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A VIEW OF SUPERVISION

by

Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.

Becoming a hotline volunteer requires more than the mastery of skills and techniques. While it is important to know how to reflect feelings, paraphrase content, ask open ended questions, and confront inconsistencies when necessary, quality counseling is an artistic combination of skills, timing, intuition, and the ability to suspend your personal needs in favor of the person requesting help. Counseling is a complicated emotional interaction between two or more people. Mastering the helping process means developing a level of self awareness which will enable the hotliner to keep track of him/herself, the caller, and the interaction between them. The ability to stay on top of this "three ring circus;" to keep a finger on all the levels that are going on at once requires patience, persistence, and usually another set of eyes and ears--those of a supervisor.

With the end of formal training you will be dealing with real rather than simulated calls and the material from these calls will be the material processed in supervision.

The Apprenticeship Relationship

Historically, the learning of crafts and trades was accomplished by apprenticing to a master carpenter, builder, electrician, potter, sculptor. Under the watchful, critical eye of an experienced mentor, the student watched, questioned, experimented, attempting to emulate the skill he wished to make his/her own. At its core, this was a specialized teaching relationship; a transmission of skills from one generation to another; a careful coaching and nurturing of the apprentice's talents and intelligence.

The supervisory relationship borrows a great deal from this original model. A person who wants to learn the specialized methods of psychological help apprentices to an experienced psychological helper and works under his/her guidance and direction. The student actually engages in the work s/he is attempting to master. S/He monitors his/her own work carefully trying to be alert to his/her own feelings, the feelings of those who ask for help, and the process or interaction that takes place between them. As the apprentice potter would bring his newly thrown pots to his/her mentor for discussion and critique, the hotline volunteer brings his/her work to the supervisor for collaborative scrutiny, essentially looking for means of improving the quality.

The metaphor of the master tradesman and apprentice is one with only limited usefulness. The supervisor/supervisee relationship embodies features unique to itself. While every field develops its "specialists" or "masters," mastery in the helping profession does not always mean expertise in a limited specialization. The skills of the qualified psychological helper are broadly applicable. S/He might be at home counseling in industry, in a hospital setting, in a private practice, or in a school. His/Her understanding of human development and human behavior might well allow him/her to bring his services to the very young, those in middle years, or the elderly. S/He might choose to work with people intensely over many years or might work briefly, in crisis oriented situations. Expertise is not so much in knowing all the answers for every imaginable situation, but in knowing how to find the answers, where to look, and how to evaluate the options. The trained helper is a person with a view of the world that is useful in helping others work out the solutions to their own problems.

Because the hotline volunteer must make use of him/herself as the primary tool in the counseling process, the supervisors attention is as often drawn to the hotline volunteer as it is to the person needing help. Accepting the idea that the cornerstone of the counseling process is the hotline volunteer's ability to create and maintain an empathic relationship presents a potential and often actual dilemma. Understanding is a personal process, filtered through both the intellect and the personality of the hotline volunteer. The filtration process is open to all forms of blockages which can affect the accuracy of understanding. As often as not, the hotline volunteer may be unaware of areas within him/herself that prevent hearing as well as s/he might. For reasons of self protection, s/he may be blind to his/her own problem areas and how they are affecting the counseling process. Within the context of the supervisory relationship, these areas are explored and examined with the aim of freeing the hotline volunteer to improve his/her work. Blind spots are inescapable in all of us. The possibility of a volunteer's personal issues intruding on the counseling process is likely and is a "vocational hazard" of this business.

A common concern of someone new to the supervisory process is that it not become the volunteer's own therapy. It is easy to understand this concern because of the frequent focus on the liner's own personal issues. First and foremost, however, supervision is a teaching relationship and while it is similar to therapy, supervision seeks to serve different goals. The student's personal issues may interfere with maximum learning in supervision and maximum effectiveness in the counseling process. Exploring these issues, understanding how they may be affecting the counseling or supervisory process improves clinical effectiveness. It is not the supervisor's task to turn the liner into a patient. The recognition of problem areas doesn't disqualify a student from being a skilled helping person. The denial that such "limitations" could exist is more likely to have a negative effect on clinical work than recognizing and working on them within supervision. Supervisor and student are committed to the same goal--the delivery of quality services to people in need. Together, they attempt to make the communication process between two people as free of error and distortion as possible while simultaneously accepting human fallibility.

Obviously, this relationship is quite different from the usual one students have in an academic situation. Students have learned to hide their lack of knowledge from their teachers. Unfortunately, "not knowing" has frequently been punished. All to often, students learn to pretend or to hide rather than to expose themselves to a demeaning and humiliating learning experience. Supervision calls for just the opposite response; an ability to openly say, "I don't know," "I am unsure," "I think I made a mistake," " I didn't know how to..." It requires being vulnerable and trusting that the supervisor's response will be understanding and helpful, not punitive and rejecting. Its probably true that the student learns more from mistakes than from the things done correctly. It is equally true that no one, regardless of years of experience, is beyond making mistakes or knows so much that s/he is beyond learning something more about this craft. The supervisory relationship is predicated upon a climate of trust which will allow for this vulnerability and ultimately for learning to take place. It is not something that happens instantaneously between people, but the result of an implicitly and explicitly worked out agreement in which respect for each other is acknowledged.

The Division of Responsibility

The student who enters a supervisory relationship assuming that its success is dependent wholly on what the supervisor will do is setting him/herself up for disappointment. The supervisor who presumes that the success of this learning experience is totally determined by the student's motivation for learning is denying the interactive process and also tipping the balance in favor of a failure experience. While these attitudes are understandable if one accepts the notion that they are motivated by anxiety, they are nevertheless inaccurate. Supervision is a collaborative undertaking and its success a product of each person accepting his responsibility for the process.

The hotline volunteer has the responsibility for self observation, for looking at his/her own work critically, for acknowledging both strengths and weaknesses in his/her clinical work, for questioning what he or she is doing. It is his task to bring to supervision work samples that clearly indicate what is going on and to formulate questions about his work.

Questions as to why a clinical interaction went right are as appropriate as questions about why something went wrong. It seems a truism that we learn more from our mistakes but it is also true that acknowledging mistakes is a great deal more difficult. Mistakes are expected. The most experienced clinician makes them regardless of years of experience. What separates the truly fine clinician from the multitude of very average practitioners, is the ability to own mistakes when they're made, to be critical of them, and to be willing to change. To presume there is nothing left to learn in this trade is to adopt an attitude of defensive closed-mindedness no one can afford. There is no cornering the market on the truth and there is no one truth. As with so many things in life, there are just versions of truth and it is in the choosing of which truth works best that the real skill rests.

Supervisors have a share in the responsibility too. It is their task to create a learning environment that is safe. This is a very special teaching situation quite unlike the classroom situation. Here, the needs of the individual student take priority and the creation of the appropriate learning environment takes on a highly individualistic tone. Some students prefer highly structured settings while others thrive in a setting where they impose the structure. Some students prefer to have the goals set for them; others want to set their own learning goals. A supervisor must keep in mind that this is a very personal form of learning, one which involves a high degree of ego involvement. As such, it is easy to bruise and scrape the ego of the new or experienced hotline volunteer. Crisis counseling, for that matter any counseling, is not something that affords concrete feedback about how well one is doing. Conscientious volunteers have many questions about their own effectiveness and skill and need to be able to raise such questions in an environment that will be supportive of the risk involved in asking them. A supervisor needs to communicate that "not knowing" is not a sin, but expected. A supervisor needs to be able to help the volunteer find his/her own style of working with callers. A supervisor needs to model patience in the learning process thereby encouraging the volunteer to express the same patience in his dealing with the people who call the line. The supervisor is a combination role model, mentor, teacher, interpreter and guide.

Supervision is not a one way street. It is not simply the flow of information from supervisor to student. Rather, it is process in which all who are involved may learn from each other.

Making Supervision Work

Supervision is the continuation of training. It insures that volunteers continue to grow and provides quality control for the services provided. Supervision is built into the commitment to the line because quality clinical work requires it. From time to time, you may hear liners say they see no reason for supervision and no need for it themselves. This statement represents a real misunderstanding of the nature of clinical work and a misestimation of their own proficiency. Making supervision work requires holding oneself and one's work up to scrutiny. While this is often uncomfortable and something any of us might want to cheerfully avoid, it does not make it unneeded.

Preparing for supervision can make a great deal of difference in the benefits derived. Think over your phone calls. If a call left you wondering about your intervention or posed a particular management question, that might be exactly the right material for a supervisory hour. If you or your caller were dissatisfied with the outcome of a call, that's appropriate material. Careful note taking can provide an "in detail" look at the movement of the call and be extremely useful in understanding why certain things did or did not happen.

At times, you may not have a particular call that is of concern to you. Another liner in your group might need the time to discuss a call of his/her own. On the other hand, you may have some questions about matters of a general clinical nature you might wish to discuss. A part of making supervision effective is creating an agreed upon structure that will provide a useful learning environment.

The collaborative nature of supervision requires relinquishing the role of the passive learner. It means participating actively in the learning process, making the interaction happen. No learning proceeds easily. Mastery often involves a struggle with difficult, complex concepts. Developing skill in clinical counseling takes time, effort, persistence, and massive amounts of self examination. Supervision provides an environment that combines safety and honesty with hard work and scrutiny in the hopes of producing clinical excellence.

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