Seven Ways to be a Better Social Work Supervisor

Dr David Lawlor, director of the Centre for Social Work Supervision and Consultancy, picks out seven ways supervisors can deliver better social work supervision

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By Dr David Lawlor

David LawlorSupervision is reflecting on the practice issues that arise in the course of everyday work. It helps practitioners do their job more effectively by developing their capacity to use their experiences to rethink their practice and take action.

A good supervisor will enable the practitioner to reflect on their practice, to support and challenge it as appropriate, to discuss skills, needs and to help work through situations where there is resistance, uncertainty and/or anxiety.

Here are seven ways that supervisors can improve the interactional and reflective supervision they offer practitioners:

1. Create a contract
In entering into the supervisory relationship both supervisor and supervisee have to take the risk that each may discover areas of incompetence, inconsistency and discomfort, which will threaten the sense of self-control. Little meaningful development can occur until this part of the normal developmental process is acknowledged and accepted.

Contracts agreed in the calm of a supervision session may be tested sorely under the strains of an overworked organisation. We need to explore possible areas of ambivalence towards supervision, especially those stemming from issues of difference.

The contract is probably the single most powerful tool for producing good supervision. The majority of problems in supervision have their roots in a failure to clarify or review mutual expectations – the lack of an effective contract

Supervision contracts are important because they reflect the seriousness of the activity.

They demonstrate a positive model of partnership. It clarifies the real responsibilities and role of the supervisee – not a passive receptacle.

It clarifies authority and accountability – verbal understandings become distorted and mis-remembered when anxiety, and differences arise particularly over performance issues. These misunderstandings prevent the exploration of the issues.

Regular recording of supervision provides the basis for reviewing and developing the supervisory relationship. It also validates the time and effort both spends on this key activity, and can be used as evidence (e.g. in portfolios) of the supervisee’s professional development. It is a framework for reviewing and developing the supervisory relationship.

2. Use tuning-in skills in one-to-one supervision sessions
The supervisor anticipates concerns and feelings of the staff that may emerge during the session, as well as his or her own feelings about the encounter that could affect the work.

A supervisor can use the skill to tune into a pattern of behaviour, i.e. a sense of burnout or exhaustion.

At the start of the session the supervisor identifies the specific agenda for the immediate meeting. In its simplest form, the supervisor uses the beginning of the meeting to introduce the agenda items he or she proposes, while enquiring what the staff member would like to discuss.

By leaving room at the beginning the supervisor allows staff to place urgent questions on the table. This also allows for ‘hidden issues’ to emerge, this may just be hinted at by the worker.

3. Encourage workers to elaborate
Workers often present issues in a fragmented fashion. Elaboration skills are helpful as they allow the worker to tell the story.

The focus of the supervisor’s questions and comments is on helping the staff member elaborate and clarify specific concerns. The supervision moves from the general to the specific

The supervisor contains himself or herself – not rushing in with solutions too quickly. The supervisor uses focused listening – to tune into the supervisee’s central concern. Open questioning is used to get a clear statement of the concern.

4. Be empathetic
Paying attention to staff member’s feelings as well as the facts helps with work-related stress.

The need to reach for feelings, acknowledging feelings, articulating feelings is essential.

5. Integrate caring and the demand for work
Usually a point in the supervision process emerges at which staff display ambivalence and resistance to a demand for work by the supervisor.

Effective work requires staff to deal with troublesome subjects and feelings, to recognize their contribution to a problem, to take responsibility for their actions, and to lower their established defences.

In response to such difficult demands, many of them demonstrate some ambivalence.

Supervisors need to integrate caring and the demand for work. Supervisors can use facilitative confrontation; this is naming the area of difficulty in a supportive fashion.

When workers feel overwhelmed the supervisor can help by breaking down the problem into component parts that can be addressed one at a time.

Asking the workers to ‘hold the focus’ is using a problem-solving skill that incorporates a demand for work; just moving from one concern to another can be an evasion of work.

6. Remember the focus of interactional supervision
The focus of interactional supervision is:

1. To provide a space for the supervisees to reflect upon the content and process of their work

2. To develop understanding and skills within the work

3. To receive information and another perspective concerning one’s work

4. To receive both content and process feedback

5. To be validated and supported both as a person and as a worker

6. To ensure that as a person and as a worker one is not left to carry unnecessarily difficulties, problems and projections alone

7. To have space to explore and express personal distress, re-stimulation, transference or counter-transference that may be brought up by the work

8. To plan and utilize their personal and professional resources better

9. To be pro-active rather than re-active

10. To ensure quality of work

7. Use interactional techniques
In the interactional model the fundamental techniques are not dissimilar from those who are familiar with counselling or clinical social work. They are:

  • Facilitation – ‘I wonder what you mean when you say you are worried about the care of the children?’
  • Eliciting – ‘Tell me more about the condition of the children’
  • Probing – ‘You seem bothered and upset about the way the mother spoke to the children’. What exactly bothers you? Why?
  • Observing – ‘For the first part of the supervision session I have noticed that you keep going back to concerns about the mother but haven’t mentioned father.
  • Confronting – ‘This family seems to be worrying you a great deal. But you seem reluctant to put your cards on the table with the parents on the care of the children’.

Further Reading

David Lawlor (2013) A Transformation Programme for Children’s Social Care Managers Using an Interactional and Reflective Supervision Model to Develop Supervision Skills, Journal of Social Work Practice, Vol. 27, Issue 2: 177-189.

How to tackle the cultural barriers to good social work supervision

Dr David Lawlor is the director of the Centre for Social Work Supervision and Consultancy

The state of social work supervision in 2014 – Replay our live chat

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