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Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship-based approaches in Social Work

The Reflexive Supervisor

Tamara Holmes
Tamara Holmes is a social work ‘pracademic’ in Australia, who has over 25 years’ experience in the health and human services sector. She is committed to relational supervision and reflective practices.

The challenges and complexities of working in the human service field are varied and multi-faceted. Supervisors of practitioners require a range of competencies to ensure safe and ethical practice (Australian Association of Social Workers 2020). The ability to take account of self and think reflexively is a crucial attribute of the thoughtful and effective supervisor. Often supervision is focussed on agency mandate and outcomes, resulting in the managerialisation of social and human services work. This can lead to decreased well-being and increased burnout in staff (Kreitzer, Brintnell & Austin 2020) and less attention to the relational aspects between the social worker and service user. This paper proposes supervisors who undertake reflexive self-awareness and regulation of self can enhance the supervisory relationship and disrupt the managerialist agenda.

At the core, a reflexive supervisor can create the conditions in the supervisory relationship and model what we strive for in the therapeutic setting. The evolution of the embodied practitioner acts as the mirror in the supervisory relationship which parallels the client/social worker engagement. This attention to the parallel process can give us clues about the needs of our clients. We see, through the practitioner’s experience of us as the supervisor, the potential for healing which can occur in their own therapeutic, regulated, and reciprocal relationship. There are several components which set the reflexive supervisor up for success. In this article, I will explore components of the reflexive supervisor. This includes; the use of empathy; attention to thinking about our thinking (meta-cognition); attention to power and control and meaning making through embodied practice We will explore these components with intersections to case vignettes from my time working in a regional setting in Australia in specialist therapeutic family violence services. I undertook supervision of group work programs for victim/survivors, (both adults and children). The vignettes, where I reflect upon snapshots from practice, are woven into this article allow us to see, feel and hear the experience of the reflexive supervisory practice.

Using psychoanalytic concepts and theory (Harvey & Henderson, 2014) to inform the supervisory process allows us to access a deeper level of reflexivity. I have used process recordings throughout my practice and the vignettes below are drawn from these. The vignettes, (in italics), will be complemented by explanations of the thinking relating to each component of the reflexive supervisor. Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on our own actions to engage in a process of continuous learning (Schon, 1983). Each component provides a key to understanding the reflective supervisor and how this way of working disrupts the managerialist agenda through developing a deeper understanding of our work.

The use of empathy:

“There are four social workers/psychologists who are delivering a group work program for children and their mothers who have experienced family violence. As their supervisor, I think deeply about the structure of the sessions, the physical and psychological location in which they occur, the content and the process of what is needed to support this group. Each group work session is followed by a de-brief which is recorded. In preparation for supervision, I absorb the recordings. I look for themes, points of tension or sticky spots, and I am open to the parallel process which may be occurring in the group, in the facilitator relationships and in the supervisory setting. I meditate on how the holding of the supervisory relationship and material mirrors what occurs in the therapeutic group work program – I sit with, name, and understand the responsibility and privilege of this opportunity. Each of these small considerations allow for space to be held for each practitioner and each victim-survivor. This deepens the use of empathy to start supervision from a place of acceptance and understanding.”

The embodied experience of empathy has some key possibilities; listening deeply to the experience of the other, allowing the opportunities for co-learning and co-creation, the felt sense of sharing within the relationship and the ability to think and feel with staff to understand their world and that of the client/s. The use of empathy requires the ability to first regulate self and attend to our own experience of being held and heard. I conceptualise this as the scaffolding which allows me to move into the work as a reflexive supervisor. My scaffolds include on-going personal therapy, peer and individual supervision and reflecting on my own attachment experience. I attend to the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual spheres of self, thinking about each element and what is needed to support me to do this work in an embodied way. This attention intuits my sense of self; when this scaffolding is in place, I can be present in the here and now. The practice of listening deeply to both what is in the relationship between supervisor/supervisee/s, the language, both spoke and unspoken, must be graced with our presence.

Attention to thinking about our thinking (meta-cognition):

“We move into the private, outdoor space for group supervision. As the supervisor, I attend to the frame of supervision. This includes grounding into the space with stillness to begin, explicitly contracting the boundaries of the session; time, topic and asking the question – if today’s session were helpful, what would we have explored by the end? I attend to body language, mirroring the group, holding awareness of the person taking the vocal lead and to the other three participants. I associate to the ocean. There is the ebb and flow of the waves, at times, pockets of stillness. In the work of healing from family violence, there can be motions which knock you from your feet. It’s learning to swim together, whatever the ocean (session) presents. Knowing my role, as the supervisor, is look after the life buoy and ensure we are all treading water, or floating, together.”

A key focus is the ability to move between types of meta-cognition. When I first start supervising, I am thinking. The next layer is to move to thinking about my thinking. I now understand this can include feeling about my feelings and reflecting on my physical being in this space. It is attending to the layers which exist in the embodied experience. When I can attend to my feelings about my feelings, this then lends itself to the ‘doing’ of regulation. I can hold multiple complexities in my responses in the supervision session which means co-regulation can occur. When I can move between these universes of feeling, thinking, and doing, I am able to join the dance with my supervisee in ways that are fluid, open to interpretation and free me to move in time with the music. When I become ‘locked’, this may result in getting ‘stuck.’ Moving to exploring how and why this came to be gives us data to be utilised in the case/group discussion. It is taking all our feeling, thinking, and doing and using this information to inform the supervisory relationship, discussion and work undertaken in supervision.

Attention to power and control:

“I notice a stiffness in my shoulders, I speed towards understanding what content is being spoken about and I deliberately take a large breath, rolling my shoulders as I do this. I watch the facilitators begin to slowly unfurl the tension we are holding when talking about an incident in the group. I can see the need for co-regulation – this allows a shift in the thinking, and we move into deeply understanding what the child was bringing to the group and what they needed us to understand. This then allows for my response to hold the painful material of failure, the question of ‘am I doing a good enough job?’ and ‘can I be helpful/ed?.’ Each person in the room, (both physically and emotionally) have the same needs in this moment. The parallel process on all the levels is attended to and accepted. This gives the opportunity for new knowledges to emerge rather than repeating the pattern explored initially.”

The reflexive supervisor attends to issues relating to power and control. Being social work trained, the frame of making explicit the hidden constraints are key to regulation and minimising the re-enactment of destructive uses of power This is particularly important when supervising facilitators of a group working with victim/survivors of family violence. Having a deep understanding of how power is enacted, abused, and then attended to may ensure patterns are not repeating in the supervisory relationship. Often the power and control challenges which emerge shine a light on the bias of the practitioner or supervisor. Consider how sifting through the shadows of bias allows for power differentials to be shaken and disrupted rather than submitting to blind repetition. Through this gentle exploration of the bias and power relations, we model the ability to have a difficult conversation. Imagine the experience of the group member, (the victim/survivors), who can experience being held through their own shadow journey. This then supports their own healing and empowerment capacity to emerge. The reflexive supervisor creates these conditions in the supervisory relationship, building this capability and opportunity for growth. Again, we return to the benefits of the reflexive supervisor through this contribution to the parallel process. What we provide for supervisees is then transferred to enhancing the therapeutic relationship.

Meaning making and embodied practice:

“I notice the bite of the comment she makes. I illuminate my response to it; a physical stiffness, a drawing back, my thought of this being judgemental and defensive. I am aware of the blame which emerges in my own response and the dis-connection between us as our bodies move from a place of openness to shut down. I breathe deeply, unfurl, and move in. I speak to my own response in this moment and bring to light this data which we can use to think, and feel, about the spoken words and what our awareness of self is telling us. We partner with curiosity to explore this process rather than getting locked in the content and the initial response. We allow a blossoming to occur. We think about the various elements which contribute to understanding what our beliefs are. She, and we, can explore the dark side of the interaction. How she desires the gratefulness and sits with the uncomfortable kernel which makes us wince; ‘the client should be happy I am here, not resentful’. We make space to forgive ourselves for the bias and the very awareness of the power differential allows us to think about this interaction in a vastly different, and potentially hopeful, way.”

Meaning making through embodied experience allows the reflexive supervisor to use all data available to them in the supervision session. As you can see from the vignette, the powerful understanding translates to a new understand and an openness to work with the shadow side in therapeutic work. In managerialist ways of doing, this would not be available and the continuation of blame and shame becomes embedded in the supervisory relationship and, most likely, in the therapeutic one.

The ways in which I use my emerging awareness of self are being touched upon in this writing. When I first started in field, I was grasping and looking for the formula about how to ‘do’ social work supervision. The belief there was a ‘right’ thing to learn and apply, if I understood the theory, all the complexity of the work would peel away. Over the span of a 30-year career, I am beginning to appreciate how awareness of self, and then the ability to use this awareness to regulate and co-regulate, are fundamental components of the effective supervisor. To be humbled and realise the continuity of emerging learning adds to this awakening. Moving towards on-going meaning making of self, which is co-created in the supervisory relationship, or those we have the privilege to work with and besides, continues to be the goal which underpins my practice. 

 

References

Australian Association of Social Workers. (2020). Code of Ethics. AASW Code of Ethics 2020

Harvey, A., & Henderson, F. (2014). Reflective Supervision for Child Protection Practice – Reaching Beneath the Surface. Journal of Social Work Practice28(3), 343–356. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650533.2014.925862

Kreitzer,L., Brintnell, SE, & Austin, W. (2020). Institutional Barriers to Healthy Workplace Environments: From the Voices of Social Workers Experiencing Compassion Fatigue, British Journal of Social Work. 50(7), 1942-1960. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcz147

Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465068746. OCLC 8709452.  http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/8709452

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