The Survivor’s Guide to Clinical Supervision
By Amanda R. Simmons, M.A.
I have often been told that success in supervision depends on “fit” between supervisor and supervisee. In other words, the arguably most essential component of clinical training is a craps shoot. If compatibility between participants is vital and often neither participant determines the match, professional development for both parties is on shaky ground. Good training relies on “luck of the draw” in an arbitrary matching process.
Ideally, we could describe universally-effective skills for navigating supervision, but unfortunately there are no time-tried truths. If I learned anything, it is there is no singular skill set liable to yield positive results. If personal growth and professional development are the litmus test for achievement, we are left with an inauspicious success to failure ratio.
Rather than becoming demoralized by thwarted expectations of supervision so good it looks like wizardry, we might try altering the definition of success to something more like getting through. Success will become inevitable (for most). Sometimes this means forfeiting personal goals in deference to needs of the supervisor, or that of the supervisory dyad, if you’re lucky.
The Canadian Psychological Association purports “[s]upervisors have an ethical responsibility to pursue available opportunities and resources to continuously improve their ability as supervisors” (2009, p. 2). Or in the words of Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility” (Raimi, 2002). Unfortunately, supervisees are not in a position to ask superiors to improve their work ethic; far be it for us to question the dedication of our superiors to their craft from the lowly position of green-as-green-can-be trainee.
Far from “a doom and gloom” position, I take a more hopeful view of clinical training, though it may sound cynical to those who fortunate enough to accrue purely successful experiences in supervision. I once had a supervisor who, in collaborative reflection on my experience with the exam to demonstrate minimal competency, made a remark that I will never forget: “of course you are barely minimally competent! You are minimally competent at playing the game.”
Often, I am told I am overly-idealistic in my expectations of graduate school. In the words of one supervisor, “You keep expecting the people you are learning from to know more than you,” to which I naturally responded, “well, don’t they?” We dance a dance of confidence (but not too much, lest we be considered narcissists) with people who may eschew over-reliance (lest we be considered dependent personalities). I’m tired of friends, colleagues and myself fearing the mark of pathology deemed by individuals in power positions because personalities do not mesh. Idealistically, as usual, I expect these people to be the ones to guide navigation of this relational struggle.
So, I created some rules to boost survival rates in clinical supervision:
1) “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club” (Palahniuk, 1996). While tensions may be high, seeking support elsewhere must only consist of requests for more information, not revelations of why an alternate source of information is necessary. Seek ongoing support for your clients and clinical practice, not corrective action, much less any sort of validation.
2) Express curiosity, not uncertainty. The minute you convey doubt is the minute the conversation turns from exploratory to antagonistic. People often profess a desire to be challenged in the spirit of growth, but this may not be true in practice. Aspire for your own growth, not that of others, although sometimes that is a happy by-product.
3) Seek support in community. I would not have survived graduate school for this long with my mental health intact were it not for the support of some very special colleagues and mentors. Through finding likeminded others, I found a way to cope with the difficulty of conflict with superiors.
4) Remember your values. While most agree that completing the program is paramount, not everyone appears to agree that quality training is of comparable import. It’s hard to play the game, winning is a moot point without learning the rules.
5) Take in the scenery, but choose your path. Excepting when ethical or legal obligations, much of the time supervisory guidance is offered in the service of fostering our own clinical judgment. This does not mean we always follow suite; but we sure as hell need to look like we’re trying.
6) Humility is key. We are trainees for Skinner’s sake! Much as I tend to get up in arms when I perceive an injustice, I also know that this can be quite off-putting for people whose sole objective is to train me to perceive more, think more flexibly (and maybe talk a bit less).
7) One disappointing interaction need not be representative of the whole relationship. I once had a professor who demonstrated immense professionalism in response to student concerns about discriminatory content in a lecture. He not only demonstrated grace under fire as a professional, but the kind of person I want to be across other areas of my life.
8) Work within the system to change the system. When all else fails in supervision, keep your head low, and take what you can from the experience. One such thing might be to learn what kind of supervisor you do not want to become and remember that you must get through all the fiery hoops yourself to stand at the finish line and coach someone else on their hangtime.
These relationships are so very important that a difficult one can trigger a loss of faith in the training process as a whole. When I come close to such damaging and painful mindsets, I remind myself of the supervisors who demonstrated such vulnerability, insight and thoughtfulness in their compassionate challenges of my work and their own. These individuals have made all the difference.
Canadian Psychological Association. (2009). Ethical Guidelines for Supervision in Psychology: Teaching, Research, Practice, and Administration. Canadian Psychological Association.
Palahniuk, C. (1996). Fight Club. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Raimi, S. (Director). (2002). Spider Man [Motion Picture].