Anxiety, Facilitation, Motivation & Mindset, Reflective Practice, self care, Supervision


July 22, 2021

I wanted to share some thoughts  that might support a change in the conversation about supervision for practitioners working in community and educational contexts, particularly for practitioners who have not previously had supervision who may be feeling unsure about taking the plunge.

The use of supervision in the helping professions is not new at all. Robin Shohet, Peter Hawkins and Joan Shohet pioneered and transformed the growth of supervision beyond its use in therapy to a range of helping profession contexts. Their seminal book, Supervision in the Helping Professions, first published in 1989, which since been re-published many times, has become the staple for many practitioners. [The later re-edited edition can be seen here ]

Supervision as a term conjures up anxiety and fear for some practitioners.

I’m proposing the idea that, because of the term and its connotations, many practitioners are secretly fearful of the thought of supervision. I’d like to suggest that, although supervision might feel exposing taking the plunge to engage in facilitated reflective practice (supervision) will actually create the ease and clarity about  practice that most practitioners crave. I believe that having regular supervision will undoubtedly bring self care benefits for the practitioner and can lead to stronger practice with their clients and participants.

In the fields of education and community arts practice, although there is a growing use of supervision to support professionals who work in increasingly challenging settings, supervision has not yet fully taken off compared with other areas in the helping professions such as social work, and healthcare. I believe this is because the term needs demystifying.

From my conversations with practitioners, supervision as an idea conjures up all sorts of anxiety provoking feelings in people. Many freelancers are avoiding confronting a need for supervision in their practice unless they are offered it by their organisation. Of course there are many forms of supervision (and there will be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences) but in essence, I believe that having supervision can actually eliminate anxiety and shame and help work towards the clearing of self-doubt doubt and imposter syndrome that many practitioners face.

Supervision can support practitioner self care and counter burn-out and compassion fatigue

Crucially, having regular supervision offers a sustainable way of supporting the self-care needs of the practitioner and enables them to continue doing the work they love and are good at, lessening fears of burnout and compassion fatigue.

Generally, for people unused to the experience of having supervision, theres an anxiety about the term because the word implies a form of surveillance,  a quality control, that someone is looking over them, monitoring their performance and that feels exposing.

Many practitioners whom I speak to think they should have supervision but I’m aware that they don’t do it. Why is this? Lack of money is often cited but, this puzzles me as there are affordable ways emerging that cost less than gym memberships and there are other ways we choose to spend money that are even less beneficial. So this leads me to think that, either fear sits at the root of its lack of take up, or that the  true value of supervision is not yet fully understood.

Worry about being scrutinised brings to the surface fears about not being good enough

I believe that many practitioners are uneasy about the connotations of the term, that their practice will be scrutinised and therefore they put it off – for now. Thinking about being scrutinised in that way brings to the surface insecurity and worry about what others think of our practice. Underneath that thinking sits doubt about whether we are good enough triggering imposter like feelings we might be harbouring, and shame. I get it.

When we are working in challenging settings we need to feel okay about what we are doing. It’s  like being in survival mode – we don’t want to rock the boat. We surpress uncomfortable feelings of shame and self judgement when things don’t go to plan, or when we experience reactivity from others, and create unhelpful stories about ourselves.

But, if we are just hanging in there, then supervision is even more an essential investment. Many practitioners end up leaving professions they once loved because they have lost confidence, or just got too tired and exhausted. I feel sad when I hear this because often these people are the very sensitive, passionate, talented practitioners who should be doing this work, they just needed more support. 

Why use the term at all? Why not reflective practice

So, I’ve asked myself, why use the term supervision at all? Why not use another term? After all, it could be argued that supervision is purely another form of facilitated reflective practice.  In the fields of community and educational practice, reflective practice is known and practised. However, even reflective practice has its connotations. For example in my work with academics reflective practice is a key aspect to academic reflection and it can mean many things including personal reflection.

Personal reflection can be enormously useful. When I was a PhD student, and then subsequent academic, reflective practice was a really useful way for me to understand my practice and my responses in a moment. I wrote reflective journals and ethnographies to try and re-capture moments of practice and interaction as a way of reflecting.

Supervision deepens my understanding of what I do, and enables me to stay grounded.

However, when, much later I had my own experience of supervision I realised the deeper layer of insight and understanding that could be gained from a relational conversation with a practitioner who has encountered similar experiences, who can ask deep questions from an angle that hasn’t been previously considered. My own experience of supervision (in groups and 1-1) continues to deepen my understanding of what I do, helps me to be supported when I work with challenging topics, and enables me to stay grounded in my own sense of wellbeing.

I am daring to use the term supervision because it needs to be understood and de-mystified.

In reality I use both terms reflective practice and supervision, but I am increasingly daring to use the term supervision because I believe we need to de mystify what supervision is so we can understand how essential it is to the development of our practice. Bring to the surface our insecurities or fears is so important. As committed, sensitive, creative practitioners the fear being ‘found out’ or discovered is an occupational hazard. If we are sensitive to these thoughts, the term supervision may conjure up this insecurity.

Supervision surfaces insecurity, doubt & any tendencies towards rescuing and over responsibility.

As a supervisor I could suggest that if the term surfaces our insecurities then it needs to be explored. Exploring insecurity, any feelings of fraud, or limiting beliefs are all important to explore as these will get in the way of being really present as a practitioner.

Likewise, exploring the tendencies many people have in the helping professions to feel responsible or to rescue, is absolutely crucial. Supervision is a safe way to explore all of these issues; whilst affirming  and supporting you to get really clear around your practice and how you are showing up, it can be helpful to disentangle your feelings and stories from the pressures and challenges of the wider system, and those you are working with.

The kind of supervision I am discussing here is not about creating judgements about your practice. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that supervision is an opportunity for you to get a SUPERvision on your work. It’s not for anyone else, and it’s absolutely not something that is done to you.

Supervision is for ‘you’ and your evolving process

As a supervisor I could go so far as to say that it doesn’t matter what I think – its about your responses, what and how you think or choose to reflect. My role is around ensuring that our conversation supports you to gain new light on a challenge, a different understanding about how you are showing up, or deepening of your insight about a client or participants or your work with them.

It really is a SUPER vision – a zooming in, creating a broader view from all angles, outside/inside/above – and this can enable shedding of light and bringing to the surface insights that we weren’t aware of. When we see our practice or our situation from different angles we become aware of our blindspots and we develop new clarity and understanding which we can bring back into our work.

Understanding our common humanity can reduce isolation and shame

And what is so good about doing this in peer spaces is that by coming into a collective space, a whole other dimension of understanding is possible. Firstly we see ourselves as part of a common humanity. We see that our struggles are shared by others. This immediately reduces any feelings of isolation and shame.

As I see ‘me’ in you, I gain a new understanding of myself and my practice, and likewise, as you see yourself in me, you uncover your own strengths and potential. 

So what we have previously seen in the other and maybe admired, we can start to find those capacities in ourselves. And this in turn works for those we work with.

It’s your process

In the supervision I do, I support you to bring what YOU want to explore. I help you reflect by mirroring back what you are sharing, and if we are in a group, we’ll do this together. Supervision, is, therefore a curious exploration, a self and group reflection that can help you gain clarity and therefore eliminate the insecurity and doubt which can plague practitioners. Because, of our common experience you can listen and learn just as as much from what other facilitators say and how they reflect on their practice.

Our experience of supervision directly supports our practice with our participants.

It’s so important to say that any work you do on yourself, through supervision, either one to one or as a group [I have both], will pay dividends to your work with your participants and clients. 

You’ll be a much stronger facilitator as a result, your communities will thank you for it and you will know that you are maintaining your self care as a practitioner. 

I hope that this serves to begin a conversation about supervision – not from a ‘you really should do this’ perspective but hopefully inspiring you, if you haven’t already done so, to explore what it has to offer. I’d love to know what you think. Do add your thoughts in the comments below or contact me here if you’d be interested in finding out more about how I can support you, either 1-1 or in a group [inside the Thriving Facilitators Membership] OR how I could support your organisation. You can find out more about my work here and about the membership here.

About the author 

Sheila Preston

I am Dr Sheila Preston, a transformative practitioner with over 23 years’ experience in education, community settings. I have trained and supported hundreds of socially engaged artists and practitioners. Now I help brilliantly courageous practitioners who are working with communities who are experiencing difficulties in their lives and/or who work in challenging settings* These practitioners are committed to working in a heart-centred, relational way with vulnerable or hard to reach communities. I help these amazing practitioners get out of survival mode and THRIVE so they can lean into their heart-centred practice, and lead social change without burning out! I am committed to finding affordable solutions for on-going coaching or support for practitioners which is why I developed the Thriving Facilitators Membership. *settings such as, prison and probation, schools and universities, pupil referral, day centres, SEN settings, mental health, health care, social services, neighbourhoods.

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