Super Supervision?

Pauline Andrew

Gemma bounced into my room with characteristic enthusiasm.  Beaming, she announced "I've made a boo-boo!"   Inwardly I sighed.  Gemma was a very loving and quite skilled new counsellor, fresh from her diploma qualification, but professional boundaries were never her strong point.  What had she done this time?  

It turned out that the previous session a grateful client had brought Gemma a small gift as a thank you for "being so lovely".  It was a bracelet and, knowing that the client did not have much money, Gemma was very touched.  The >boo-boo', as she so delicately put it, was that she had then bounced (she does actually bounce quite a lot) up to the jewellery box in her bedroom to find a reciprocal gift.  She chose a small gold cross on a chain to give to her client, who was understandably delighted.

The giving and receiving of gifts is just one of the challenges facing a supervisor.  What is the message behind this little ritual?  What was the client saying to Gemma by giving her a bracelet, and what was Gemma conveying with her very personal return gift?  Is there a difference between a client bringing her counsellor a small bunch of flowers and another who produces a gift token for a Pamper Day at Champneys? Or a picture to hang on the counselling room wall?  Does it make a difference if the gift is given halfway through therapy, or when a client finishes?  Are there any cultural mores to take note of?  Refusing a gift can cause deep offence in many countries, and even in the UK it could appear churlish.  

How do we handle all this?  Gemma instinctively felt she had done the wrong thing, and that gave us a starting point for exploring the sensitive dynamics, the messages given to the client, and how the situation could be addressed.  All this needed to be done without me, as supervisor, shaming Gemma, and also without Gemma shaming her client in any repair work that might be needed.

Gemma's dilemma falls into the category of "Confession" in supervision.  The deed has been done and the supervisee doesn't know what to do next.  In many cases there is hopefully no lasting damage, but some confessions are serious, such as sexual misconduct or breaking the law, and as supervisors we have to be clear as to our duties and responsibilities.  That can feel heavy at times. 

Then we have the "Near Misses", when the counsellor came close to disaster, but managed to avoid it.  Frequently this is one of the issues that a supervisee will decide not to bring to supervision... after all, they got away with it!  A classic example is when an over-tired counsellor manages to double-book two difficult clients who, she suddenly realises with horror, are both about to arrive on her doorstep at the same time.  And then one rings through to cancel!  Phew!  A truly safe supervision environment will enable the counsellor to be open and honest and this is most likely to address self-care and produce safe practice. As supervisors we can only work with what a counsellor brings to us - and it's the material they don't bring that can often be the most interesting! 

Another category is "Anticipatory Anxiety" - what might happen - and this fearfulness is particularly common in inexperienced counsellors and trainees.   "What if my client dissociates and I can't get her back?"  "What if she tells me about some awful child abuse she suffered, and I can't bear to hear it?"  "What if he sues me?" 

The way a supervisor handles these kinds of issues depends on a number of factors.  How well trained they themselves are for starters, both as counsellors and supervisors.  More and more supervisors are training to Diploma level now, realising that times are changing and we need to be up to date with current legal and ethical guidelines, and to keep growing and developing professionally.  

Let's take a look at some supervisors you may have met.  (Please note that the names are purely for alliterative purposes and do not relate to anyone I know!)  The quotes are taken from 30 responses to a supervision questionnaire sent out to around 65 Christian counsellors with varying experience.  Ages ranged from 33 to 73; most were qualified but the survey included a small number of Diploma students still in training.

Scary Mary

Scary Mary is an accredited supervisor with high standards of practice.  She worries a great deal when her supervisees make mistakes, and is very anxious to ensure that they understand the seriousness of what they have done, and to make sure they Never Do It Again.  She is very caring at heart, but her manner makes it difficult for her supervisees to make confession.  They feel like they are in the Headmistress's study, bringing back memories from school, longing for a gold star but fearing rebuke.

One respondent writes:

"When chastised by a past supervisor, and hearing their views more than mine, I started to hide issues and would use the sessions to ask her how she was (total manipulative avoidance).  I did not offload and ended up unable to cope."

Gaie Houston (1995) emphasises the point that good supervisors don’t shame their supervisees!

“Hiding embarrassing errors from your supervisor is unethical and also a waste of time and money and not in the client’s interest.  If the relationship is based on inferiority, superiority and perfectionism, then the repetitive patterns of childhood experiences could be very detrimental to the client work with shame informing what work is shared and what is hidden.”

Rigid Rhona

Rhona has been working as a supervisor for over 10 years although she has never done any further supervision training since she did a couple of modules on what was then a Level 3 diploma course.  She tells her supervisors that no amount of training can replace experience and at her age she doesn’t need any more certificates, thank you very much.  She sticks rigidly to a purist psychodynamic model and is dismissive of integrative ways of working.  When one of her supervisees tells her she’d like to do some Sensorimotor training, she tells her it’s not necessary and would be a waste of money.  (Rigid Rhona knows this would be way beyond her own knowledge and experience to supervise, but can’t own up to that.)  One of the problems is that she is one of the few Christian supervisors in her area, and although her supervisees find her difficult, and sense that they might one day leave her behind in their own training and experience, there isn’t much choice in that part of the country.

A respondent wrote:

“My supervisor is very fixed in her own model and doesn’t always approve of creative interventions so I don’t always share what I have done.  I do find she likes the one-up position and doesn’t always take into account my own opinions.  I would never share anything personal with her as she doesn’t think it should affect the business, so that part is difficult.” 

There was a time when supervisors were just ‘good counsellors’, with years of experience like Rhona.  While it is not essential that we find a supervisor who shares an identical counselling model to our own, a serious clash of models can inhibit good supervision and is unlikely to be helpful.  Times are changing however and it is important that supervisors change with them.  There are now literally hundreds of counselling models and while we clearly don’t have to be experts in them all, a good supervisor will not impose their own way of working onto a supervisee, but seek to understand, empathically and with professionalism, other ways of practising.  Ongoing training should be as much a priority for supervisors as for counsellors so that we keep growing and developing together.  

A good supervisor wears a number of hats at different times, including supporter, manager and trainer.  This should be a healthy balance and if a supervisee needs extended counselling or training, that’s not the supervisor’s job.  Without question the dominant atmosphere in the supervisory room should be warm and empathic, oozing the Core Conditions.   Hawkins and Shohet (2012) describe it as the equivalent of ‘pithead time’ - “for those that work on the coal face of personal distress, disease and fragmentation.”  In other words, supervision should be a safe place where we can de-stress and clean ourselves up after a hard day’s counselling – not a place where we come away ashamed at how inadequate we are.

Dual Role Donna

Donna is an enthusiastic Christian counsellor and supervisor who loves her work.  She is warm and engaging, and tends to form close relationships with her clients and supervisees. She particularly likes her Friday supervisee who comes at 6pm, and often suggests that she stay on for dinner.  While she maintains she would never do such a thing with active clients, she is aware that she would love to be friends with some of them once therapy is over, and when she intimates this, they are delighted and agree that this is a great idea.  Donna gets a warm glow from thinking how wonderful it is, all being Christians...

The Christian world is a relatively small one and dual roles and overlaps are common, and this whole question of ‘friendship’ is one which often crops up in the supervision room.  While we would never endorse having the same person as both your counsellor and supervisor, there are other areas of overlap which occur.  Consider the following questions, for instance, with a supervisor’s hat on:

Q:  If I am your Agency Manager, is it helpful to also be your 1:1 supervisor, and/or group supervisor?  

One of the respondents picked up this point:

"My centre manager is also my supervisor.  He listens to me well and takes on board my concerns in supervision.  However I am aware of being hesitant to say I am dissatisfied or have problems with the way things are being dealt with at the agency because I know he is the one who put things in place."

Any dual role which means we cannot be transparent in such a key relationship needs to be addressed openly.  The more we are hiding, the more precarious the work becomes, and the person most likely to suffer ultimately is the client.  Manager-Supervisors should take responsibility in this area to generate an atmosphere of openness and honesty.

Q:  If I was your tutor on your Diploma course, how long a gap should I leave before becoming your supervisor... or even your counsellor?  When do I stop being ‘teacher’? (This year?... next year? ... some time? ... never?)

Q:   How long a gap should be left before a counsellor engages with a client after finishing therapy when they are both counsellors? Does it make a difference if the client came pretty much to cover the 40 required therapy hours for her training course, or was in therapy for three years working on core Attachment needs?  

The answer is usually yes, it can make a difference, and to lay down hard and fast rules can arouse a chorus of dissent.  Professional guidelines suggest that it can take around six months to two years (Statute Law) to leave the counselling relationship behind.  There is a danger of causing great confusion in clients if they try to adapt too quickly to being friends or colleagues after therapy ends.  As they begin to see their counsellor in different settings and in other relationships the transference issues may intensify and it can get very messy.  For some it will need longer than two years, for others, less time (Case Law).  

Supervisors need to have a clear understanding of the dynamics and should help their supervisees take responsibility in protecting past and present clients in complex situations, while having enough flexibility to adopt a pragmatic approach if appropriate.  This calls for wisdom!  While the counsellor clearly knows more than we do about the client, we bring objectivity and the ability to ‘helicopter’ over the counselling room to see if we can spot unconscious dynamics that might be playing out and help avoid disasters.

Hopefully Dual Role Donna’s own Supervisor is able to talk this through with her and help her see things more clearly.  Let’s hope she also has a Supervisor for Supervision to talk through those Friday evening meals with her supervisee as well!

Unsupportive Ursula 

I like to think that Unsupportive Ursula is a rare specimen in the counselling world.  In my survey, most of the completed questionnaires testified to empathic, available supervisors and the majority of respondents were happy with the level of support they were receiving.  But we have to acknowledge that this is not always the case.  A friend of mine recently had a formal complaint made against her by a difficult client, a profoundly stressful situation even when a counsellor has excellent support.  The professional body (not ACC) activated their complaints procedure which involved asking for the supervisor's report and recommending her attendance at the hearing.  

The counsellor writes:

"My supervisor [immediately] attacked me, then >dumped' me, cancelling 6 months' appointments ahead, and refusing to attend the hearing, leaving me on my own.  Lack of care and empathy has been almost non-existent. What had appeared to be a close relationship did not stand the test:  it was fraudulent." 

We may be shocked by this, but it may help us to check that our current supervisor is professionally trained, hopefully to diploma level, and aware of the litigious climate in which we live.   Are they willing to support you if a complaint is made against you? This is not about creating a climate of fear, but about making sure that you, as a counsellor, have your >team' in place.  There are times when you really need your supervisor to step up to the mark and hold you securely in difficult situations.  I know: I've been there, and I am pleased to say that in my case my supervisor was very supportive, as were ACC.

Stuck Supervision

If supervision sessions have become ‘boring’, as one respondent testified, where does the problem lie?  Problems in the supervisory relationship itself may be the cause; the counsellor and/or the supervisor may need more training.  The work may just have become stale.  One of the questions on the supervision survey addressed the ‘five-year’ guideline for moving on to a different supervisor, and a significant number of respondents felt that they shouldn’t be made to do this if the relationship was working well.  I sensed for others it would be a brilliant excuse to finish unsatisfactory supervision without upsetting their supervisor!  

That in itself is food for thought:  how honest are we all being with one another?  Can you tell your Supervisor you are dissatisfied with the sessions and want more than what has become a catch-up chat once a month?  

Good supervision should be lively, relevant and vibrant, with both supervisor and supervisee contributing to making the most of a great opportunity.  A good supervisor can address Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximinal Development’ concept – helping and guiding the supervisee to grow beyond the limits of their safety zone into their budding areas of growth and potential.  We should all come out of a supervision session further on than when we went in.  

Page and Wosket (2001), in their Cyclical Model, suggest that the ‘Space’ of the supervision is 

“...the heart of the supervision process, the part of supervision in which reflection, exploration, recognition, insight and understanding occur.  Within this space new possibilities can emerge, that which is blocked can be released, the counsellor can be heard and understood and go forward with new vigour and courage...”

And while we’re at it, to help this happen at a deeper level, why not get creative?

Creative Supervision

Creative interventions in supervision can perk things up and bring fresh perspectives.  Here are just a few ideas to get you going.

-  Draw your client as a fish then put yourself in the picture. This is an excellent idea from Mouli Lahad (2000) which has led to many an entertaining episode in both supervision sessions and training courses!

-  Use shells, stones, buttons, puppets or animals to symbolise yourself as a counsellor, and your client. Explore the dynamics.

-  Bring your client into the room – show me, the supervisor, how they walk, sit, what they say.  Get into their shoes and enrol as them.  I will play you, the therapist – give me the lines to say.

I remember vividly one time we did this intervention on a training course.  I got Jack, one of the students, to bring his client ‘into the room’ for us, and we were stunned to find out he was extremely tall, wore a formal suit and carried a large black Bible to every session!  None of this had come through at any stage in the case work, and it began to shed significant light on some aspects of Jack’s relationship with him!


Super supervision does not always come automatically and we need to keep continually getting better at what we do.  The world is changing and we need to be up to date, professionally, legally and ethically, and with regard to the challenging issue of diversity.  I want to re-emphasise my personal view that ongoing training should be a high priority for supervisors and we should not be resting on the laurels of out of date quasi-qualifications from years ago.  In addition to widening our reading and going on training courses, the vast resources of the internet are also there to help.  (I now have my iPad in all supervision sessions so that we can look things up there and then!)  

When the first edition of Supervision in the Helping Professions was published in 1989 it became a landmark textbook which saw a change in the way supervision was viewed in our profession.  In his introduction to the 2012 edition, Michael Carroll writes that supervision has moved from “an inherited role, where an experienced practitioner automatically became a supervisor, to ...a profession in its own right demanding training, specific skills and capability.” He adds that supervisors are “no longer ‘to the manor born’ – they now have to earn the right to supervise.” 

Let’s be prepared to take up this challenge!

Pauline Andrew is an ACC accredited counsellor and supervisor.  She is co-Director of Deep Release with her husband, Dr Chris Andrew, and she is also Managing Director of Barnabas Counselling Training.  She teaches the Level 4 Counselling Diploma, and Level 5 Supervision Diploma, and runs regular Supervision CPD courses. 

This article was first published in the Association of Christian Counsellors magazine ACCORD in April 2013



Daniels, H. (2005) Introduction to Vygotsky.  London: Routledge. 
Hawkins, P. & Shohet, R.  4th Edition (2012) ‘Supervision in the Helping Professions’.  London: Open University Press
Houston, G. (1995) Supervising and Counselling, New Revised Edition.  London: The Rochester Foundation 
Lahad, M. (2000).  The Use of Expressive Arts Methods in Supervision and Self-Supervision.  London:  Jessica Kingsley
Page, S. & Wosket, V. (2001)  Supervising the Counsellor:  A Cyclical Model. London: Routledge