Supervision Theory

My theory of supervision parallels my theory of counseling. Just as I am primarily cognitive in my theory of counseling, I am also primarily cognitive in my theory of supervision. This cognitive dimension is particularly reflected in the model upon which my theory is built: the discrimination model. I base my supervision theory on the discrimination model mainly because it allows me to take on different roles as required. In practice, supervisees can have needs that vary from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. With the discrimination model, I am freer to mold myself into what they need at the moment.

I also believe in emphasizing wellness. When health and wellness are properly addressed, we can eliminate physical factors as the cause of the supervision issue. Furthermore, there is research suggesting that good wellness practices prevent burnout. Once counselors are burned out, supervisors are much more limited in their ability to assist, because the counselor has limited mental and emotional resources. Lastly, my theory also includes interventions from a solution-focused model of supervision. In sum, my theory of supervision is a combination of the discrimination model, combined with solution-focused and wellness models.

Discrimination Model

The discrimination model is one of the most researched models of supervision. It allows the supervisor to take on three different roles, consultant, therapist, or teacher, depending on what is important in the moment (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009). I really like the discrimination model because I think that the needs of supervisees can change from moment to moment, and I want the flexibility to be able to address those needs as they arise. Sometimes the supervisees actually need to be taught skills, sometimes they need emotional support, and at other times they need advice or suggestions from an experienced therapist. The discrimination model allows me to address all three types of needs.

The discrimination model also breaks down supervision focus into three categories: 1) intervention skills; 2) conceptualization skills; and 3) personalization skills. I don’t think it is necessary to break down the supervisory focus into these three areas, however, so my theory does not use that part of the model. I believe that the focus will naturally emerge as I work with students. More specifically, if there is a problem with an intervention, I will further examine their conceptualization. If there is a problem with their conceptualization, I will look for patterns in their personalization. Further, assessment of their conceptualization will occur naturally as cases are presented, as the counselor will have to describe how they are conceptualizing the case when they are presenting it.

Group Work

Supervising group work can actually be more challenging than individual work, due to the increase in complexity of interpersonal dynamics such as counter-transference (Rubel & Okech, 2006). There are three levels at which these dynamics can exist: individual, interpersonal, and group as a whole system. Ideally, a supervision model should be able to handle all three levels, but few of them can. Most familiar categories of supervision models are based on individual dynamics (psychotherapy, social role, developmental, group). The latter category, although it addresses group work, does not address content related to group work skills. In general, supervision models “do not provide supervisors with a comprehensive framework that reduces the complexity of group work supervision and outlines supervisor knowledge and skills that are necessary at each level of group interaction” (Rubel & Okech, 2006, p. 115).

However, another advantage of the discrimination model is that it can easily be adapted for use in supervising group workers. Rather than a 3×3 matrix (3 roles: teacher, counselor, consultant; 3 foci: intervention, conceptualization and personalization); it becomes a 3×3 cube by adding another dimension: the three levels of group work (individual, interpersonal and group). In the way that I employ it, it becomes a 3 x 3 matrix since I don’t incorporate the foci dimension. For example, in the teaching role the supervisor could provide information about group dynamics at the individual level, the interpersonal level and the whole-group level (Rubel & Okech, 2006).


Just as themes of wellness are present in my theory of counseling, they are also present in my theory of supervision. I believe a sound mind and body are paramount to performance, whether it is performance in life or performance in an occupation. Good self-care practices are of particular importance in the counseling field. Since we use ourselves as “tools” in the counseling process, it is of utmost important that we keep our tools sharp and in good shape. We can also identify better with clients as we are instructing them about the importance of wellness. Going further, supervisees need to “walk the walk” in order to gain credibility and respect from clients. Thus, for many reasons it is important to teach our supervisees about wellness. This means that I, also, must practice wellness in my life if I expect my supervisees to do it.

Yet, credibility and respect aren’t the only reasons supervisees should have good wellness practices. Counselors are at high risk for burnout, which can prove detrimental in their effectiveness with clients. According to a recent national study, most counselors are at risk for burnout and compassion fatigue (Lenz & Smith, 2010). The American Counseling Association (ACA) also states the importance of wellness as an ethical principle: “In addition, counselors engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities”; and “Counselors continually monitor their effectiveness as professionals and take steps to improve when necessary” (ACA, 2005, p. 9). Yet, most counselor education programs are ineffective at teaching wellness (Lenz & Smith, 2010). Thus, I feel it is important to address wellness to promote client welfare and supervisee development.

Although the wellness model proposed by Lenz and Smith (2010) suggests that wellness be addressed during the first 20 minutes of each supervision session, and comprise about 40% of the supervision activities, I think this is overkill, and will take too much time away from other valuable supervision activities such as case conceptualization and skill development. Rather, I choose to follow an integrative model in which wellness is infused, similarly as to most integrative models of supervision (Lenz & Smith, 2010). In fact, wellness is a natural fit in the skill-building portion of the discrimination model (Lenz & Smith, 2010).

In my theory of supervision, wellness concepts and assessment will be addressed early in the process, with re-assessment and further discussion at regular intervals. A wellness wheel, such as the one described on, will be provided to the supervisees so that they can begin to think about all of the different areas of their lives in which wellness is important. The dimensions that I will emphasize will be: mental, spiritual, physical and social. From there, they can evaluate how well they are doing in each area. For those areas needing improvement, I will discuss with them how they can increase activities they are already doing, or find new ways to employ skills they already have. I will limit the areas to one or two to start, as to not overwhelm the supervisee. Furthermore, since wellness is considered to be an integrated construct, it is likely that improved wellness in one area will have positive effects on another area (Lenz & Smith, 2010). Thus, it may not be necessary to implement wellness strategies for each dimension in order to see overall improvement.


So far, my theory of supervision has emphasized how to address the deficits in the professional counselor. Yet, as in counseling, sometimes it can be more effective to focus on persons’ strengths rather than their deficits; the deficits are actually addressed by increasing the strengths. Besides, it’s much more fun. For example, if you have a discouraged supervisee, why do you want to make them more discouraged by focusing on their discouragement? Rather, why not talk about exceptions to the discouragement, which will increase hope in the individual, thus helping to ease the discouragement naturally? Therefore, although my theory of supervision does not include constructivist theory, solution-focused interventions are the exception.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of a story about African Violet Queen. In this story, Milton Erickson (who had a profound influence upon solution-focused therapy) was visiting the aunt of one of his colleagues. The aunt, although wealthy, was disabled and had become quite isolated and depressed. As Erickson walked around her home, he could feel her depression settle on him like a musty wet blanket as he viewed the drawn curtains and dusty tabletops. Then, Erickson noticed that she had a greenhouse filled with thriving African violet plants! Right there, in the vibrant greens and violets, was the exception. So, rather than focus on her depression, Erickson told the aunt that she “wasn’t being a good Christian.” It seems the aunt had a green thumb and was able to produce beautiful African violet plants from cuttings, but she was the only person enjoying them. So, Erickson told her to make a list of church members that either had a happy or sad occasion coming up, and to start making plants for each person, and deliver them. Twenty years later, she was dubbed “The African Violet Queen” by a local newspaper, as a woman who had become famous for her charitable work (O’Hanlon, 1999).

So, whenever possible, I want my students to grow their violets instead of focusing on their loneliness and musty, dust-covered furniture. But this isn’t just about me getting sentimental over a bunch of flowering plants. There is evidence that solution-focused supervision theory can be very beneficial to supervisees. Koob (2001) studied fifty-five supervisor/therapist dyads, and found that supervisees of supervisors who used components of a solution-focused supervision model had higher self-efficacy scores. Increasing self-efficacy is another way of preventing burnout; therefore solution-focused supervision fits in nicely with my theory’s emphasis on wellness.

However, I think some caution should be used with the solution-focused model. Note that I am incorporating this model into the discrimination model, rather than the other way around. Since I will be supervising novice counselors, I feel it is too dangerous to rely on their own opinions of what they should be doing differently. For example, Bernard and Goodyear (2009) outline the following question to ask supervisees: “As you begin to get better at dealing with this situation…what will you be doing differently?” This question assumes that the supervisee already has the answer, and the supervisor just needs to word the question appropriately for it to be revealed. However, in many instances a novice counselor is not going to know the answer, and I think it is unfair for me as a supervisor to expect them to. Rather, I will incorporate this method when the supervisee appears to be stuck, and rather than ask them a question they may not know the answer to, I will ask for “exceptions.” For example, when a student is struggling with a client, rather than focusing on what they are doing wrong, I will ask a question such as “When you have been successful with other similar clients, what have you done?”

Although there is scant research on the solution-focused model (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009), I feel comfortable incorporating some aspects based on my experience as a counselor. When clients are stuck, feeling powerless and defeated, I have found that asking for exceptions to these situations can be very empowering for the client, and helps get them out of that “stuck” place. I believe this can work in a similar fashion with supervisees.

Contrast With Other Models

Other Social Role Models

Although I agree with the general premise of the social role models in that supervisors can, and should, take on different roles when supervising, I think that both the Hawkins and Shohet model, and Holloway’s model are overly complex.

Hawkins and Shohet. I chose the discrimination model over the Hawkins and Shohet model because I think the Hawkins and Shohet model is overly complicated. As a beginning supervisor, I prefer to keep it simple. I cannot risk overwhelming and confusing myself. Furthermore, at this point in my supervision career I don’t think further breakdown of tasks, as Hawkins and Shohet have done, is necessary. For example, because I am not psychodynamically oriented, I do not focus on parallel processes. I certainly do not think it is important to pay attention to “the fantasies the supervisor and the client have about one another.” (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009, p. 106).

Holloway’s System Approach to Supervision (SAS). Again, I think that Holloway’s system is overly complicated. Rather than a 3 x 3 model used by discrimination theory (3 foci x 3 roles), Holloway uses a 5 x 5 model (5 functions x 5 tasks). I think the granularity of her model is overly fine. For example, she has separated the functions of modeling with instruction, and I see these as the same. Modeling is one way to instruct students. She also separates the function of evaluating, and I see that as an ever-present activity because one of our roles as supervisors is to protect the public. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I also see case conceptualization as a counseling skill, so I don’t think it’s necessary to separate that task.

Further complicating things, she also superimposes “contract, phase and structure” on the supervisory relationship. Bernard and Goodyear (2009) describe Holloway’s model as “almost certainly the most comprehensive of the available supervision models” (p. 107). It may be comprehensive, but I think it is unnecessarily so. What is gained in theoretical completeness is lost in execution confusion.


Psychodynamic theory of supervision is primarily concerned with relationship dynamics between the supervisor, supervisee and client. It places emphasis on parallel processing, wherein a dynamic involving either transference or counter-transference between counselor and client is reflected in the relationship between supervisor and counselor (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009).

This emphasis on interpersonal process is very different from my theory of supervision. In my theory, although it is important to establish and maintain a strong working alliance, I do not place much emphasis or attention to the interpersonal dynamics. Any attention paid to them is limited in that it is only addressed it if interferes with the working alliance. My theory is much more cognitive in nature, rather than interpersonal. My theory also focuses solely on the supervisee, rather than being concerned with what feelings the supervisor has or any relational processes between supervisor and supervisee.

Lastly, I believe in mixing the supervision methods, rather than relying completely on self-report as the psychoanalytic theory does (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009). Novice counselors will vary in their ability to accurately assess their own ability (H.A. Exum, personal communication, August 29, 2011), therefore they may be quite limited in their ability to report accurately. Therefore, I think the use of counseling tapes is essential, particularly with more novice counselors.


Like those subscribing to a person-centered theory of supervision, I value the review of tape recordings of sessions, but unlike the person-centered supervisors I do not rely on them exclusively (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009). I believe that a mixture of supervision methods yields the best result for the supervisee. Although listening to tapes provides an objective reality, one that is not distorted by the supervisee’ report, it is focused on details. Therefore, sole reliance on tapes means that I will miss the big picture. I will miss overall patterns, feelings and thoughts of supervisees; all of which is essential fodder for the supervision process. Playing and reviewing tapes is also very time-consuming, utilizing time that might be better spent on overall skill development, or a current issue that the supervisee is facing.

Similarly to person-centered theory, my theory values therapy as a necessary part of supervision (Bernard & Goodyear. 2009). Any issue that affects a supervisee’s performance is a relevant topic for supervision. However, in instances where there are deeper issues, and more than the occasional short conversation is required, I believe in referring supervisees out for personal therapy. Although I believe there is a therapeutic element to supervision, dual relationships must be avoided. However, unlike person-centered theory, my theory places it the therapeutic element in balance with the teaching and consulting components. Person-centered theory, on the other hand, seems to support in-depth therapy as its cornerstone. As Carl Rogers states: “…Supervision for me becomes a modified form of the therapeutic interview” (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009, p. 83).

Also like person-centered theory, I believe that establishing rapport and a trusting relationship between supervisor and supervisee is essential for good supervision. Further, I believe that supervision should be centered on the supervisee, and the supervisee’s needs. This is not an opportunity to indoctrinate someone into my theory of counseling, or direct him or her on how to behave. Although there are certain skills every supervisee needs to have, my role as a supervisor is primarily supportive. By providing my supervisees with unconditional positive regard, empathy and genuineness, I will establish a supervisory environment that encourages them to take risks, explore themselves, ask questions and achieve maximum personal growth. It is not necessary to actively try to make them grow, they will do it naturally if I establish the proper environment.

Constructivist Approaches

With the exception of solution-focused techniques, which were covered in detail previously, I do not ascribe to constructivist approaches. As the more experienced therapist, I have the qualifications to be in the supervisory position. There is a reason for this. I am indirectly responsible for the client, and directly responsible for the therapist. Therefore, there is only one reality, and that reality is that the supervisee is learning, and requires my leadership. This includes adapting the teaching role when I feel it is necessary. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, as harm could be done to the client.

More specifically, if I have a supervisee that tells me she is having trouble with a client, I will start thinking about what interventions she has done and why they may have failed. I will not start thinking, as a constructivist would, that she is living in an alternate reality and what I really need to do is understand and accept her reality. What if her reality is telling her that she is doing everything right, and the client is simply being resistant? As the more experienced therapist, it is my responsibility to share my view of reality with her, and convince her of it.

Interestingly, my ideas about how to supervise are not completely consistent with how I counsel, as I thought they would be. When counseling couples, for example, I completely believe in alternate realities. I normalize the fact that the wife sees the situation or series of events differently from the husband. Whereas I try to get them to understand each others’ realities better, I do not try to convince them that there is only ONE reality, and that either or both of them is wrong. To do so in an already emotionally charged and tense situation is an invitation for disaster! Not to mention triangulation! Yet, I see my role as a supervisor much differently. I see my primary role as providing a safeguard to the public; supporting the counselor and helping them learn and grow is secondary. With such a serious responsibility, I cannot afford to entertain “alternate realities.” Contrast this with couples’ work, wherein the couple is voluntarily seeking my services, rather than being required by the state, and there is no third party to protect.


Stage developmental. Although there are different types of stage developmental models, all of them share the fundamental principle that the supervisee requires different types of interventions based upon their developmental stage. Whether the stage under consideration is Ericksonian or psychosocial, this theory relies on the supervisor to assess the supervisee’s level of development (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009). This is in somewhat in conflict to my philosophy of changing my intervention based upon the supervisee’s need in the present moment. I become consultant, teacher or therapist depending on what the supervisee needs. I do not plan my intervention method based upon a pre-assessed developmental stage. Just as in counseling, one never really knows what types of issues a supervisee will present with. They may be having a bad day, and may simply require emotional support, even if their pre-assessed developmental stage does not prescribe high support. I think that the developmental approaches are too restrictive, although they do provide good general information about what to expect from a supervisee.


The dynamics of group supervision are different from individual supervision. Group supervision lends itself well to sharing ideas and providing support; whereas individual supervision provides the safe environment necessary to address underlying personal issues or provide more in-depth, personalized support and consultation. My supervision theory allows me to exploit both types of environments to their full advantage.

In group supervision I tend to focus more on the teaching element. If a skill deficiency is uncovered, or a new topic arises out of reviewing the tape, I will stop the tape review and teach the concept to the entire class. For example, last night one of my students had a client he was struggling with. I suggested trying a cognitive-behavioral intervention, and the student gave me a blank look. Because my model of supervision is based on adapting roles to meet student needs, I adapted the teacher role. I instructed the class on the basis of cognitive-behavioral theory, explained the technique, then provided a concrete example applicable to the student’s situation.

In individual supervision I focus more on personal barriers and provide more in-depth consultation. Because students are less defensive in an individual environment, it is a great opportunity to address counseling issues of a more personal and specific nature. For example, I have a few students who struggle with boundary issues. In group supervision, I mention the general concept and give general guidelines, but in individual supervision I ask more direct questions and discuss in detail why the student is struggling.


My theory of supervision provides enough structure to effectively focus the supervision process, while still providing enough flexibility to meet student’s changing, and somewhat unpredictable, needs. There are many facets to supervision; it is really a rather strange combination of teaching, therapy and consultation. Not only can these roles be blended, they must be adapted based on students’ needs rather than supervisor planning. Thus, the person- centered nature of Rogerian theory is also incorporated in this model. Wellness is also an essential element of my model. Just as I place my own health above everything else in my life, I think it is extremely important to teach and model these skills to budding clinicians. The intensely emotional nature and high caseloads leading to high burn out rates make this element even more salient.


American Counseling Association. (2005). ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Bernard, J. M., & Goodyear, R. K. (2009). Fundamentals of Clinical Supervision. Upper Saddle


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