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Opportunities and Challenges in the Supervisory Relationship: Implications for Counselor Supervision.

Increasing numbers of states have formalized the supervision process by mandating qualifications for clinical supervisors and requiring contractual arrangements between counselors and their supervisors. As a result of these changes, supervisory relationships often last for a number of years, making the relationship increasingly relevant. While relationship enhancement techniques appropriate to counseling translate well in supervision, factors such as vicarious liability and evaluation add complexity to the supervisory relationship. Descriptions of potential challenges and strategies for addressing them are provided. These challenges include (a) transference, countertransference, and parallel process; and (b) anxiety and resistance.

The recognition of counseling as a profession through the licensure of mental health counselors in increasing numbers of states has provided a strong impetus for improving self-regulation. One of the recent trends that has developed out of this movement is the provision that counselors who are gaining experience toward licensure be supervised by other licensed counselors. Thus, the supervisory role is now considered an important aspect of mental health counseling (Nelson, Johnson, & Thorngren, 2000), and supervisors are expected or required to have expertise in clinical supervision.

Clinical supervision has been defined as "regular, ongoing supervision of counseling provided by another trained and experienced professional" (Remley, Benshoff, & Mowbray, 1987, p. 53). The quality of this ongoing relationship between the supervisor and the counselor is of critical importance. Not only did Borders et al. (1991) include the supervisory relationship as one of the seven core areas in their curriculum guide for training counseling supervisors, but also the literature is rife with conceptual and research support for the significance of the supervisory relationship (e.g., Dom, 1984; Patton & Kivlighan, 1997; Proctor, 1994; Rabinowitz, Heppner, & Roehlke, 1986; Ronnestad & Skovholt, 1993; Ushers & Borders, 1993; Ward & House, 1998; Worthen & McNeill, 1996).

Outlining the skills and techniques of supervision, Borders et al. (1991) asserted that supervisors are responsible for developing, maintaining, and terminating the supervisory relationship. Thus, when struggles arise in that relationship, it is the supervisor's responsibility to ask such questions as: How am I contributing to the problem? How is the counselor contributing to the problem? How are we contributing to the problem? What am I doing that is working? How can I contribute to the solution? How can I turn this problem into an opportunity to strengthen the relationship or to enhance the growth of the counselor? This article attempts to provide suggestions for exploring answers to these and related questions. As such, this article focuses on the inherent complexities of supervision as well as the potential challenges and opportunities that may arise in the relationship.


A discussion of the supervision process leads naturally to comparisons with the counseling process. Many corollaries can be drawn between the two processes, allowing counseling skills and techniques to translate well in supervision. Undeniably, the supervisory relationship is similar to the counseling relationship, and, therefore, relationship enhancement techniques (e.g., empathy, immediacy, self-disclosure, confrontation, and respect) apply equally well in both contexts (Borders et al., 1991; Friedlander, Siegel, & Brenock, 1989; Ronnestad & Skovholt, 1993).

While similarities between counseling and supervision compel supervisors to draw from their skills as counselors, important distinctions create added layers of complexity for the supervisor to manage. Perhaps the most obvious distinction involves the focus and overall goals of supervision. In the counseling relationship, the primary concern is the welfare and growth of the client. Similarly, in the supervisory relationship the professional growth and welfare of the counselor is a major objective. This objective, however, must always be balanced with the welfare and protection of the client (Bernard, 1992; Borders et al., 1991; Mearns, 1995). These dual objectives are often complementary to the degree that the counselor's improvement translates into better service for clients. A conflict arises, though, when counselors' blind spots or ethical transgressions require supervisors to act in the interest of the client sometimes at the expense of the counselors' autonomy and growth (Proctor, 1994).

Evaluation of the counselor by the supervisor is another factor that differentiates supervision from counseling. Bernard (1992) believed that supervisors "heighten the threat of the evaluation process by denying its centrality to the supervision process" (p. 234). Both counselors and supervisors must deal with the reality that supervisors provide explicit performance evaluations that have professional consequences for the counselor (Holloway, 1984). Citing the important role of evaluation, Borders et al. (1991) listed a number of common issues related to evaluation including anxiety, power, discrepant evaluation, games, and conflict with other supervisory roles. In fact, in a study on the nature of nondisclosure by supervisees, "impression management" was one of the typical reasons cited for nondisclosures (Ladany, Hill, Corbett, & Nutt, 1996). Thus, questions about the dynamics of the supervisory relationship must include the potential impact of evaluation.

While evaluation can be a source of threat to counselors, supervision also poses a threat to supervisors. That threat is the risk created by vicarious liability, a reality that can be unnerving when supervisors are held accountable for the counselor's behavior, especially when the supervisor has no way of knowing that the counselor behaved inappropriately (Davenport, 1992). Upchurch (1985) echoed the threat posed by this liability when the supervisor assumes responsibility for the behavior of a less experienced counselor, stating: "Both supervisor and supervisee take a significant risk in entering the supervisory relationship, as do the clients who make themselves available for this form of treatment" (p. 93). Borders et al. (1991) listed monitoring supervision as a technique for attending to vicarious liability. Supervisors must be careful, however, not to let the need to reduce their anxiety turn the monitoring role into a policing role. Such a protective approach could threaten the counselor and increase the real danger by ensuring that counselors fail to discuss the most challenging cases in which supervision is most needed (Mearns, 1995).

Finally, managing the complex goals of client and counselor development within a supervisory relationship, in which counselors and supervisors are both vulnerable, requires a level of two-way trust unmatched in the counseling relationship. Not only do counselors need to trust their supervisors (Friedlander & Snyder, 1983; Leddick & Dye, 1987; Proctor, 1994), but supervisors need to trust the counselors being supervised. When trying to establish that trust, supervisors are faced with the delicate task of balancing supportive and challenging interventions (Borders et al., 1991; Proctor 1994). As such, supervisors need to provide a level of support and safety so that counselors feel comfortable enough to challenge themselves and to accept challenges from the supervisor. Such a trusting relationship helps to increase the protection of the client, the professional growth of the counselor, and the assurance to the supervisor that ethical concerns are being addressed.


Given the complex nature of the supervisory relationship and the factors that supervisors and counselors bring to it, each relationship has its own potential strengths and weaknesses. Keeping in mind that supervisory relationships may last years, the long-term nature of these arrangements calls for special attention to relationships that evolve over time. Just as in other long-term relationships, no single factor points to success or failure. In other words, an absence of conflict or disagreement may just as easily be a sign that the supervisor or the counselor is afraid to confront the other as it is a sign of a strong working alliance. What becomes important, then, is the willingness to engage in an ongoing assessment of the dynamics in the relationship.

Throughout the supervision process, the supervisor is responsible for evaluating the quality of the supervisory relationship (Borders et al., 1991). This responsibility especially comes to bear when a conflict arises or an impasse develops. Investigating problems and challenges often begins with asking questions about various facets of the supervisory relationship. When asking such questions, it is important to consider not only how the counselor may be contributing to a problem but also how the supervisor may be contributing. Several factors that deserve consideration include (a) transference, countertransference, and parallel process; and (b) anxiety and resistance.

Transference, Countertransference, and Parallel Process

Similar to the unconscious processes that operate within the counseling relationship, the occurrence of transference, countertransference, and parallel process within the supervisory relationship has been well documented (e.g., Ellis & Douce, 1994; Friedlander et al., 1989; Kurpius, Gibson, Lewis, & Corbet, 1991; Ronnestad & Skovholt, 1993; Williams, 1987). In an early, comprehensive study by Doehrman (1976), it was found that counselors can develop intense transference reactions toward their supervisors. For example, a younger counselor may see the supervisor as the overly critical, demanding parent for whom nothing is ever good enough. Any question from the supervisor, even a simple request for client information, is likely to arouse suspicion and resentment in the counselor. Concomitantly, Kurpius et al. warned that countertransference occurs for supervisors in the same way as it can for counselors, suggesting that supervisors must similarly guard against meeting their own needs at the expense of either the counselor or the client.

Originally conceived as a natural extension of such phenomena as transference, countertransference, and other unconscious behavior (Ellis & Douce, 1994), parallel process is defined as an unconscious process in which counselors present themselves to their supervisors in much the same way that their clients have presented themselves to the counselors (Friedlander et al., 1989). Friedlander et al. also pointed out that parallel process "reverses when the trainee adopts attitudes and behaviors of the supervisor in relating to a client" (p. 149).

When transference, countertransference, and parallel process go unrecognized and continue to operate unconsciously, the potential for ineffective supervision or conflict within the supervisory relationship increases. Take, for instance, the supervisor who fails to confront a counselor's unethical behavior because the counselor is too fragile and needs protecting. Picture another situation in which the supervisor becomes annoyed with a counselor's sudden needy, helpless behavior.

To illustrate the first example above, imagine a situation in which the counselor has communicated how stressed she is and has at times been on the verge of tears during supervision meetings. Knowing how difficult life circumstances have been, the supervisor has maintained a highly supportive, nurturing role. When the counselor announces that she has established a great rapport with a client by meeting for coffee a few times between sessions, the supervisor, worried about the hurting the counselor's confidence, fails to confront her. Illustrating the second example above, a male counselor, who is typically autonomous and creative in developing counseling interventions, has called and emailed the supervisor several times between meetings, asking for advice in working with an overly demanding client who has boundary conflicts. Instead of recognizing the parallel process, the supervisor answers the first inquiry with hasty advice and ignores the other requests.

The key to neutralizing the negative impact and maximizing the positive effects of such unconscious processes is to recognize them when they occur. Williams (1987) emphasized that the real art is to be aware of the feelings that accompany their occurrence. Thus, knowing when to ask oneself whether transference, countertransference, or parallel process may be operating is the crucial step. Essentially, supervisors need to be alerted when they find themselves or their counselors responding in an atypical or inconsistent manner. As such, some signs that transference, countertransference, or parallel process may be occurring include the following.

1. Intense, persistent negative or positive feelings toward the counselor. Noticing a tendency to clench your jaw when seeing the counselor or to wear your most flattering clothes on the day of supervision may be signs of strong negative or positive feelings, respectively.

2. Strong urges to treat one counselor differently from others. Encouraging a counselor to call your home number for routine matters, when typically such calls are reserved for emergencies, is an example of discrepant treatment.

3. A sense that one counselor is responding to you in a way that is atypical of other counselors' responses to you. Such an experience may be occurring when a counselor complains that you are too critical and unsupportive, while others have noted that providing encouragement and support are two of your strengths.

4. An exception to the counselor's typical behavior in supervision. A counselor may behave in a way that is atypical for that person by being defensive, for example, when he or she is normally receptive to feedback.

5. An awareness of feeling the same way toward the counselor that the counselor is feeling toward the client. A classic sign that parallel processes are operating, such a situation might involve the supervisor feeling the same pressure to provide answers for the counselor that the counselor is feeling from the client.

Having discerned whether transference, countertransference or parallel process is operating, strategies for resolving transference and countertransference in the counseling relationship translate well in the supervisory relationship. Supervisors are cautioned, however, once again to keep the discussion within the bounds of the professional development of the counselor. When parallel process is the operating dynamic, the supervisor can avoid unnecessary interpersonal conflict with the counselor by focusing on the interpersonal process between the counselor and the client. Williams (1987) suggested the following process for such a discussion:
 The secret, as we found it, seemed to be for supervisors to interpret their
 own emotional experience of the trainee to the trainee and to do this at
 some length if necessary. This interpretation needed to be done somewhat
 diffidently, with as many check-ins to the trainee as seemed reasonable:
 "It seems to me ..." and "What I'm experiencing right now with you is ..."
 (e.g., "a strong urge to give you a lot"). Only when the supervisor's own
 reactions started to make sense to the trainee could the other side of the
 parallel be revealed: "... and I wonder if there's anything like that going
 on between you and your client." Too early a revelation of the parallel
 brings either denial or intellectualization. (p. 253)

Resistance and Anxiety

As alluded to in the preceding section, a sensitive, cautious approach to addressing potentially threatening matters reduces the likelihood that counselors will respond in a self-protective, defensive manner. Indeed, the supervision literature is replete with discussions of counselor anxiety and its impact in supervision (e.g., Costa, 1994; Dodge, 1982; Kadushin, 1976; Ladany et al., 1996; Liddle, 1986). Although anxiety is a natural part of learning to become an effective counselor, its companion behavior--resistance--often takes the form of maladaptive coping strategies that interfere with the learning process and the quality of services to clients. Liddle proposed that resistant behavior arises from the counselor's need for self-protection from some perceived threat. She went further to suggest that such resistance might be reduced either by reducing the threat or by generating alternative, adaptive coping strategies.

Recognizing signs of counselor resistance and the possible sources of counselor anxiety is paramount. Liddle (1986) provided an excellent discussion of a variety of possible sources. First, evaluation anxiety is clearly a source of threat in academic settings, given that supervisors assign grades and provide recommendations (Liddle, 1986). This anxiety also extends to the clinical setting in which supervisors may provide formal job evaluations, recommendations for licensure and certification, and employment letters of reference. Relatedly, performance anxiety is another threat that involves counselors measuring up to internally derived standards, to their own needs to feel competent (Liddle, 1986). Dodge (1982) suggested that performance and evaluation are inextricably linked and drive counselors to strive for perfection rather than competence. Accordingly, the belief that the only way to earn the approval and respect of others is to be competent in all that they do allows little room for error and uncertainty. Third, counselors' personal problems or unresolved conflicts may be another source of anxiety when discussions in counseling or supervision touch on these personal areas (Liddle, 1986). Fourth, the fear of negative consequences for trying new or risky behaviors (e.g., client anger or supervisor criticism) is a common source of counselor anxiety and resistance (Liddle, 1986).

Even within the ideal supervisory relationship, evaluation and discussion of counselors' personal issues are inherent qualities of supervision that can generate anxiety. The supervisor's behavior and deficits in the supervisory relationship, however, can exacerbate the potential threat of these inherent qualities (Ellis & Douce, 1994; Huber, 1994; Liddle, 1986; Sumerel & Borders, 1996). Discussing how personal supervision should be, Huber pointed out that supervisors might create unnecessary anxiety by requesting personal disclosures or exploration that go beyond the professional development of the counselor, and he suggested that all supervision remain within that professional realm. In terms of evaluation, Liddle asserted that even though the supervisor's role of evaluation might seem to conflict with facilitative conditions associated with the counseling relationship, evaluation need not preclude empathy, genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and respect. Failing to provide these facilitative conditions can be a potential source of threat and anxiety for counselors (Liddle, 1986). Finally, Ellis and Douce (1994) warned about the pitfalls of engaging in power struggles and using supervisory power to "win." Unless ethics or the client's welfare are at stake, they recommend that the supervisor "facilitate communication that provides safety and ensures self-esteem for both parties" (p. 523). Thus, whether in the form of engaging in power struggles, providing less than facilitative conditions, or pushing beyond professional development, supervisors should examine ways in which they might be contributing to the counselor's anxiety by providing less than ideal conditions.

Ironically, the various factors (e.g., empathy, genuineness, warmth, respect, and immediacy) needed to address such problems in the relationship are, by their absence, often what contributed to the problems in the first place. Mueller and Kell (1972) stated that counselor resistance might be a signal to the supervisor that levels of empathy, respect, or genuineness are inadequate. More recently, Costa (1994) argued that "respect, empathy, and acceptance is more relationship enhancing than an overemphasis on one's status and position in the hierarchy" (p. 36). According to a study by Sumerel and Borders (1996), even confrontations of counselors' personal issues, when approached in a warm, supportive, instructional manner, do not necessarily have a negative effect on the supervisory relationship. Finally, Ladany et al. (1996) found not only that the most frequent nondisclosure in supervision involved negative reactions to the supervisor, but also that deference, impression management, and fear of political suicide were typical reasons for the nondisclosure. They concluded that "a good alliance with the supervisor is important if the supervisee is to feel comfortable revealing significant information, particularly negative reactions to the supervisor" (p. 21).

Having reached a better understanding of potential sources of counselor anxiety and resistance in supervision, it is important to be able to recognize when it may be occurring. Knowing the various forms that resistance may take and what signs to watch for is critical. In-depth discussions of resistance and its various presentations in supervision were presented by Bauman (1972); Dodge (1982); Grieger and Boyd (1980); Gutheil (1977); Hammond, Hepworth, and Smith (977); Kadushin (1976); and Mueller and Kell (1972). The reader is referred to these sources for a more thorough review of possible indicators of resistance.

Two common signs of resistance are worth noting: discussing a long list of safe issues and using excessive self-criticism. A counselor, for instance, might bring in several technical questions related to diagnosis and treatment planning, leaving no time for personal concerns regarding intense emotional reactions to a particular client. Such a defensive strategy accomplishes the

twofold task of allowing the counselor to avoid the most threatening material while appearing to be well prepared and invested in supervision. Another strategy that enables counselors to seem invested in supervision while protecting them from challenges by the supervisor is extensive self-criticism. By frequently pointing out mistakes, concerns, or personal limitations, the counselor is likely to receive reassurance and support rather than additional criticism from the supervisor. These and other forms of resistance may either go unnoticed or lead supervisors to ask themselves why the counselor is sabotaging supervision. Supervisors need to remember that these resistance strategies are born out of anxiety and ask, instead, what the behavior is allowing the counselor to avoid.

Addressing counselor anxiety and resistance in supervision certainly requires that supervisors first recognize its existence. Because anxiety is a common part of the supervisory process, supervisors are probably better off expecting it and preparing for it rather than being surprised by its occurrence. Such an attitude normalizes anxiety for the supervisor and allows the supervisor to normalize it for the counselor. Acknowledging to counselors that anxiety is a natural part of the process can set the tone for open discussion and provide a foundation for more specific anxiety-management strategies.

While supervisors need to tailor interventions to address the specific forms of resistance or sources of counselor anxiety, several general strategies may provide useful guidance. Liddle (1986) outlined a mutual problem-solving model in which sources of anxiety are identified, strategies for reducing the threat are identified and implemented, and strategies for coping with any remaining anxiety are identified and implemented. Liddle suggested that strategies for reducing threats might come from any of the following three categories: (1) modifying supervisor behaviors (e.g., being more empathic or increasing the ratio of positive to negative feedback); (2) modifying the structure of supervision (e.g., changing the way that tapes and paperwork are reviewed or clarifying evaluation criteria); and (3) modifying counselor beliefs and self-statements through cognitive restructuring (e.g., challenging such statements as, "My supervisor must approve of all that I do," or "I must use the perfect technique with each client in every situation."). A few of the strategies mentioned for coping with remaining anxiety included the following: relying on outside social support systems, rehearsing positive self-statements, reframing vulnerability as a growth opportunity, and assessing counselor strengths with the help of the supervisor.

Additional strategies for addressing counselor anxiety were discussed by Dodge (1982) and Costa (1994). Dodge outlined a cognitive-behavioral model for reducing counselor anxiety. This model includes bringing the counselor through the following steps: (a) identifying and accepting counselors' anxiety and related defensive reactions; (b) identifying cognitive patterns regarding approval and performance demands; (c) challenging and disputing these irrational beliefs; (d) constructing more rational and logical thoughts; and (e) taking behavioral risks that support the soundness of the logical arguments. Although not presented as part of a formal model, additional strategies suggested by Costa (1994) might be used alone or in conjunction with one of the models just reviewed. Two of these strategies included giving the counselor permission to fail and encouraging risk taking in a safe environment. Costa went even further to suggest that supervisors be courageous enough to model vulnerability by using such techniques as self-disclosing their errors or "worst blunder."


As stated earlier, the supervisor is responsible for establishing, maintaining, and terminating the supervisory relationship (Borders et al., 1991). These tasks require that the supervisor monitor the relationship for any problems or growth opportunities, whether in the form of obvious conflicts or impasses or in the form of implicit collusions to avoid certain topics or challenges. Recognizing that a problem may exist is the critical first step, and it involves supervisors being aware of their reactions and the counselors' reactions to the supervision process. Sensitivity to counselors' anxiety, reluctance, confusion, deference, and other reactions can alert supervisors to potential problems. Confusion, annoyance, anxiety, protectiveness, and attraction, among other feelings within supervisors, are additional signals to the supervisor to start asking questions about the supervisory relationship.

Knowing when to ask questions and what questions to ask is a primary focus of this article. When behaviors or reactions seem to be consistent over time and across contexts, more enduring traits such as personality, demographic, or cultural factors may be involved. Transient reactions that vary across contexts or seem atypical are more likely to indicate unconscious processes (i.e., transference, countertransference, or parallel process), situational or performance anxiety, or changes in the counselor's developmental needs. Whatever the particular question, the supervisor must always ask both sides of the question: How is the counselor contributing to the problem, and how am I contributing?

Regardless of who is contributing to the problem in supervision, it is the supervisor's responsibility to contribute to the solution. In working toward turning relationship difficulties into opportunities, supervisors have various tools available. The power of empathy, immediacy, support, and self-disclosure in repairing damaged relationships or addressing sensitive topics cannot be overemphasized. Additionally, the ability to operate within the roles of teacher, consultant, therapist, and evaluator affords the supervisor a great deal of flexibility in deciding how to proceed.

While few would argue that a good supervisory relationship guarantees successful supervision, a bad relationship guarantees its failure. Both the counselor and the supervisor are vulnerable in the supervisory relationship, and a negative relationship destroys the trust necessary for supervision to work. Counselors who try to protect themselves from supervisors by not disclosing important information may actually increase exposure to risk for the client, the counselor, and the supervisor. The ultimate task for supervisors is to provide a balance of support and challenge so that counselors feel safe enough to risk disclosing their biggest challenges.


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Quinn M. Pearson, Ph.D., LPC, is an assistant professor; she is with the University of North Alabama, Florence, AL. Email
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Author:Pearson, Quinn M.
Publication:Journal of Mental Health Counseling
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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