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Everything You Need to Know About Supervision in Counselling

Emma Warren

Emma Warren

Tuesday, 21st April 2020

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“Supervision provides an external space for the therapist to think with another. As the therapist grows in experience, the reflective frame of mind will become more natural and the external space of supervision will become internalised” - Reva Klein.

What is supervision in counselling?

The British Association for Psychotherapy and Counselling (BACP) define supervision as “a specialised form of professional mentoring provided for practitioners responsible for undertaking challenging work with people.”

It is a special relationship, sometimes called the ‘supervisory alliance,’ that exists between one counsellor and another more experienced counsellor who acts as an overseer or ‘supervisor’ of their work from afar. The ‘supervisor’ cannot be present in the room when the counsellor is seeing their client, but rather offers guidance and support ‘by proxy’.

Are there different types of supervision?

Yes, there are many different types of supervision, ranging from one-to-one supervision, where a single supervisor provides supervision for another counsellor, to group supervision, where a designated supervisor acts as leader, taking responsibility for dividing time equally between counsellors, before focusing on the work of each in turn.

In addition, there is also one-to-one co-supervision, where two participants provide supervision for each other, alternating the role of supervisor and counsellor, and dividing time equally between them, and peer supervision.

In peer supervision, three or more counsellors share responsibility for providing each others supervision within the group. An organised peer supervision can count towards CPD and can be a great way of getting extra supervisory support, but usually is not sufficient by itself.

Why is so much importance attached to supervision?

There are many reasons why supervision is considered to be an essential part of a counsellors ongoing practice. Counselling is by its very nature a ‘lonely’ job that can involve little interaction with others outside of the clients themselves.

This means that it can sometimes be difficult to monitor and track progress and stop oneself from getting into ‘bad habits.’ Supervision provides a space for counsellors to properly acknowledge and challenge any blind spots in their practice, overcome biases and think about how they might better handle situations in future.

It encourages regular, ongoing reflection to ensure that counsellors continue working in an ethical, safe and professional way.

Being able to recognise, understand and make use of transference and countertransference in encounters with clients takes a while to develop. Therefore it is essential to have an outside input from someone with more experience, who can sit alongside and help the counsellor become more skilful in recognising their responses.

Being in supervision not only provides greater information about the client and how they are experiencing the counsellor but also increases the counsellors level of self-awareness and confidence.

What do you discuss in counselling supervision?

Like counselling itself, the content of supervision sessions can vary quite considerably. Some supervisors prefer a more structured approach and require supervisees to bring along detailed notes on particular clients, whilst others are more open to seeing what emerges in session. In general, the kinds of topic that might be discussed are things such as:

  • What made the client come into counselling - background, history, recent events
  • The experience of being with the client - in psychodynamic work one looks at how they are being acted on by their client's inner world and what the transference and countertransference are telling them
  • How the counsellor is feeling and why (sometimes this extends to personal wellbeing)
  • How the client is feeling and why

What makes a good counselling supervisor?

Again this is a very personal thing - what works for one person may not work for the next. However, there are certain qualities that one might look for, and hiring a supportive and experienced supervisor is key - particularly for trainees and those first starting out in practice.

Todd & O’Connor use the ‘Four A’s’ to describe what makes an effective supervisor:

Available - open, receptive, trusting, non-threatening
Accessible - easy to approach and speak freely with
Able - having real knowledge and skills to transmit to the supervisee
Affable - pleasant, friendly and reassuring

The supervisor also requires what Hawkins and Shohet called a ‘helicopter ability’. What we mean by this is that they need to be able to focus on the client that is being presented, the supervisee and the ‘here and now,’ all at the same time.

Other desirable qualities might include:

  • Someone who both promotes growth and development and challenges the counsellor to take calculated risks
  • Someone the counsellor feels able to communicate with freely
  • Someone accessible - they need to be available when most needed
  • Someone who respects the counsellor as a fellow peer. The dynamics and focus of the relationship should organically change between being a trainee and becoming a qualified practitioner

As with a counsellor, a good supervisor will be someone who is a good active listener - listening both to what is and what is not said.

How much supervision should a counsellor have?

Ultimately this will depend on what feels right for the counsellor and what is mutually agreed between counsellor and supervisor. It will be driven by where the counsellor is in their career i.e. whether they’re still training or have been qualified for sometime, as well as by how many clients they currently have.

However, most counsellors will also be directed by whatever their ethical framework suggests, for example the BACP state that Accredited Members should have a “Minimum of 1.5 hours per calendar month regardless of number of contracted clients.”

If a counsellor’s caseload grows, they should probably think about increasing frequency of supervision to accommodate this.

Some supervisees and indeed supervisors prefer weekly sessions whilst others may favour slightly longer fortnightly or even monthly sessions. Again, the arrangement has to work for both parties in the relationship.

What is the cost of counselling supervision?

This is difficult to answer because the cost of being in regular supervision will depend on a range of factors such as geographical location; the depth of experience of the Supervisor and whether the Supervisee is still in training or not (many Supervisors will offer a slightly reduced rate to trainees which normally increases post qualification). The cost may also be affected by the frequency of the sessions.

Roughly speaking though, sessions cost in the region of £35 to £65 per session, depending on the above factors.

How to find and ultimately choose a supervisor

Websites where one would normally search for counsellors are a good place to start e.g.

www.bacp.co.uk
www.counselling-directory.org.uk

The BACP also has a monthly journal, ‘Therapy Today’, which publishes a printed and online list of supervisors.

If the counsellor is still a trainee, their training institution will probably have a list of preferred Supervisors - some of whom will be graduates of that institution. Certain institutions also have additional requirements, such as being Accredited Members of a professional body as well as being trained and practising in the same modality.

Before searching it would be advisable for counsellors to draw up a list of essential and desirable qualities they are looking for in a Supervisor. They should look at such things as the way they like to work, their beliefs, their strengths and their weaknesses and find someone that best compliments these.

Once a list of potential supervisors has been put together, the next step would be to contact each one for an initial chat and if possible arrange a face-to-face meeting to see how they get on.

For supervision to be truly successful, there needs to be a relationship between supervisor and supervisee. Even from the first meeting, it should be apparent whether or not the supervisee (and indeed the supervisor) feel that they can work with one another.

A lot of this will be based on little more than gut instinct to begin with. However, both during and after the initial meeting, it is helpful for the supervisee to ask such questions of themselves as:

Do I feel ‘safe’ with this person?

Here I mean safe both in the sense of physically safe and also in the sense of feeling able to trust them with confidential material.

Do I believe this person will actively promote my growth?

The supervisee needs someone who is going to be a cheerleader for them - someone who wants to see them get on in their professional career and who has no desire to hamper them in getting to where they want to be. At the same time they need someone who continues to challenge them as they grow in confidence and ability.


Emma Warren

Emma Warren

Emma Warren is a counsellor based in Essex. Emma has an interest in working with older clients and their families, particularly those affected by dementia. Find out more at dynamiccounselling.co.uk