What does supervision cover?

This is the first of four articles I have written on supervision. In each, I answer a question I’ve set myself in order to reflect on my understanding of supervision. The answers are not set in stone and I hope they continue to evolve in response to the individuals and groups with whom I am working. 

What does supervision cover?

There are many definitions of supervision within talking therapies, across the helping professions and beyond. The author of BACP’s information sheet on supervision writes that; ‘The supervisor’s goal is “to do whatever seems most likely to send the other person away more aware, more informed, skilled and encouraged than she was when she came in’ (Houston 1990, cited in Dispenser, 2011 : 1).

In contexts where training and assessment is covered in supervision, Hawkins and Shohet (2013 : 65) stress the importance of having a transparent contract, one where supervisor and supervisee are clear about what is being requested and what is being offered. They (ibid.) identify four categories of supervision: tutorial supervision, training supervision, managerial supervision and consultancy supervision and remind us that the focus of each category has a different mix of the developmental, resourcing and qualitative functions of supervision. 

1. The developmental function focuses on learning. I see that learning being shaped by goals identified by the supervisee and his / her experiences (past and present) on which knowledge will continue to be built. I believe it is a supervisor’s task to work with supervisers towards their goals, helping them reflect on what and how they are learning. 

2. The restorative function focuses on the personhood of the supervisee. Carroll (2014) describes the supervisor ‘as one who offers a place and space to recoup, revitalise and re-energise oneself as supervisee.’ Carroll (2014 : 88). In his chapter on the subject he advocates coaching supervisees in eight learning skills/competencies (quoted below), that will help them get started in supervision and also will help them keep going. They are learning:

• ‘how to learn’ i.e. how you learn best and how to create the best learning conditions

• ‘from experience’ i.e. noticing and reflecting on your experiences

• ‘how to give and receive feedback’ 

• ‘realistic self-evaluation’ i.e. self-supervision

• ‘how to reflect’

• ‘emotional awareness’ i.e. noticing, reflecting, articulating and trusting your feelings and the feelings of others without judging them as good or bad 

• ‘to dialogue’ because conversation is the heart of supervision and therapy

• ‘how to care for self’ i.e. noticing and doing what you need to to stay well and discovering strategies and building networks of help you to stay well.

The development of all these skills would be part of any conversation in supervision. I believe that, learning how to reflect is the doorway to the other skills listed above. Reflectiveness requires openness in three forms (Thompson, 2008 : 28). The first is openness to our knowledge being challenged and scrutinised. The second is open mindedness where we welcome suggestions and relevant information and allow experiences to become part of our thinking. Finally there is openness to learning, which means a willingness to learn from mistakes and as well as being open to what we do well. 

3. The qualitative function focuses on quality control. However this task does not, in my view, come about through policing the work supervisees present. Though the term supervisor has connotations of controlling or monitoring, I see the responsibility for quality as a joint effort. I ask supervisees “How would you like me to help you in the management of yourself and your work to ensure that you are practising at your best?”. Implicit in this question is my belief that this is something that interests supervisees and I trust that their answers and reflections will begin to address issues of quality and ethics. 


Carroll, M. (2014) Effective supervision for the helping professions. London: Sage

Dispenser, S. (2011) What is supervision? Lutterworth: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Hawkins, P. and Shohet, R. (2012) Supervision in the helping professions, 4th edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press / McGraw-Hill (first published 1989)

Thompson, S., & Thompson, N. (2008). The critically reflective practitioner. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

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