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Exploring the Supervisory Relationship

As a trainee and qualified counsellor/psychotherapist, there is a great value and emphasis placed on supervision. Most training providers set the requirements and ratios for attending supervision. Once qualified and to maintain registration as a member with a professional body there is a need to continue to engage with supervision on a regular basis, usually monthly.

Much has been written about the importance of the supervisory relationship and for trainees it has been suggested that ‘the quality of the relationship between the supervisor and trainee is probably the most important factor for effective supervision’ (Kilminster, 2000). However, for some practitioners, sadly, supervision lacks value and meaning, feeing more like a ‘chore’ that too often is fitted into a very busy workload. If this is the case for you, is it time to be transparent and review/discuss your feelings with your supervisor.

Supervision can be defined as ‘A formal relationship between a therapist and a qualified supervisor who has greater experience and competence in the field. The purpose of supervision is to ensure that standards are met, clinical work is monitored, practice is developed, and the supervisee is supported as issues arise within their work’ (McDonald, 2023). This definition outlines the purpose of supervision and is a consolidation of the many descriptions offered by counselling/ psychotherapy UK organisations and professional bodies. Yet, what it doesn’t consider is the relational aspect of supervision and how impactful the process of supervision can be on personal growth, self-esteem and understanding of oneself.

As therapists, we know that the therapeutic relationship and strength of the therapeutic alliance is a crucial component in the client’s healing process. For our clients to experience a sense of safety they need to feel heard and understood as they reveal and express aspects of themselves. The conditions experienced by the client from the therapist are also those that are necessary for meaningful supervision. Similarly, both relationships are intimate and regardless of the quality of the relationship are always relational.

Being a supervisor reflects a greater experience, wider knowledge, and skills base. The supervisor will adapt to the supervisee according to their needs providing opportunity for development and application of theory, technical skills, depth of understanding, broadening perspectives, celebration of personal qualities/attributes as-well as future pathways for growth. However, if the supervisory alliance is not strong, these elements will be somewhat limited.

Within the supervisory space, there is recognition that there will be moments of vulnerability and it is the attunement and awareness of the supervisor to the relational dynamics which hold and contain the supervisee within these experiences. Attachment patterns and strategies will play out, with transference and countertransference ever present. How the supervisor manages and attends to the dynamics in supervision sessions may influence the supervisee’s clinical work and wider systems. Perceived professionalism and experience will at some point be scrutinised by the supervisee and if this is the only experience the supervisee has had of supervision, will be part of the blueprint for future supervisory relationships.

Whilst supervision is very much about overseeing clinical work, ignoring, or refusing to attend to the personal experiences of the supervisee will not be of benefit to either the supervisory or therapeutic relationship. A ‘good enough’ supervisor must be curious about the supervisee’s history and perspective to deepen their (supervisee) awareness and understanding of projection, transference, and projective identification.

On asking colleagues thoughts and reflections about what constitutes ‘good enough’ supervision, the following was communicated:

  • Feeling held and heard

  • When I leave a session feeling both lighter and invigorated

  • Having a renewed zest for what I do

  • Gaining more confidence and a sense that I am ok

These reflections give a sense that it is how a supervisee feels at the end of a supervision session which is important and a key element to ‘good enough’.

Working therapeutically especially with children and young people requires the therapist to be in close connection and contact with their emotional world and that of the client. Sometimes, the therapist will need to return to personal therapy, and it may well be that the supervisor highlights this.

It is essential that the supervisor is conscious of not blurring lines between personal therapy and clinical supervision as this can happen. It is not the role of the supervisor nor an appropriate space for supervisee personal therapeutic processing. Yet, it cannot be ignored, and supervisors should not be fearful to help the supervisee make connections from their childhood to client experiences as this is a way of better understanding themselves as therapists, ultimately keeping the client and therapeutic work safe.

Supervision is an expense. If there is dissatisfaction, in the first instance a supervisee should be encouraged to discuss with their supervisor, either to continue with a renewed focus or to end the supervisory relationship and change to a different supervisor.

As therapists we need to experience supervision as an important part of our clinical work to enhance and rejuvenate our professional and personal growth, not as a chore.

(Authors: Karen O’Neill & Tara McDonald)

Published and Copyrighted by PIP Solutions: 1st June 2023


Hiebler‐Ragger, M., Nausner, L., Blaha, A., Grimmer, K., Korlath, S., Mernyi, M., & Unterrainer, H. F. (2021). The supervisory relationship from an attachment perspective: Connections to burnout and sense of coherence in health professionals. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 28(1), 124–136

Jayasinghe, R., The Importance of Counselling Supervision (2020)

Kilminster SM & Jolly BC. (2000), Effective supervision in clinical practice: a literature review. Med Education, 34; 827-40

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