Connection, Authenticity and Mutuality in Clinical Supervision

“We are relational beings,” said Dr. Pam Niesluchowski at a roundtable discussion I attended during the convention. “We strive to be in relation with and long for connection. But we keep parts of ourselves out of relationships in order to be in them.” She called that “the core relationship paradox.”

This is one of the main tenets of relational cultural theory (RCT), a feminist-based approach originally developed to focus on women and their relational experiences.

While this approach is effective for understanding therapy relationships, what does this have to do with clinical supervision? “Everything,” said Dr. Meghan Hanlon, former supervisee of Niesluchowski. “In growth-fostering relationships, RCT describes the ‘five good things’ that those involved in the relationship experience.”

Those five things — an increase sense of worth, a sense of zest or energy, an increased knowledge of the self and the other in the relationship, a desire to take action both inside and outside the relationship, and a desire for more relationships because of the feeling of the current relationship — are extremely applicable to providing competent and effective supervision.

Watching Drs. Hanlon and Niesluchowski interact and reflect on their supervision experience had a profound impact on me, as I could experience their deep sense of understanding and connection. As I stood witness to their supervision relationship, I could not help but reflect on what the quality of supervision would look like if supervisors emphasized the core relational factors that an RCT therapist would recognize in psychotherapy:

  1. Power — acknowledging and addressing power in the supervisory relationship while working toward collaboration mutuality (not necessarily an egalitarian approach and denying the inherent power and responsibility of a supervisor).
  2. Space for relational images — providing space to explore a supervisee’s relational images that they bring to the supervisory relationship, welcoming what might have been previously denied in order to have a growth-fostering relationship.
  3. Mutuality and authenticity — the ability of the supervisor to be authentically affected by the supervisee, and for the supervisee to know that she or he had that impact.

After participating in this roundtable discussion, I very much want RCT to be further integrated into all supervisory relationships. I walk away from this discussion offering a series of challenges: For institutions — how might you integrate the RCT framework in teaching supervision models? For clinical supervisors — does your current practice of supervision incorporate any or all of the tenets of RCT as a way to further enhance the quality of your supervision? For supervisees — continue to ask yourself if you feel safe to be vulnerable in your work with your supervisor and if you are able to be your “authentic self” in supervision.

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