Professional Resource

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Deconstructing a Reflective Supervision Conversation

by Faith Eidson and Deborah J. Weatherston


This article offers excerpts from a live, reflective supervision between supervisor (Deborah Weatherston) and supervisee (Faith Eidson) and is followed by their intimate exploration of the process. In revisiting the supervision, they share personal and professional observations that reveal their vulnerabilities and their strengths. They identify reflective supervision and consultation as a creative process, noting key themes, parallels, and lessons learned. The authors conclude that there is great value in the shared framework of a reflective supervisory relationship in which vulnerability can be safely shared, leading to new understanding, growth, and change.

“Two people thinking are probably going to do a better job than one person alone.” (Pawl, 1995, p. 28)

Some years ago, reflective supervision or consultation (RS/C) was defined as a “relationship for learning” (Shahmoon-Shanok, 2006, p. 343), offering infant–family professionals of many different disciplines a time and place to think about their work with infants, very young children, and families and to share those experiences with someone they come to know and trust. From this perspective, it is within the RS/C relationship that infant–family professionals, or supervisees/consultees, learn to share details about the infant, the interactions between parent and child, and hopes for their very early developing relationship. Encouraged to be curious, supervisees/consultees may ask questions and wonder about the capacities infants and parents bring to their relationships, as well as the vulnerabilities and risks. So, we may also describe RS/C in this way: “…the process of examining, with someone else, the thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions evoked in the course of working closely with infants, young children and their families” (Eggbeer, Mann, & Seibel, 2007, p. 5).

Gilkerson and Shahmoon Shanok (2000) described reflective supervision as “an oasis in time, a place to breathe, remember, consider, and plan” (p. 48). By this definition, RS/C offers supervisees the opportunity to have and examine thoughts and feelings that are awakened in the course of visiting with infants, young children, and families. Over time, and when trust has been established, RS/C allows supervisees/consultees to be reflective as they talk about many things, pleasant and painful, and to refuel within the safety of the supervisory relationship. These are important concepts to hold in mind when thinking about RS/C from an infant mental health perspective. In addition, many practitioners in the infant–family field believe that the primary focus is the shared exploration of the emotional content of infant–family work as expressed in relationships between parents and infants, parents and practitioners, and supervisors and practitioners (Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, 2018). This description is a reminder that RS/C offers a crucial space for growth and learning for supervisors and consultants, as well as for direct service providers.

Reflective supervision/consultation offers supervisees the opportunity to have thoughts and feelings that are awakened in the course of visiting with infants, young children, and families.

We have also found it helpful to define this process as “relational RS/C.” The relationship that is nurtured and built between the supervisor/consultant and supervisee/consultee is the vessel through which exploration and growth happen. It is this trusting relationship that provides a solid sense of grounding and organization, a frame to work within, as each awakens to new emotions, thoughts, and experiences. To reflect, with shared attention to relationships, captures the purpose of RS/C. In addition, RS/C may be defined as “a set of caring conversations co-constructed over time” (Shahmoon-Shanok, 2009, p. 12).

With these definitions in mind, we suggest that RS/C is a creative process, requiring a willingness to venture into the unknown to explore professional and personal responses to the work of infant mental health. RS/C requires a unique level of courage. When supervisor/consultant and supervisee/consultee begin their conversation, they do not know the thoughts or feelings that may emerge. The adventure into the unknown can be both exciting and frightening, leaving each to feel vulnerable about what lies ahead. What thoughts and feelings will be awakened? They may wonder about their work and about themselves. As Bill Schafer (2010) stated, “There is more to good supervision than just you and your supervisee. There is a third thing, called the Process…Trust it. It is wiser and more powerful than either of you.” (p. 63). What arises from this process may be a new understanding of the story, co-constructed and shared between the two. Unique to this exchange, in this time and space, a new story becomes apparent. Similarly, we find the concept of “Third Space” to be useful in considering what might be developing in an RS/C space. Barrera (2003) offered a discussion of the Third Space as a component of Skilled Dialogue in the context of addressing cultural differences in conversations, asking questions such as: Who am I? Who are you? What do we each bring to the other? How do we enter into a relationship with each other that brings new meaning and purpose to our work together?

So what does RS/C look like, and what might it mean for both the supervisor/consultant and the supervisee/consultee in the RS/C relationship? As in the work with families, each relationship is unique. The depth and intensity of the RS/C, as well as the capacity to be reflective, will vary according to the training, professional experience, and personal needs of both the supervisor/consultant and supervisee/consultee. Each is a partner in the exchange, bringing important contributions to the space. The provider of RS/C sets the tone, explains “the rules” or expectations for the work, and creates a safe place for contemplation. She or he invites the supervisee/consultee to explore what happened during a visit with a family or during a supervisory session with another, careful to follow the supervisee/consultee’s lead and to listen carefully. The supervisee/consultee may share the details of a visit with the family, describe the infant or young child, discuss the nature of the parent–infant interaction, and, as appropriate, offer what she or he felt or experienced while with the family. Or perhaps the supervisee/consultee, a supervisor her- or himself, may describe the details of a supervisory session, describe the supervisee, contemplate the relationship and, as appropriate, offer what she or he has experienced in the presence of the supervisee/consultee. In turn, the supervisor/consultant listens for the story, and, as appropriate, what the supervisee/consultee felt or experienced in the presence of the family or while providing supervision. As trust in one another and the process grows, each becomes engaged in the emotional journey of infant–parent relationship work, learning to be more fully present, reflective, and self-aware (Weatherston & Barron, 2009).

What is experienced then by both the supervisor/consultant and supervisee/consultee(s) may lead to a shared understanding, with or without words. It is a process that can result in a shift in the way each thinks about, perceives, or understands a situation. The RS/C process helps each reorganize as a result of careful questioning, wondering, silences, and pauses. The process may be both verbal and nonverbal. It may include emotion, beliefs, a thought, an action, or all of these things. While engaging in a reflective dialogue, emotions may be amplified, regulated, or elaborated, leading to a moment of meeting (Stern, 2004). Something may open up for the consultee in this quiet, reflective space, perhaps a new idea or a new understanding leading to change.

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