When supervision disappoints

Aug 30, 2012 by

Today’s guest post is by Kat Elrod, a LPC supervisor here in Austin, with some tips on how to handle different kinds of conflict with your supervisor.

It is hard to fully identify whether or not you will be a good fit with a supervisor from the interview process alone! Conflicts, disappointments and dilemmas often don’t appear until further into the relationship. The good news is you hold not only the power but also the responsibility to change or add supervisors if you are dissatisfied with your experience.

What sort of disappointments do you mean?

The most common possibilities can be grouped into five categories: boundaries, time, expectations, feedback content, and feedback delivery. The following issues may or may not mean it is time to consider a new supervisor, but they are reasons why some supervisees have decided it was time for a change.

Boundaries: Inappropriate, unethical or uncomfortable boundaries might develop further into supervision. This can include any dual relationship pursued by a supervisor including a sexual relationship, romantic relationship, and/or friendship. There is a power differential in supervision and therefore dual relationships are advised to be minimized. Sexual relationships are absolute ethical violations.

Time: This can show up as your supervisor frequently starting sessions late, ending sessions early, cancelling sessions, falling asleep, and/or allowing interruptions. Supervisors also have differing policies about their availability outside of the scheduled supervision sessions.

Expectations: Perhaps expectations were never discussed and now there is a conflict. Even if expectations were discussed, expectations might be mismatched, misunderstood, inappropriate, or undesired. For example, how much personal information can be talked about in supervision can vary by supervisor.

Feedback Content: There may be an overdose of positive feedback, a downpour of negative feedback, or feedback might be completely absent. You could strongly disagree with the way a supervisor is advising you and find yourself unwilling to follow through with your supervisor’s instructions. Since the supervisor is liable for your decisions, the supervisor’s directing trumps your disagreement. This kind of dilemma is a strong case for changing to a supervisor who aligns with your value system.

Feedback Delivery: A supervisor might be dismissive, defensive, shaming, disinterested, bitter, judgmental, overly pleasing, sarcastic, and the list goes on. The delivery of feedback has the potential to shut down effective communication and collaboration. Feedback can be difficult to hear, especially when we are sensitive and vulnerable developing new skills and a new identity as a counselor. It is important to check out your interpretations of feedback with your supervisor to verify that the message heard was what the supervisor intended to communicate. Once the possibility of our own filtering has been ruled out, we might discover the supervisor’s style is prohibiting a safe and productive environment for supervision.

So what do you do?

If you run into a problem with a supervisor, bring up the issue as soon as possible and address the concern directly. It might be that the supervisor is unaware of how their behavior is affecting you. There may be a misunderstanding about what a behavior or decision means, or a need for expectations to be clarified. We are all human, all developing, and we all make mistakes! Exploring these mistakes openly can strengthen the supervision bond and open up both parties to growth. You, as a counselor, will also have blind spots, and will rely on feedback from your supervisor and clients to gain insight. Supervisors need this same kind of feedback.

It is very likely that you will run into difficulty communicating with coworkers and superiors beyond your internship. When there is an issue with your supervisor, it could be an opportunity to practice asserting your needs and resolving conflict. Building this muscle now will help you throughout your career. It is surprising how often we can have our needs met just by letting others know what they are. Speaking up might not result in met needs, but once you have ruled out that option, you can direct your energy into finding another way.

In a hospital, agency or nonprofit, you may be assigned a supervisor. The likelihood of disappointment increases since a selection process was not available. It is possible to hire a second supervisor, in addition to the person provided, to ensure your supervision needs are met. You may also want an extra supervisor to receive specialized training in an area outside the supervisor’s expertise, like play therapy or eating disorders for example. There is an additional cost, but it might be worth it to be able to keep that counseling position and be free of resentment and frustration.

If you attempt to communicate your needs or concerns and the dialogue does not resolve the issue, then you may want to consider changing supervisors. This conversation might seem intimidating with concerns of hurting the supervisor’s feelings or a poor reference for the future. I recommend accessing your support system, which might include your own counselor, to seek support and empower you in making this step. Your license, learning and development are in your hands and only you can protect them.


Kat Elrod is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Approved Supervisor in private practice in Austin and is currently accepting interviews for supervision. She enjoys providing a safe and supportive space for LPC-Interns to learn and grow as they develop toward licensure. In her counseling work, she helps adults with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety heal from the past and interact with life in new ways.  You can learn more about her practice at www.katelrod.com.

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