What the supervisory relationship means to me
For six months, I’ve been working with New Beginnings in the capacity of co facilitator. The Programme Director, Jadwiga Leigh, is the driving force behind the programme and she is also my supervisor. I appreciate and feel enormously privileged to have been welcomed onto the team and to work so closely with Jad and our social care colleagues in the way we do. My role on the programme is to work closely with Jad in the delivery of the trauma informed group sessions, facilitate the family activities, and provide support to the women and the families we work with.
One of Jad’s many strengths is the knowledge she brings with regards to culture and the impact this has on our identity. I’ve come to realise how important this is in social care because it not only affects our relationships with our families but also affects the kind of support we are able to provide each other. Part of the ‘culture’ I want to talk about in this blog is the supervisory relationship because for me, it sets the tone for the type and quality practice I am enabled to do. I also believe the primary reason for my own growth is ‘the supervisory relationship’ I have with Jad. I wanted to make reference to it being a relationship, because as I will go onto discuss, that’s exactly what it is, and I and the families I support benefit from this way of working.
There have been many times during my time with New Beginnings where I have felt liberated but there have also been times when I have felt uncomfortable. Supervision in social care is an important feature; we debate and scrutinise current models and practice all the time. But it’s only been through New Beginnings that I’ve experienced the reach and potential the supervisory relationship has to offer. David Wilkins makes reference to supervision being the ‘golden thread’- a process which links supervision to practice to parental engagement and finally, goal agreement. This idea resonates with my journey and understanding of what my supervisory relationship with Jad has achieved.
It’s important to note that whilst I recognise I have the privilege to co –facilitate sessions with Jad it does have its challenges, co working with your manager, (a lecturer and highly skilled practitioner at that). I’ve found it nerve-wracking and at times a little bit scary. But I’ve also come to realise we are invested in the programme together. We observe what is going on around us together. Jad may see one thing and I see another- but what we do do is spend time getting to know each other and our families… and we do this TOGETHER.
This approach seems to work for our families because we pick up on different things. They welcome our dual approach and seem to benefit from it. This finding is supported by David Wilkins who has said that delivery, support and good ‘outcomes’ are improved when responsibility is shared between the supervisor and supervisee. I know that when responsibility feels shared, and when there is a joint investment and a journey I can travel on with my supervisor, I feel safer in making changes, in thinking outside the box, in trying something different and in holding and containing more risk and pain. The supervisory relationship gives me strength.
Whilst this all sounds positive, as I have mentioned before it is not always comfortable. We all have our off days and I have had more than my fair share. When I do have an off day, Jad sees right through it. But she doesn’t berate me for it, instead she nurtures me. She won’t let me withdraw and hide, she instead encourages me to identify my barriers and face any difficulties head on (even when sometimes, I’d rather not). It’s a technique that seems to work for me; it makes me pull my socks up, learn, grow and bizarrely I’m always keen to go back for more. To be better for my families, to reflect on what has happened and then act and adapt. I walk away from the process feeling taller and braver.
All of this has made me realise that good supervision feels like ‘good therapy’; it feels this way because I feel I can trust Jad and she supports me to explore painful and emotive experiences. We have a relationship that is built on honesty and it is this platform that has enabled us to explore what is working well and what is, perhaps, not going so well. As we are both practitioners, we realise how important it is to work together so that we can build empathetic and trustworthy relationships with the women we are working alongside. I’ve learned that sometimes we need to not only recognise their pain but feel it. In fact, one of the groups favourite mantras is ‘You’ve got to feel it to heal it’ and this I think goes both ways. By feeling their pain, whilst maybe carrying my own, I have learned to contain the level of emotion and trauma that they may have experienced. I’ve learned that we need to provide a safe space for families to explore painful and difficult topics but that as a practitioner, I want (and need) a space to explore that too, so that I can ensure that I have clear insight into my part of that relationship and what I’m bringing to the table.
Sometimes, when I hear the stories that the women share in the group, I feel shocked, sad and also angry for them. I feel I have grown through this process of feeling their pain because rather than at times feel overwhelmed by it I have learned to talk about it, understand it and then respond to it. As a worrier by nature, the concept of reflection in the past felt safe. It was quite straight forward to think about: What happened? What could have gone better? But I used to find that all of this would be taken over by what I call ‘rumination’: the process of not being able to stop and organise the thoughts that would derive from myreflections. I realise now that it wasn’t helpful for my wellbeing or my relationship with the families I was supporting. I have learned that rumination is a restrictive activity and soon becomes very much like a broken record. Since I’ve been on New Beginnings, I now feel my reflection has somewhere to go. It’s doesn’t weigh me down with ‘the ifs’, ‘the buts’ or the ‘you’re not good enough’ fears.
Part of our programme is to encourage the women to think about their past, their present and their future. And part of that process is to curb the critical self and to exercise empathy and compassion towards themselves and at times others. The women have learned that to understand and navigate what they have been through is to not blame others and to sometimes accept responsibility for their actions without it crushing them.
I have learned that this process also takes place in my supervisory relationship as I am given the space to utilise my reflections and move forward, learn and grow. Similarly to the women in our group, Jad will set ‘homework’ type tasks for me so that I can go away and read either articles or books which relates to the work we do. Applying theory to practice in this way feels great, it feels like the right thing to do and more importantly it’s working for our families (well most of the time anyway). It is through this relationship that I can be supported to filter the thought processes I have around the work I do and try to do. It is in supervision that I am allowed to be human, to not be enveloped by shame, to embrace the mistakes I make by turning them into opportunities to learn, to listen to our families and adapt to meet their needs. Because of the culture we are all in, one which is trauma informed, flexible, dynamic but more importantly helpful, I now feel more confident in my practice with families… and in me. To help and be helped is the golden thread between relationships and humanity.
David Wilkins | Amy Lynch | Vivi Antonopoulou (2018) A golden thread? The relationship between supervision, practice, and family engagement in child and family social work. Child and Family Social Work.