with the ‘S-word’ emblazoned in red, and wandered back and forth along the production line yelling out the occasional rebuke.
So when I returned from my initial residential weekend of counsellor training and met my first tutor/supervisor, I had little idea what to expect. In the event, she was warm and friendly, rather ‘mumsy’ in appearance, and surprised me at the end of our first session by bestowing a warm but fleeting embrace as I made to leave the room; I assumed it must be the norm. And so it proved, until a year later when she was replaced by a beanpole of a woman, who at the end of the session, remained stoically seated, dismissing me with a brusque, ‘Time’s up for today’ followed by a matter-of-fact, ‘See you next month’, as I stood before her awaiting the hug that never came. Her keen intellect, command of theory and ready challenge, meant she was often too quick for me, but she moved my practice on no end, although I look back now and wonder, if I’d had her at the outset, would I have survived?
In time, Marriage Guidance was duly rebranded as ‘Relate’ and I ventured outside its walls and found a job in the counselling service of a university, with, for the first time, a male supervisor. Hugs now long consigned to the past, he was a besuited psychiatrist, not far from retirement, and supervision with him was a refreshingly manly affair. I remember with fondness his honesty, wisdom, plain speaking, and the faith he showed in me. The day I presented my concerns about a young student whose course was coming to an end before I felt our work had been completed, he stunned me by asking, ‘How long do you think she’ll live?’ ‘What? I don’t know… 80, 90?’ ‘So, if she’s got another 60 years ahead of her,’ he replied, ‘what arrogance makes you think you’re her last chance?’ Sometimes supervisors are there to keep our inflated egos in check.
From there, I moved into private practice and for the first time had the opportunity to choose my own supervisor. I am now well into my third, and with luck, she’ll be my last. What she understands so well, is that the personal and the professional are not separate, but entwined; and it is not cases that are supervised, but counsellors and therapists; two factors that make the process of supervision more fascinating and rewarding for both parties.
Yet, to those outside the profession, our insistence upon regular monthly supervision, no matter how well qualified or experienced the practitioner, can seem perplexing. ‘Driver under supervision’, reads the sign on the back of the bus, which remains out of service until the driver has passed muster, when the sign is ripped off and Joe and Jill Public can safely hop onboard. Yet, counsellors and therapists, notwithstanding the development of their own internal supervisor, remain forever subject to the external gaze of supervision. And a good thing too, I might add. For, despite much that I bemoan about the whole therapy business, its commitment to, and insistence upon, ongoing supervision, with its formalised reflection, monitoring and challenge for all practitioners, is without precedent in the world of work. I go further: ongoing consultative process supervision is our quiet gift, held up to other professionals such as teachers, medics and managers who might also benefit from a safe, thoughtful, structured relationship through which to reflect upon the personal and emotional cost of their work, and better appreciate the dynamics of working relationships that can give rise to powerful and disturbing emotions. The principle of ‘ongoing supervision for all’ is not failsafe, but it’s still the best way we have of maintaining and developing standards, and remains a fine feather in the cap of our profession. We should wear it with pride.
Kevin Chandler is a therapist and supervisor in private practice, and author of Listening In: A Novel of Therapy and Real Life.
|‘Ongoing consultative process supervision is our quiet gift, held up to other professionals who might also benefit from a safe, thoughtful, structured relationship’|
© British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy 2011.