Counselor supervision is a rite of passage for professional counselors. Although supervision requirements vary from state to state, the crux of the experience — learning that is based in a relationship between a beginning counselor and an experienced practitioner — is universal. As is the case for any relationship to remain healthy and beneficial, the supervisor–supervisee pairing requires care, hard work, respect and trust from both parties.
Supervision is meant to be “the other half” of counselor education, bridging classroom learning and in-session counseling skills, says Summer Reiner, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), clinical supervisor and associate professor and school counseling coordinator at the College of Brockport, State University of New York. “There’s no way you can fully prepare the student in a classroom. Supervision is to fill out your education,” says Reiner, president of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of the American Counseling Association.
Supervision begins “a lifelong process of always stepping back and looking at what went well and what didn’t,” she adds. “Supervision is training to be able to do that throughout your career, a constant of thinking what went well and what do I need to do differently? It’s a supervisor’s role to get that internal dialogue moving, by demonstrating it first and letting [supervisees] know that they will self-evaluate, in a healthy way, throughout their career.”
The supervisor–supervisee relationship is different from the therapeutic bond forged between counselor and client. However, many counseling skills come into play as supervisors support and foster growth in their supervisees. Although supervisors never shed their identity as counselors, they must learn to shift gears between working with clients and working with counselors-in-training or beginning professionals.
Supervisors must also achieve a balance between two primary roles that can, at times, feel like they are at odds with each other: fostering an open and honest dynamic with supervisees and evaluating supervisees. The best learning opportunities often arise when supervisees feel comfortable with and have enough trust in their supervisors to ask questions and admit when they are struggling.
“It’s a delicate balance,” says Kevin Doyle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), clinical supervisor and adjunct instructor of counselor education at Virginia Tech. “The supervisor has the power, but it still needs to be an open relationship. … A supervisor should focus on creating a connection that is similar to counseling, with focus on the supervisee’s professional growth and development. Transparency is paramount, even though there’s a grade or evaluation piece to the situation.”
“It’s one of the biggest fissures in supervision: There’s this evaluative piece. It’s similar to a counseling relationship, but you also have the responsibility to assign grades or to be a reference for a future employer,” says Doyle, a member of ACA. “It’s not a counselor–client relationship, but it also shouldn’t be an inverted relationship” with a power imbalance.
Supervisors are a unique blend of teacher, counselor, evaluator and role model, and they need to be able to nimbly weave in and out of those roles as the moment demands, Reiner says. Throughout the process, counselor supervisors should remain very supportive of their supervisees while also offering honest feedback.
“Help them understand that we’re not evaluating them as a person, or as a counselor, but with each intervention they use with a client,” says Reiner, whose experience is with graduate student supervision as a counselor educator. “This isn’t me judging you; it’s me helping you see what was your intent in this process? What was the intended outcome? If that didn’t happen, what would you have changed?’”
“At the same time,” she continues, “it’s important not to be a cheerleader. Don’t let them feel like everything’s OK when it’s not. It’s this balancing act of having students hear critical feedback without personalizing it and [then] using it constructively.”
Stacey Brown, an LMHC and clinical supervisor in Fort Myers, Florida, stresses that the best supervision happens when the relationship is central to the experience, which transcends simply going through the motions of clocking the needed hours and ticking items off of a to-do list. “For me, it’s about becoming a counselor — beyond the techniques they learn in grad school,” says Brown, an ACA member. “It’s very easy to forget the human part of the equation, and our role as nurturer and encourager, as there are so many boxes to tick. Don’t make it so structured that [supervision] sessions are repetitive or predictable. Be open and allow flow to happen, like you would in a counseling session. You can still cover everything you need to cover, but be creative and open to what comes. Otherwise, you may lose out on [teaching] opportunities that pop up.”
For example, a supervisor might have a stack of case studies ready for review with a supervisee, but the beginning counselor walks into the room with tears in her eyes because of professional stress or something going on in her personal life. In that case, “You shouldn’t push forward with your case reviews,” Brown says. “You should take a step back, ask what’s going on and how can you [the supervisee] manage it? But if I have some kind of checklist to get through, I will miss out on opportunities to help her become a counselor. Teach [supervisees] flexibility, intuition, being present and learning that they have to deal with their own stuff and take care of themselves to be able to help other people. What better way to teach that than by doing it?”
Modeling and forging a bond
Doyle says the skills that supervisees gain through counselor supervision can be divided into two realms: everything that happens in the room with clients, and everything that happens outside of the counseling room.
The first part of the equation, the “nuts and bolts” of counseling, as Doyle calls it, is developed through case review and the one-on-one guidance that a supervisor provides. It involves real-time application of the knowledge base that counseling students were introduced to in graduate school.
The second part encompasses learning that can’t truly be acquired from textbooks. It involves preparation for the entirety of the job of being a professional counselor, Doyle says. Much of the knowledge acquired in this sphere is based on how supervisors model their own professional skills, both inside and outside of client sessions, in the presence of their supervisees. Supervisees watch and absorb not only their supervisors’ interactions with clients, but also the professional boundaries that supervisors set, how much they focus on self-care and how they manage time, professional ethics and other aspects of the job.
Supervisees “absorb so much from how we carry ourselves and what we do in supervision,” says Doyle, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on how supervisors can model wellness and how that influences supervisees’ wellness.
A little self-disclosure, when appropriate, on the part of supervisors can help keep the supervisor–supervisee relationship open and honest, says Kathryn Henderson, an LPC and an assistant professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. When supervisors disclose, for example, that they sometimes struggle to prioritize self-care, it demonstrates not only that even supervisors are imperfect but also that wellness will need to be a career-long goal.
“I stress that we’re in this together,” says Henderson, an ACA member. Supervisors share “our knowledge and experience, but we’re learning from [our supervisees] and growing ourselves. We’re learning just as much from them as they are from us. It’s mutually enriching.”
Brown says she is upfront with her supervisees that counselors are no different from the general population in that they sometimes have trauma in their past, struggle with an inner critic or anxiety, or face other challenges. “Part of being a good counselor is being comfortable with yourself and coming to terms with your own issues. I can’t be [my supervisees’] therapist, but as a supervisor, [I] can recommend they see a therapist,” Brown says. “I tell people right off the bat, there’s no reason to hide who you are.”
Brown also thinks that supervisor self-disclosure, within ethical boundaries, can strengthen the relationship with supervisees and help them realize that being honest about their struggles won’t sabotage their evaluation. Brown recalls one supervisee who had an infant at home. When Brown would check in with her about her stress level and self-care routine, the supervisee would insist she was fine. In truth, she was struggling with breastfeeding and a severe lack of sleep. The supervisee opened up only after being shown photos of Brown’s children and having Brown share a few of her own struggles during motherhood.
“My job, as I see it, is not to be rigid or pretentious at all, but to be real,” Brown says. “Being a real person who can share my experiences, my missteps, my learning, my boundary conflicts, my wellness efforts, etc., helps supervisees to be willing to be real with me. Then I
can see who they are and can offer suggestions that can help them personally and professionally.”
“The relationship is the most important part of the supervision,” she continues. “Elements of trust, mentoring, nurturing, directing, humor, compassion and tutoring are all there, just as in the counseling relationship. The difference is that in supervision, the supervisee will one day be completely equal or surpass me in credentials and expertise. I treat them as colleagues while still offering the nurturing and guidance and respect they need and deserve.”
Henderson agrees that trust is paramount in creating a good supervision experience. For supervisors, this includes trusting their supervisees enough to give them room to find their own way professionally. For supervisees, this means trusting the relationship enough to be able to share — and, in turn, work on — their weaknesses and areas of struggle.
“You can’t give someone insight; [a supervisee] needs to find that on their own. But we can create that opportunity in supervision,” says Henderson, co-editor with Alicia M. Homrich of Gatekeeping in the Mental Health Professions, published by ACA in May. “Supervision is their first time working with real clients in a real-world setting and applying what they’ve spent so many hours learning. That can be scary and overwhelming — there’s a fear of inadequacy. … The crux of supervision is that you’re not alone in that. This is exactly where you go to talk about those concerns and get the support and help that you need to grow in your own self-awareness and confidence in your skills.
“Supervisors are the ones to build that support [by offering] encouragement and validation. All of that helps create an environment where I [the supervisee] can come and bring my greatest concerns and failures, be vulnerable and not be afraid of being judged or of negative outcomes or consequences. Trust is so needed to create that environment.”
It takes two
What does it take to establish a healthy and beneficial supervision experience? In part, both parties must contribute by being flexible and practicing open and honest communication.
Suggestions for supervisees
Shop around to find the best fit. Look for a supervisor with whom you click, both professionally and personally. Alicia Simmons, a counselor intern working toward counselor licensure in Florida, found her supervisor, Stacey Brown (quoted in this article), by searching online and talking with friends from graduate school. She called and spoke with Brown before meeting her in person to test the waters of what would become a very positive supervision relationship. Simmons and Brown co-presented a session, “Intuitive Clinical Supervision: Creative Solutions for Helping New Counselors,” at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta this past April.
“Look for someone who is going to walk beside you for … however long it takes,” says Simmons, a clinician and play therapist at an agency that serves children removed from their homes due to trauma or neglect. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions before you begin. You want to know you’re in the right fit. Don’t be afraid to try more than one supervisor. … Look for someone who is going to be flexible and work with you in the way you need to work. If you don’t know what that is, work with someone who will help you figure that out.”
Speak up. If you have a need that is not being met through the supervision experience, talk to your supervisor in a tactful but honest way. Doyle acknowledges that this can be a tall order because supervisors are seen as authority figures. At the same time, identifying any area where you might be struggling in the relationship will actually help your supervisor, he says. Counselors who provide supervision have so much to focus on — including client needs, scheduling, paperwork and so on — that they may not notice everything going on with their supervisees.
“Advocate for your needs [even though] that’s a lot to ask at the outset,” says Doyle, who will be starting a new job as assistant professor of mental health counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall. “Speak up when you need support. Realize that the supervisor will rely on that. … When you come to see your supervisor as a safe person, you will really connect with them and [that will] make it easy to disclose your struggles.”
Respect the process. Keep in mind that your supervisor likely took on this extra responsibility because he or she wanted to “pay it forward” to the profession, Reiner says. Yes, supervisees have needs that should be met through the supervision experience, but at the same time, they must remember that a counselor’s first priority will always be client care.
“Step one is being appreciative that someone was willing to take you on as a supervisee and has trust in you that you will be able to serve clients well,” says Reiner, an ACA member. “Keep in mind that you are practicing under the license of someone else. If the [supervisee] does something really inappropriate, it can open the supervisor up to a lawsuit. They are taking on a personal risk as well as an additional workload. … Recognize that the supervisor is investing in the future of the profession and has no obligation to do that. Realize that they care about your future and the clients you are going to work with.”
Be authentic and drop preconceived expectations. Bring your true self into supervision. Don’t act one way with clients and another way with your supervisor. There should be “a thread of authenticity” throughout your work in supervision, Simmons says. “Counseling is basically holding up a mirror and showing somebody what’s there. Supervision I think ideally would be the same way.” Authenticity, both on the part of the supervisee and the supervisor, builds trust, she asserts.
In addition, it might be best for supervisees to leave behind their ideas of what supervision should look like. The important thing is for the supervisor and supervisee to be working toward the same goals. “What I had heard about clinical supervision was mostly [about] case review and going over the work with clients — very textbook and academic,” says Simmons, an ACA member. “What I’ve learned is that it can be much more fluid than that. All the in-between stuff is what has stuck with me and helped me develop my own style and confidence in my abilities. It’s about more than just the logistics of what’s going on in each [client] case.”
Remain open to feedback. Having a relationship built on trust makes it easier for supervisees to remember that any critical feedback they receive from their supervisor is meant to help them and that they are both working toward the same goal: the supervisee’s growth and development as a counselor. “It’s the same as the counseling relationship — you have to have that rapport,” Simmons says.
Regardless, being critiqued can prove challenging. “As a supervisee, it’s our responsibility to be able to receive feedback,” Simmons says. “If there’s something that’s getting in the way, perhaps that’s something [we] need to work through. We may need to seek therapy ourselves to work on it. Check yourself: Is it something related to the supervisor, or is it something unrelated that you need to work on?”
Think for yourself. At the same time, do not accept feedback blindly. Think it through and talk through any areas you have questions about with your supervisor, Reiner advises. But first, take a step back and consider whether you have received similar feedback from others in the past.
“Critically examine any feedback that you are receiving and be open to being the one who needs to grow and change. Or simply say ‘thank you for that feedback’ and ‘I’ll be mindful of that in the future,’” Reiner says. “I don’t think that supervisees know that supervisors are sometimes uncomfortable sharing critical feedback. They have probably thought it through [before telling supervisees] and were anxious about it themselves.”
Suggestions for supervisors
Temper criticism. Set realistic expectations and frame criticism in a way that lets supervisees know you’re focused on their growth, Doyle says.
In Reiner’s work supervising graduate students, she assures them that she won’t start evaluating them for a grade until halfway through the semester, once they have settled into the experience. It is important to stress that feedback is never personal but rather focused on supervisees’ development, Reiner says.
“There’s also an element of modeling for your supervisees — ‘This is how you have hard conversations with people.’ [They] will need to do that as a counselor,” Reiner says.
Debunk myths of perfection and the existence of one right way. Henderson shares an important lesson with her supervisees that she learned through her own supervision: There is no such thing as a perfect counseling session. Supervisees often put enormous pressure on themselves to find the “right” way to do something, she says. The truth is, clinicians can work with the same client in multiple ways and take different therapeutic directions and still arrive at a positive outcome, Henderson says.
Prioritize fostering growth. Might your supervisees end up working for a local competitor or leave your agency and move on once they’re licensed? Be supportive and invested in their growth, even if it won’t benefit you in the long run, Doyle urges. “Don’t think of [supervision] as just one more thing to get through. Don’t think of it as a task but as a relationship to foster,” he says.
One mark of a good supervision relationship is when a supervisor is comfortable enough to allow — or even to encourage — a supervisee to seek additional skills elsewhere, Simmons says. For example, if supervisees use different therapeutic modalities than their supervisors do, they might want to look for workshops or online training while
Help supervisees embrace their counselor identity. Supervisors can help prepare supervisees for work environments in which they may be the only counselor. “Once people get into a work environment, there becomes a lot of pressure to do things not in the way a counselor is trained to do. Part of a supervisor’s job is to train a supervisee not to lose their identity as a counselor,” Reiner says. “Sometimes you might get the message, ‘We know that’s what you learned in college, but that’s not how we do it.’ Be mindful of teaching them to be a team player yet [also] an advocate for counselors and counseling.”
For example, a counselor in a school setting may be the only person in the building with a counseling background, and he or she may repeatedly be asked to spend time as a test proctor or hall monitor or to perform other noncounseling duties. “How do you politely tell your principal that counselors are not lunch monitors?” Reiner asks. “Instead, explain that your approach will be different. ‘I will do it, but I’ll do it within my counselor identity. Instead of being a disciplinarian, I will use it as an opportunity to talk to students.’”
Lift supervisees up. Supervisees should leave the supervision experience even more energized about the counseling profession than when they began, Brown says. “The way I see it, our job is to lift them up. To help them see that they are more capable than they think they are. To teach, to offer guidance and education, and to model how we do what we do. … Yes, there are techniques and ethics and strategies, but there is also joy in the giving. Graduate students don’t often pick up on that part in grad school. I believe that is the key element we, as supervisors, need to be offering to new counselors. This will help keep integrity in the profession and prevent burnout [by] shining a light on the ability to truly offer healing to clients.”
Navigating the ups and downs
Because supervision is an experience that involves two human beings, it is only natural that not every experience will be positive. Frustration, awkwardness and other negative feelings may surface.
Conflict can arise easily in supervision relationships in which expectations are unclear, Henderson notes. To decrease the likelihood of that happening, she recommends that supervisors document their expectations thoroughly before supervision begins, regardless of whether that process is mandated by the state in which the supervisor practices.
Among the details that should be included:
- How the supervisee will be evaluated
- How often the supervisor plans to meet with the supervisee
- The cancellation policy should a supervisee need to miss a meeting
- The length of the supervision or how many hours are expected
- How much the supervisee will pay the supervisor (if applicable)
These details should be talked through with supervisees before they agree to sign the document.
This is also a good time to map out wellness goals, says Doyle, who has supervisees include self-care in the learning contract they create at the beginning of supervision.
“In many ways, it’s on the supervisor to try and develop a welcoming, supportive, yet honest and challenging relationship with their supervisee,” Reiner says. “That starts out with being very direct and forward with your supervisee about what is expected and how they will be evaluated.”
The importance of being direct also extends to addressing any differences between supervisors and supervisees, from level of expertise to gender identity to spirituality, Reiner says. She recommends asking supervisees upfront, “How are you feeling about these elements of who you are and who I am and how that comes together in our space together?” In addition, she says, supervisors can offer assurances to ease supervisees’ concerns about those differences: “If there’s ever a time when I’m not hearing you or not understanding you, please tell me. I want to hear it because it will only help our relationship.”
When tough conversations arise or when things aren’t going well in supervision, it is helpful to keep the discussions focused on growth opportunities. In her role as a counselor educator, Reiner sometimes has to mediate meetings between supervisors and supervisees who aren’t seeing eye to eye. She begins by asking both, individually, what is going well, what can be improved on and what they would like to do or see in supervision that hasn’t happened yet. Reiner tries to frame the conversation so that both parties are able to take personal ownership of what has transpired without placing blame. That way, they are able to share and focus on what they want from the experience that they haven’t yet received.
Clear and open communication is essential when the supervision relationship is having its ups and downs, agrees Henderson, and that is when a supervisor’s counseling skills especially come into play. Supervisors should focus on concrete expectations that aren’t being met rather than vague or arbitrary attributes that they may not like, such as a supervisee’s personality or professional style. If necessary, supervisors can also refer to the contract put in writing at the beginning of the relationship, she adds.
“Many times, we talk around things without talking about the process that’s going on in the room, that here-and-now experience,” says Henderson, who presented on supervision and ethics at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta. “Oftentimes we need to go to that level of metacommunication, to use counselor lingo, to address the dynamics that are happening between us and what’s contributing to it. That can be a very difficult conversation to have, especially considering the power differential. I like to make it as concrete as possible. Having clear expectations and a contract helps focus on competencies and what’s not being met.”
“[Sometimes] it’s these unexpected lessons that find us, that we’re not looking for, that can be the most difficult but that lead to the most growth,” she adds. “When we are having these conversations, keep in mind our mutual goals. What’s our purpose? The supervisee’s growth as well as client welfare. Monitor both.”
Keep it going
Peer support and feedback, mentorship and case review with colleagues can play a vital role throughout a counselor’s career, long after formal supervision leading up to licensure has ended. Doyle recommends that counselors engage in lifelong supervision, whether in an informal or formal capacity, to continue learning and to find support.
“It’s extremely rewarding work that we do, but it’s extremely taxing too. Peer support becomes that much more important after formal supervision ends,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the grind you go through daily as a counselor and the emotional toll it takes. Connect with people who can understand that. Connect with peers across the profession, whether that’s within a professional organization or the practitioner in the office next to you. Make sure you have a support network, wherever you are.”
Henderson says one of the things that stuck with her most from Irvin Yalom’s keynote at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco was that he — a noted psychiatrist, author and scholar — had sought support from peer groups throughout his storied career. “Even though he’s a giant in the field, he continues to work on his own development,” she says.
“The message that we want to send is that the journey doesn’t end when you get that license or degree,” Henderson adds. “The journey is ongoing, and we don’t want to be alone in that journey.”
Related reading: “Counselor supervision: Reflections and lessons learned,” an online-exclusive companion piece to this article: wp.me/p2BxKN-58U
- The Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of the American Counseling Association
- Gatekeeping in the Mental Health Professions, Clinical Supervision in the Helping Professions and other titles at the ACA Bookstore
- ACA Podcasts: “Supervision Ethics” with Rosanne Nunnery and Keith Myers; and “Supervision: Four Experts Weigh In” with Gerald Corey and colleagues
From the Counseling Today archives:
- “Document like a clinician: The ins and outs of documenting your training supervision“
- “Developing trust in your effectiveness as a helper“
- “Unethical supervision practices and student vulnerability“
- “Past trauma in counselors-in-training: Help or hindrance?“
- “Gatekeepers for the profession“
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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