This question emerged from a discussion during a recent meeting of the BACP Coaching Executive team, and the quotes throughout this article reflect our various responses. I use a structure here that is loosely based on the Cyclical Model1, from a supervisee perspective.
Stage one: selecting
If we are going to take part in excellent supervision, we need a very good fit between our current needs as a supervisee and the supervision support we put in place. It can sometimes be challenging to find one supervisor with whom we can achieve this, particularly if we are working in more than one modality; separately as a coach and therapist for instance, or in diverse settings.
Unsurprisingly, over half the members of our Executive team are currently taking part in more than one supervision arrangement. Between us, we undertake individual supervision, group supervision and peer supervision, sometimes for counselling or therapy work, sometimes for coaching and sometimes for dual coach-therapy. Some of us are also supervisors, trainers and consultants and may have specialist supervision for one or more of these professional activities. What was apparent in all the responses was a determination to find and make full use of supervision that really works.
I am in favour of BACP’s requirement of all its practising members to have continual supervision.2 However, everything casts a shadow, and in my view, one consequence of this supervision requirement is that it can engender a degree of passivity in the supervisee, as though the mere act of turning up to supervision somehow ‘fulfils’ the requirement. As a supervisor, I know when a supervisee is fully committed to what we are doing; there is energy and curiosity in the room and we share enthusiasm for our task. I know then that the supervisee is taking responsibility for their learning: ‘It’s not in any way about being accountable to the supervisor but about being accountable to myself.’ As a supervisor, it becomes my task to challenge the supervisee if I feel they are less than fully engaged in our work together.
I choose a range of supervisors to meet my broad practice needs, who are at the top of their game and are full of challenge. Although I sometimes find this tough, I know it means I am constantly learning and growing.
One change I made a while back that has made a big difference to what I get from supervision is ringfencing around an hour the day before, to prepare. I think about what themes I want to bring, which clients need attention, and any practical issues I’d like to discuss.
If I find myself thinking, “Shall I take that? Oh, I probably don’t need to”, that’s invariably the thing I make myself take, along with other things I actually want to take!
Stage two: preparing
Preparing for the supervision session may involve reviewing all current work; thinking about every client; reading through notes; answering specific questions; going back over notes from previous sessions; paying attention to recurring themes or areas of discomfort; noticing what we feel reluctant to discuss with our supervisor and perhaps just pondering the forthcoming supervision over a cup of tea, noticing what comes into our mind, heart and gut as we do so.
These are all active, intentional preparations, getting ready for something important and of value. They vary in methodology because each practitioner has developed an approach to preparing for supervision that works for them. Among our team, most describe how their preparation for supervision has become significantly deeper and more detailed over time. As one of my colleagues elegantly put it: ‘The days of rocking up to supervision and thinking, “who/what shall I bring today?” are over.’
Stage three: engaging
It seems to me that there is a curious paradox in preparing for supervision. I know as a supervisee that it is important to put time into preparing, thinking consciously about my practice and what to bring to supervision. And yet the best supervision I receive arrives in those moments when I let go of my planning and allow myself to be lifted and carried by the currents that emerge as the process of supervision takes hold and picks up momentum. But letting go of my planning is not the same as not doing any. The time spent in planning involves bringing my current work to mind and noticing my thoughts, feelings and body responses as I do so. I then go to supervision with this in my awareness, available to be touched by the supervision process.
It feels important to acknowledge the expressions of vulnerability in the team’s responses. I imagine we all know that feeling when we realise we must take something to supervision and it feels really uncomfortable to do so. Perhaps we are already criticising ourselves, perhaps feeling guilty about something overlooked or clumsily handled, perhaps experiencing deeper feelings of shame linked to something in our work with a client but probably touching personal shame lying deep within us. When we work relationally with our clients, aspects of ourselves as people can be exposed and feel on the line. Taking such experiences to supervision requires courage; we have no guarantee that it will turn out well for us. When I have such moments, I find it helps to remind myself that my clients find the courage to tell me about aspects of themselves they would much prefer to keep hidden, so this is one way in which I honour my commitment to them: sharing in being vulnerable.
I find that I can get the most from my supervision when I do not have an agenda or list of things to discuss that reflect on what is lurking in my internal landscape.
I aim to be OK with being vulnerable, expressing things that maybe don't show me in the best light. This can be hard at times.
Stage four: reflecting and acting
I earlier touched upon the temptation to turn up to supervision, start talking about a client and trust that a worthwhile conversation will ensue. Similarly, when supervision is over, it can be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and move on to the next task on the list, or our next appointment.
For the purposes of reflection and action, one of my colleagues uses a series of questions for both her own supervision, and with her supervisees. The first few questions concern the supervision that has just taken place: some questions are about what was discussed and what action the supervisee will take, and others are about how it went and anything they would like their supervisor to do differently.
The second set of questions are completed just prior to the next supervision session. These start with what is currently going well, and move on to ask what the supervisee has done, what they have not done but intend to, what has happened since the last supervision and what they want to bring to the next session. The invitation is to send the completed form to the supervisor in preparation for the next session.
What struck me as particularly creative about this approach is the way it picks up on the post-session reflections and feeds them forward into the next session. It also has the effect of holding the supervisee to account for what they want and what they have done with what emerged in the previous session. Such post-session reflection and preparation for any actions the supervisee intends to take is an important phase of the supervision process that runs between sessions and supports the development and learning of the supervisee.
This [list of questions] helps me really capture my reflections and actions, which is helpful as I sometimes forget them. It also gets me thinking about what is going on for me and what I would like to focus on next time. So I fill out half of it after the session then return to it a couple of days before and fill out the second half and send it to my supervisor.
I am keen to incorporate learning from a variety of angles – from mulling over my philosophy, reflecting on my wellbeing and professional development, as well as my work with individual clients. It can be a jumping-off point for further reading and reflection.
Stage five: review
This final stage doesn’t feature in any of the responses from my colleagues, so I am including this from my own perspective. We started in the first stage with selecting the best supervisors or supervisory experiences for our current needs, in order to support us in our work, hold us to account and facilitate our development as practitioners. So, I think it is important after every supervision session to check in with ourselves that our current supervision is achieving all three of those purposes. If it is not, then we probably need to make a change or give some feedback to our supervisor about what we need more or less of in supervision.
Steve Page is the Executive Specialist for Supervision for BACP Coaching.
1 Page S, Wosket V. Supervising the counsellor and psychotherapist (3rd edition). London: Routledge; 2014.
2 Explicitly set out in BACP’s Ethical Framework and available online at: www.bacp.co.uk/membership/ supervision/ (accessed 2 November 2019).