REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from Cheryl Storm and Tom Todd, Eds. Now available at Amazon.

C. Storm (Ed.), Reasonably complete systemic supervisor resource guide (pp. 87-89).Needham Heights, MA.: Allyn & Bacon. (Reprinted from The Supervision Bulletin, 7(2), pp. 3, 8, 1994.)

Tailored Supervision
Debby L. Schwarz Hirschhorn
Nova Southeastern University
Dr. Pat Cole

The author is indebted to Dr. Jim Rudes for his “tailored supervision” and his encouragement.
Running head: Tailored Supervision Tailored Supervision My grandfather, I understand, was a tailor. I know, from the stories I have heard, that he felt the same suit might fit his customers’ needs better at one stage of their lives than at another. Maybe that is why it makes sense to me that some modes of supervision fit supervisees better at some times than at others.

The first mode of supervision that I had was based on applying recognized systemic therapy models (eg., Mental Research Institute, Ericksonian, Solution-Focused, etc.). In this mode, a supervisor, highly competent in a particular theory of therapy, attempts to inculcate an appreciation of that model in the supervisee. It is the supervisee’s job to reflect what has been gleaned from the supervision by applying (correctly) the supervisor’s model to the supervisee’s clients.

Another mode of supervision entails the supervisor attempting to assist supervisees in developing their own therapy style. In this mode of supervision, the supervisor allows each of the supervisees to experiment with integrating the various models of therapy that they have been exposed to previously. In addition, if group supervision is used, the refusal of the supervisor to guide supervisees down a particular path creates an atmosphere in which group members feel comfortable turning to one another for ideas. Thus, supervision not only becomes an opportunity to integrate previous experiences, but also, through contact with colleagues, to integrate models that supervisees may not have been so familiar with.

What was useful to me about the order of experiencing these two supervision modes is that each came at the right time to best help me in my professional development. Initially, I required something tangible to copy. I came from a non-systemic background and was interested in shelving all previous learning for a while to make room for new ideas. A supervisor who did not adhere to a particular model of therapy would have left me confused and frustrated. A supervisor giving concrete directions for adhering to a particular therapy model gave me a clear path on which to move forward.

Doing this kind of supervision requires a balance on the supervisor’s part between demanding adherence to a model and recognizing that, for the supervisee, it is not easy to suspend one’s former “self” (Gergen, 1991) in order to function in a different way than before. For example, my first supervisor, who combined an Ericksonian and an MRI model of doing therapy, developed engaging metaphors and expected that they be threaded through future family sessions. He would question closely to see if a family’s interaction cycles were tracked, and he would model the types of interventions he thought suitable. Furthermore, if he liked a particular intervention, he believed in “pushing” it, something I had not been comfortable with. While I had to suspend my former “self,” I learned how to do therapy without hedging.

My second supervisor was committed to solution-focused therapy. There was much comment, regarding my work, about avoiding “problem talk,” not wasting precious minutes getting to the miracle question, and how to join with clients without focusing on problem description, but rather by inquiring about their interests.

In spite of the beneficial aspect of total immersion in a new model, one of the side effects of that mode of supervision is that supervisees may have very little to contribute to discussions. Interaction could center on how to best apply the particular model favored by that supervisor. Since the supervisee is in a one-down position relative to the supervisor as an expert in the use of the model, such discussions can merely become demonstrations that the supervisee is “catching on” to the use and philosophy of a new model. That is not at all bad–quite the opposite. But after the catching has been established, an opportunity to see if the model “fits” for the individual appears to me to be very helpful. What is more, when the supervisor prefers that the supervisee construct a personal model of therapy, the supervisee does not need to impress the supervisor with his or her understanding of the model. The understanding necessary in such a situation in effect pits the supervisee against him- or herself: How can I use my understanding of theory and practice to support the actions I am taking in the therapy room? Such an environment will encourage open discussion and wholesome use of previous experience.

By the time I had a third supervisor, I felt like I needed space to try out some of the ideas I had formed in my previous supervision. I was very impressed with solution-focused therapy, but wondered about how some aspects of it was would fit for me. I needed both a clarification of the model and the flexibility to apply it somewhat differently if I wanted to explore it further. The timing for a supervision style in which the supervisee constructs his or her own model of therapy was perfect for me.

At the outset, my supervisor asked me what my goals were for professional development. I told him that I liked solution-focused therapy but was unsure if I could join and get to the miracle question as quickly as my last supervisor preferred. My new supervisor helped me to remain solution-focused by taking my time to join with families. He also blended in some of the learning I had acquired from my first supervisor by helping me to develop metaphors suited to each client. I felt encouraged for the first time to do therapy on the basis of my “own voice” (Rambo, Heath & Chenail, 1993, p. 132) rather than on the basis of what fit the model I was working with. Practicing therapy on the basis of what feels right is a way of being that seems to me more suited to therapists with some experience behind them than to novice practitioners.

From the foregoing, it would seem that a beginning therapist might be more comfortable and absorb more under the supervision of someone preferring a particular model of therapy, while a more experienced therapist would perhaps flourish best within a spacious style that allows for personal exploration and modification of existing therapeutic models. Supervisors aware of the level of experience of their supervisees can then tailor supervision to fit the stage of their supervisees’ professional development.

Gergen, K. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.
Rambo, A. H., Heath A. & Chenail, R. J. (1993). Practicing therapy: Exercises for growing therapists. New York: Norton.

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