1 - Supervision: a way of life
The final of the world logging competition was between a Canadian and a Norwegian. Their task was straightforward: each had a sector of the forest; whoever could fell the most timber between 8am and 4pm would be the winner.
At 8am sharp, the whistle blew, and they set to. It seemed they chopped stroke for stroke until, at 8.50am, the Canadian heard the Norwegian stop. Sensing his chance, the Canadian redoubled his efforts.
At 9am, the Canadian heard the Norwegian start chopping again. Once more it seemed as if they chopped stroke for stroke until, at 9.50am, the Canadian heard the Norwegian stop. Again, the Canadian continued, determined to make the most of his opponent’s weakness. At the stroke of 10am, the Norwegian started chopping again. At 10.50am, the Norwegian paused once more. The Canadian scented victory and continued his steady rhythm.
And so it went on throughout the day. Every hour, at 10 minutes to the hour, the Norwegian would stop and the Canadian would continue. At the end of the contest, at 4pm, the Canadian was supremely confident the prize was his.
He was very surprised to find that he had lost.
‘How did you do that?’ he asked the Norwegian. ‘Every hour, at 10 minutes to the hour, I heard you stop. How could you have cut more timber than me?’
‘Simple,’ replied the Norwegian. ‘Every hour when I stopped and you continued, I was sharpening my axe.’ (Owen, 2001: 141)
We see supervision as a way of life. As we stand back and find a different perspective on the work we do, we learn skills that can apply to all aspects of our lives. What we have seen in ourselves and others is that, when we are most stuck, we can most grow if we have a space to reflect with another who will both support and challenge us. We would love everyone to have this opportunity, regardless of the work they do. As the story above demonstrates, when we take time out, we can return to work with new clarity and ease.
In this book we are describing our work as supervisors, supervisees and trainers of supervisors. We share techniques and exercises and also some of the philosophy behind our work. By doing so, we hope to inspire you to say, in the immortal words from the film When Harry Met Sally: ‘I’ll have some of what she’s having.’
The idea of taking space to reflect is, for many, still quite radical, although less so now than in the mid-1970s, when we first started this work. Now mindfulness, reflective practice, coaching, counselling, therapy and supervision – all of which to different degrees encourage reflection – have become more established. However, we wonder if that acceptance has come at a price. In any movement, after a period of initiation, charisma and pioneering, there comes an impulse to put the original ideas into some formula. And in doing so, some of the freshness is lost. It also means that a certain orthodoxy can creep in, and structures develop to ensure that guidelines and rules are being kept. This is neither bad nor good; it is just how things develop. We want here to share some of the original inspiration that drove our work.
This reflection takes place through a conversation with another or others. Supervision is a very particular kind of conversation but, as in any conversation or relationship, there are factors that can help to make it more easeful and useful, and some that might contribute to one or both parties holding back. We teach different techniques for facilitating the supervisory relationship, but ultimately good relationship goes beyond technique and what emerges is fresh from being in the moment together. As psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler writes in her book Life-Changing Conversations: ‘True dialogue is, in its best moments, techniqueless’ (2012: 6). Our wish is for both supervisor and supervisor to feel free to express themselves and, from the quality of their presence together, make the space for something new and perhaps life-changing to emerge.
We see the book as relevant to all supervisors and supervisees, no matter what their experience. Viktor Frankl (1946/2004) described freedom as the capacity to pause between stimulus and response. We see supervision as a way of familiarising ourselves with that pause, so we can listen at a deep level – listen, in fact, to the spaces between the notes as well as to the notes. In the same way that we practise this in supervision, we can apply this too to other aspects of our lives.
A graduate from our courses told us that the most important thing she had learned was to trust herself. It is what we would want for anyone and goes beyond supervision, into our lives. In describing our courses, which are very largely experiential, our wish is to show how to create some of the conditions for that trusting of self to happen. Since the 1970s, when we started, research, books, courses, models and theories on supervision have mushroomed, and there is a potential pressure for a novice – or even experienced – supervisor to feel they have to know the field; a pressure to try ‘to cover the world with leather’ rather than ‘wear your own sandals’. This does not preclude knowing more about the field, but it reminds us that we take ourselves wherever we go and that this is a process that never ends, however experienced we are. In the following section, we will say a little about the selves we are taking with us.
Therapeutic community background
We met in 1976, at a half-way house for people coming mainly out of psychiatric hospital. It was run as a therapeutic community and was part of an organisation called the Richmond Fellowship, which at the time had 21 such houses all over England and Scotland, mostly for people leaving hospital, but also for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. The founder, Elly Jansen, was a pioneer. She took the Mental Health Act of 1959, which advocated treating mental illness in the community, and acted on it by setting up these therapeutic communities. The particular house we were helping to run was the senior staff training house, where staff from other houses were sent for training. This included how to introduce a supervision policy in their own houses. So, as well as doing supervision ourselves, we had to have a clear idea of how to teach it to others.
There were four of us, all in our 20s, in the senior staff team. We were responsible for 24 residents and a staff team of 12, if we included trainees from other houses and students on placement. We were able to create processes for running community meetings for up to 40 people, as well as theme groups, therapy groups and work groups (where the residents were taught practical skills in preparation for their re-entry into so-called normal life), learning groups for staff and case-study meetings, and for providing counselling and, of course, supervision. We instinctively knew that we needed to model taking care of ourselves and one of the ways we did this was through individual and group supervision. This taking care of ourselves resourced us for the job of providing a safe container in which the residents could heal and learn to take care of themselves. In taking responsibility for our own self-care, we modeled the residents taking responsibility for themselves and each other. What we learnt there has stood us in good stead throughout our working lives, and we are immensely grateful to all those who participated in our time there. I (Robin) think that I would probably have burnt out were it not for my regular supervision, and my subsequent work is partly motivated to give back what I received.
The 1970s was a time of great excitement, therapeutically. We would liaise with other therapeutic movements and bring back the learning to our team. It was a time of anti-psychiatry, the Cassell Hospital, the Henderson Hospital, the Arbours Association, and the Philadelphia Association founded by RD Laing, all run as communities. Laing wrote extensively on schizophrenia and suggested that so-called mad people were more sane that supposedly sane people, as they saw through the madness of society. The ideas that floated around were very optimistic – that therapy could be done outside the mental hospitals, in communities, and with specialist crisis intervention teams. Family therapy was taking off, to replace what was seen as outdated one-to-one analysis, and all sorts of new therapies were crossing the Atlantic from the US. It was the beginning of the growth movement and our residents benefitted (or not, as the case may be) from being rebirthed, psychodramatised and Gestalted.
And yet there were gaping holes in what we did. Sexual abuse had not emerged as a likely causative factor in psychiatric problems, and there was one resident who, in retrospect, we think was either consciously or unconsciously trying to tell us about her abuse as we look back and try to decode what at the time we thought of as ‘psychotic imagery’. How many others did we miss because of our ignorance? We will never know.
We, with Peter Hawkins, left the Richmond Fellowship in 1979 and went on to form the Centre for Supervision and Team Development, where we were later joined by Peter’s wife, Judy Ryde. In about 2008, after 30 years, we two couples went our separate ways, but much of the content of our courses was formed together.
Aged 14, I picked up one of my father’s books on psychology and knew immediately I wanted to work in that field. A futile attempt to go into the family business of law was quickly aborted and, at university, I changed courses to read psychology. However, before I joined the Richmond Fellowship in my late 20s, I had two experiences that have shaped all my work.
The first was eating cannabis – eaten because I did not smoke – in Israel, at the age of 21. I went psychotic for a couple of hours and was worried that the police would come and cart me off to hospital or, worse, prison for having this illegal substance. Then I suddenly heard myself say, ‘There is no fear. The fear is inside me.’ What ensued was complete peace, which lasted for weeks. I saw that, regardless of what was happening externally, fear was much more of an ‘inside job’ than I had realised. I was at the time in my final year at university and I refused to do a project on psychological measurement, and instead wrote 50 quotes on love, saying that love was the only intervention that made sense to me and it could not be measured. I look back and ask myself how I had the nerve and got away with it. The psychotic experience was, however, very useful in my work with the residents in the therapeutic community as I was able to describe psychosis from my own experience. Later, I overheard two residents in the therapeutic community talking to each other about me, saying, ‘He’s one of us.’ I took this as a huge compliment.
The other experience was of going to India in the search of Truth (a very 1970s thing to do) and finding it (or something, anyway) in a way I did not expect – namely, through an attack of hepatitis. As I lay in hospital in Sri Lanka, my money stolen, no means to contact anyone, with a temperature of 104°, I thought I might die there, alone. I noticed that I had no fear. I woke up again in complete peace and left hospital against the advice of the doctors but feeling an inner strength that I knew would see me through.
I crashed soon after, and realised I was going through what is called a ‘spiritual bypass’ – that is, avoiding my psychological problems by trying to transcend them with spirituality. So, I went into therapy. From there I found the Richmond Fellowship, luckily (and only just) as a staff member, not a resident.
Since then, there numerous experiences have contributed to the courses we run. In the 1980s I discovered a book called A Course in Miracles (Foundation for Inner Peace, 1996) of which a central tenet is that everything comes from love or fear. This echoes the biblical statement in 1 John 4:18: ‘Perfect Love casteth out fear.’ The lessons in this book have been one of the inspirations for the courses I run on ‘Love and Fear in Supervision’.
The other huge influence has been The Work of Byron Katie,1 who suffered extreme problems with depression and paranoia (are psychiatric problems an entry requirement into this work I wonder?) until one day she awoke and realised that all her thinking had been not true. She developed a line of inquiry, which she teaches all over the world, that asks us to investigate our thinking. You will see her form of Socratic questioning appear particularly in the ‘Love and Fear in Supervision’ workshop description. Her ideas are quite radical in that they ask us to question absolutely everything. I am Robin, a supervisor, a son, a man, a father – is that true? Don’t take anything for granted. In the stripping away of concepts, beliefs, identities, something new and fresh can emerge.
These experiences, and many others, have reinforced my wish to sit outside mainstream thinking. It took me a while to realise that much of mainstream thinking scared me. I saw it as leading to a conformity that could result in mass psychosis, as in Nazi Germany or Rwanda, and I had plenty of my own to cope with, thank you very much. Belonging implied conformity and, for better or worse, I could not go that route, although again I have been humbled to discover that I am far more conforming than I wanted to believe. Nevertheless, some of our work does sit outside the mainstream, and we invite you to be open to it, even when you do not always agree with us, and see if there is anything that could be of use to you.
Finally, a friend once (quite scathingly) remarked. ‘If it moves, Robin will supervise it.’ I believe that being a supervisor fits my temperament. I have a need to understand situations from different perspectives. For me, supervision creates a space in which we can inquire into human behaviour on many levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, intergroup, organisational and societal. All of these are, I believe, encompassed by a spiritual approach in which we have the opportunity to go past a sense of separateness, past the problems by which we and others are defined, and reach a deeper truth where we recognise our interconnectedness.
I have worked as supervisor for more than 45 years and will probably continue doing it for the rest of my life, in some way or another, as it is where I feel most myself. The seven-eyed framework, which we developed in the 1980s, reflects in many ways how I perceive life. The place you are looking from influences what you see, and there are many angles from which to look at any person, situation, theory or opinion. The model invites a looking at the whole system within which any relationship or interaction is happening.
I have seen the world systemically as long as I can recall. I remember, at primary school, one boy, Colin, was put in the corner most days for being naughty. I somehow knew that he was getting into trouble for our naughtiness, as well as his own, although I couldn’t have put it into words.
To paraphrase the poet David Whyte (2001), we are always standing on the shoulders of our ancestors: He writes: ‘Our work is a measure not only of our own lives, but of all those who came before us and created the world we inherit’ (p92).
And as I write this, and consider my early life and family, I think I am beginning to catch sight of why I am a supervisor.
I was born by Caesarean section and spent my first three weeks of life in hospital, in the nursery, being brought to my mother only for feeding. That was the thinking in those days. I was my mother’s first live birth. Previously she had had two miscarriages and her first child, a boy, died an hour after his birth because she had been refused an elective Caesarean (prescribed by her GP) by the hospital, on religious grounds. I was told that, after the death of his son, my father went into the hospital, lifted up the doctor who had refused the Caesarean by his lapels and said, ‘Don’t you ever treat a woman like that again.’ My father died at the age of 32, when I was nearly two and my sister was seven weeks old. I think this precipitated in me a sense of loss combined with a wish to inquire into meaning. Another important event was my half-brother taking his own life when he was 32. I could not help him to detach from his beliefs.
So, as I look back now, I am sensing a pattern emerging of unexamined core beliefs – religious, medical, patriarchal, familial and societal (I was born 22 days after the end of the Second World War) – coupled with fear, denial and faulty thinking, running our family. Supervision and the role of supervisor has given me permission to examine these core beliefs and go anywhere in the service of my own work and of helping to develop other people’s. In my family, work was our survival and also an expression of our creativity, identity and joy. I was born at a time when, because of the war, women could no longer be kept down as second-class citizens; we could no longer be put back in the box, and work was how we were going to stay out of that box, however long it might take.
I see how the time, class and culture I was born into has shaped me and pointed me in certain directions. My siblings and I were the first generation to go to grammar school, and from grammar school the way out into the world was university. I became a social worker. It was the longing for freedom, unavailable to my ancestors, that moved me. I entered social work in the second half of the 1960s, when the humanistic movement was bursting into our world. It was in my first field social work job, in a large mental hospital, that I first experienced reflective, time-to-think supervision on a weekly basis, and found it so essential in terms of what are still its three main foci: management, education and support. I must have breathed it in and seen it as a cornerstone of work-life.
From there, I followed my first husband into residential social work – or, more specifically, a therapeutic community, the Richmond Fellowship. This was a time where there was freedom to re-think ideas, beliefs and perceptions about mental health and mental illness. I stayed there for seven years and the learning was immense. As Robin has described, besides being a therapeutic community, we were the training house for the other residential staff, so we were required to design and deliver programmes for both residents and staff.
At this point I will refer to just one of those learnings. We discovered that, if there was a disturbance around a resident that was causing a problem in the community as a whole, we should not focus on the resident first as the problem. We needed to stop what we were doing, have a staff meeting and look at what we had become unconscious. When we found that, the resident would usually settle. If this did not happen and we couldn’t hold them, we would recognise that it was we who had not grown enough in that area, and we recognised our failure. We hold the same view in relation to the students on our courses. We look to ourselves first, to identify what we might be doing to co-create the block or failure. We will describe our approaches to assessment later in the book. In the therapeutic community, we had to maintain the house physically as well as emotionally, so there were very real boundaries to hold us to account, such as finances, meals, accommodation, the health of our residents and our own, and the consequences if we lost touch with reality.
Writing my story here led me to wonder why I have a job with such an obscure name that is so difficult to describe. About 10 years ago, I was in South Africa, with a South African friend who raised money to support a school for disabled children there. Twice I was asked what I did for a living. The first time I floundered for the words to describe it, saw the blank expression on the face of the person who had asked me, and rapidly changed the subject. The second time I was talking to a man who had been a politician during Apartheid. When he heard what I did, he said, ‘I wish I had had some of that when I was a politician.’ It seems that part of writing this book is to convey what this man had intuitively grasped – namely, supervision’s potential relevance to all walks of life.
Here is my longhand attempt to convey the essence of supervision, taken from Passionate Supervision (Wilmot, 2008: 88):
I am trying to explain the inexplicable. I see supervision as a hologram in which each moment contains everything that needs to be embodied, felt and known. The different worlds of the client, supervisee, supervisor and the outside world are simultaneously mirroring and co creating each other. Supervision offers us the opportunity to become present to that moment of awareness to slow down so that the wound, disturbance or disconnection that seems to be breaking everything and us apart is, instead, the road back home.
I have tried to trace some of the influences on my choice to make supervision part of my life’s work. Of necessity, the description is incomplete. Over the years, my thinking has expanded, but I believe that presence, a wish to enquire, seeing a situation from many perspectives, helping people connect with their passion for work and being able to have good conversations are the essence of supervision, and this is why my enthusiasm is as strong now as it was 45 years ago.
Outline of the book
In the next chapter we outline 23 principles that form the basis of our work. In writing this book, we realised how much the courses have been informed by our life experiences and belief systems. Our wish is to make these explicit and, in doing so, help you, the reader, understand something of the foundations of our courses.
In Part 2 we describe five of the courses that we have been running mostly through the Centre for Supervision and Team Development since 1979. Over the years, we have added to and changed them to fit our current thinking, and no doubt will continue to do so. They are, for the most part, described as if we were talking to the group, and you might like to do some of the exercises with a partner or partners. As well as describing the exercises, we have included some theory, philosophy and experience, to share some of the thinking behind them.2 Some of this can also be found in other books Robin has co-written and edited.2 However, how it is presented here, through the medium of participation in a supervision course, is, as far as we know, new.
We start with a description of our first course, which we call our ‘Core Course’. It is built round the acronym CLEAR, which stands for Contracting, Listening, Exploring, Action and Review. In many ways, the course is about undoing, realising how much baggage we carry into supervision and helping us to let go of what might no longer serve, so that we can approach the work freshly, with what in Zen is called a ‘beginner’s mind’.
The next course we describe is based on the Seven-Eyed Model, devised during our time at the Richmond Fellowship. This is a map of the supervision process, looking at client, supervisee and supervisor and the system in which all are involved. We think this model has stood the test of time because it is, in fact, more of a map than a model, and as such it can be used by supervisors of any theoretical orientation. Over the years, we have added exercises, just as we might add details to a map, but the territory has remained the same. A particular delight for us was when a colleague, Joseph Wilmot, found himself teaching a group of IT workers who had been sent on a one-day supervision course. They thought of supervision as irrelevant to their work. However, he managed to get them very excited about it by framing the organisation’s IT system as their ‘client’ and helping them to see how this ‘client’ was seen by others and how they could help integrate the ‘client’ more into their organisation.
The ‘Group Supervision Course’ developed in part out of a supervision group for trainees that Robin ran back in 1978. He just assumed that the way to work was with the here-and-now responses of the group to the material that was being presented by the supervisee. Over the years, we have expanded the range of skills and interventions, but the here-and-now responses of the group remain the foundation on which the other techniques are built. We include material on group dynamics, highlighted by exploring difficult situations in supervision groups. We emphasise the importance of safety in group supervision – we have found that, when there is a clear contract and structure, the wisdom inherent in the group is free to emerge. In the final day of the group course, we expand the focus to look at supervision in organisations.
The ‘Advanced Course’ is the final three days of the 12-day training and is run as a learning community where some of the sessions are run by the students. Much of the content of the first two days of this course involves the use of video and a technique called Interpersonal Process Recall (IPR), and in delivering it we continually learn new ways of deepening the experience for us and our students. We describe the source of this work and why we make it such a central feature of the course.
After students have completed the four courses and delivered 50 hours of supervision and received 10 hours of supervision on their supervision, they arrange with us the first of two individual tutorials to embark on their certificate process. In the first tutorial they review the training and their supervision practice, and we go through together the inquiry form described in Chapter 7. They will complete this with a supervisor, two supervisees and a colleague. In the second tutorial they share the results of these conversations. We have found that the conversations they have had almost invariably deepen their relationships with all four people.
The last workshop described, ‘Fear and Love in Supervision’ (Chapter 8), is usually a one-day course and contains many of the exercises we have developed over the years. It implicitly outlines a philosophy of relationships that go well beyond supervision. Robin has described above a little of how he came to his ideas about love and fear, and on this course we look at how fear can creep into the supervisory relationship, overtly or quite subtly. By shining the light of awareness on some of the fears, course participants – supervisors and supervisees – find themselves more willing to take risks with each other, thereby strengthening their relationship, which, as we have said, we believe forms the core of our work
Next, Chapter 9, ‘The Beast from the East’, describes a bespoke course where the same students did all four modules together. There were times when we thought the course would implode. This chapter mostly comprises accounts written by the students on the course, and is included here as an example of how failure, which we would consciously seek to avoid at all costs, can lead to transformation.
We have labeled the final, concluding chapter in this section (and the book) ‘Beyond otherness’, to suggest that, if we go beyond individuality and recognise our interconnectedness, this will lead us naturally into relationship and community. As such, the concept of what we have called ‘interbeing’ can act as a powerful resource in a fragmented world, and we have put this idea into practice by setting up the Interdependent Supervisors Network, as a community of supervisors. We end with a quote from one of the founders of humanistic psychology in Britain, John Rowan, which reminds us of the spiritual potential in supervision.
Finally, this brings on to why we have decided to write this book. To put it bluntly, we would like everyone, no matter what their work, to have a space to reflect. As Carroll (2011: 19) writes:
Reflection is the ability to examine, to observe, to look at, to review, to evaluate, to interrogate, to assess, to question and to own our own thinking.
As the story about the woodcutting competition shows, on efficiency grounds alone, it works. But we believe a space to reflect can reduce burnout and restore joy and creativity to our work, which occupies so much of all our time. So, we would like to be part of spreading the idea as widely as possible.
If we see part of the work of supervision as a way of helping the supervisee be present with their client, and in their work generally, then we give ourselves permission to go wherever we and the supervisee might think is relevant to achieve this aim. We particularly focus on how our core beliefs can stop us being present, and as such interfere with our work. Our focus is to examine the thinking and emotional ground behind behaviour and choices.
So, besides offering some practical exercises, we wish to see people giving themselves freedom in their work. This may mean uncovering some of the ways that we restrict ourselves, whatever the outside circumstances. Many of the beliefs that we hold have been swallowed unconsciously and limit us more than perhaps we realise. By bringing them into consciousness, we can free ourselves and therefore, potentially, our supervisees and clients. For this reason, we say that supervision is more than just supervision; it is a way of enquiry that has relevance to all aspects of our lives. Bill Shankley, the late manager of Liverpool FC, was asked if he thought football was a matter of life and death. He replied: ‘It’s more important than that.’ We feel the same about supervision.
In these descriptions of our work from the last 40 years and more, we hope some of our sheer delight in supervising and training supervisors comes through. We have been fortunate in that, by and large, we were free to forge our own path around supervision, as it was still in its infancy. Now that the field has ‘grown up’, we want to transmit some of that original sense of discovery and excitement, and share why, even after all these years, we still want to go on supervising and teaching. We say that we would like to live more often as we find ourselves being in supervision: non-judgmental, curious and playful. We teach what we need to learn.
Carroll M (2011). Supervision: a journey of lifelong learning. In: Shohet R (ed) (2011). Supervision as Transformation: a passion for learning. London: Jessica Kingsley (pp14–28).
Foundation for Inner Peace (1996). A Course in Miracles. New York, NY: Viking penguin.
Frankl V (1946/2004). Man’s Search for Meaning. London: Rider.
Hawkins P, Shohet R (2012). Supervision in the Helping Professions (4th ed). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Owen D, Shohet R (eds) (2012). Clinical Supervision in the Medical Profession. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Owen N (2001). The Magic of Metaphor. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.
Rozenthuler S (2012). Life-Changing Conversations. London: Watkins.
Whyte D (2001). Crossing the Unknown Sea: work as a pilgrimage of identity. New York, NY: Riverhead.
Wilmot J (2008). The Supervisory Relationship: a life-long calling. In: Shohet R (ed). Passionate Supervision. London: Jessica Kingsley (pp88–110).
1. www.thework.com (accessed 13 September 2019).
2. See Supervision in the Helping Professions (Hawkins & Shohet, 2012), Passionate Supervision (Shohet, 2008), Supervision as Transformation (Shohet, 2011) and Clinical Supervision in the Medical Profession (Owen & Shohet, 2012).