Sunday, August 28, 2011

Making the Most of Supervision

Supervision in the mental health professions is a strange practice. I don't know of any other fields where each student or employee has a designated time each week during which they meet with their supervisor for the purpose of professional development. However, "supervision" is a vague concept that is defined differently in different settings and by different supervisor/supervisee dyads. As a result, it can be hard to know what it's "supposed to" be.

It may help to think about the goals of supervision from both sides of the coin. For the supervisee, supervision is a source of support for what can be very draining work, an opportunity to learn and hone skills, process reactions to clinical challenges, problem-solve and strategize next steps. For the supervisor, supervision is the only opportunity to find out what the supervisee is really doing with clients - how they're thinking and feeling about cases, what interventions they favor, and what they may miss or omit. It's also a chance to convey administrative information, workload and documentation issues, and so on. And last but not least, a way to support supervisees, which keeps morale up, and decreases turnover.

Based on these goals, each member of the dyad should prepare for a supervision session by identifying agenda items. The supervisor may not always have specific things to put on the agenda, if there are no administrative issues at hand, but the supervisee should always have items on his or her agenda:

  • Cases he or she would like help understanding and/or planning interventions
  • Issues of transference and countertransference, or other strong reactions that may affect the work
  • Issues about schedule and workload, time-management and overall stress-level

Each supervisor and supervisee comes to supervision with their unique personalities, varying theoretical orientations, depth of knowledge/expertise, and expectations based on past supervision experiences. Therefore, it's important to begin a new supervisory relationship by discussing what each person is bringing to the relationship, and developing a tentative structure that will work for both parties. It's also important to maintain ongoing communication about how things are working - it's much better to address any issues as they arise, and before they become barriers or points of contention!

Even while talking about the expectations each person brings into the relationship, it's important to try to leave those expectations at the door, recognizing that this supervisory relationship will be different from other experiences of supervision, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. We should also each know our own hot-buttons, and have done our own work to keep ourselves from projecting onto our supervisor/supervisee, or reacting to something other than what's happening in the here and now. The same as when we're working with clients, communication, empathy, and self-awareness are crucial.

What are your tips for making supervision work? Have you had terrific or awful supervision experiences? Have you found ways to turn a not-so-good supervision experience into a productive one?

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