When clients hear that their counsellor or therapist have supervision, they can sometimes think ‘doesn’t he/she know how to do the job already?’ especially if the counsellor or therapist concerned has, like me, over thirty years of experience behind them. This isn’t surprising because I can’t think of another profession in which regular supervision is an on-going requirement throughout one’s career.
The other assumption, underlying the belief that an experienced therapist should know what they’re doing and therefore not need advice about how to work with their clients, is that this advice/direction is the only thing that happens in supervision. I remember when I was director of a training institute, a question arising from the fact that the course provided the students with supervision, in addition to that offered by their placement. ‘What if one of our supervisors tells the student to do one thing and the course supervisor tells them to do something different?’ asked the placement manager with some concern. Without recounting the rest of the conversation, I’m left, thinking back over it, with an important question as to what the main focus of good therapeutic supervision should be.
If we see psychotherapy/counselling as an expert helping the client to solve their presenting problems, then a parallel model of an expert supervisor advising the therapist on the best way of doing this in each particular case is perhaps appropriate. However, it is becoming increasingly recognised that the most significant element of psychotherapy/counselling is the relationship between the two people involved. This means that, although there may be occasions where there are important technical issues, which need to be discussed, the majority of attention in supervision needs to go towards supporting the therapist in his/her relationship with their client.
Unfortunately, human beings have a tendency to want simple answers to what are sometimes complicated questions. In psychotherapy and counselling these questions usually take the form of, ‘when a client presents with..., what techniques should I use?’ This is often modified to a desire for more information about the problem; either for use by the practitioner themselves or sometimes for a self-help book which their client can read. The Facebook groups for psychotherapists and counsellors of which I am a member frequently contain such requests. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this; information can be empowering for both therapist and client, but I’m concerned that the focus on information fosters the belief that this is all that’s needed. This suggests a model of human beings as completely rational creatures and would mean that we could all put ourselves out of a job by giving our clients self-help books or information leaflets and leaving them to sort their own problems out!
Clearly, most psychotherapists and counsellors don’t have this view of human beings and ‘relational supervision’ could be seen as a possible solution to this tension between the desire for information/technical support and the need for the therapeutic relationship to be supported. However, a brief Google search reveals that most of the results for ‘relational supervision’ are using this term to refer to the relationship between the supervisor and the therapist, rather than that between therapist and client. The relationship between therapist and supervisor is, of course, important and needs to be thought about, but ‘relational supervision’ in my title refers to supervision which is less focused on the technical aspects of psychotherapy and counselling which concentrates more on supporting the practitioner in being in a relationship with their client.
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About Geoff Lamb
Geoff Lamb has been practicing as an integrative psychotherapist and couple counsellor since 1985. He has been involved in counselling training for over thirty years and, until recently, was Director of Inter-Psyche - a counselling training institute based in the NHS, which used a relational model of counselling.