Having Difficult Conversations in Supervision

I have finished my first semester in a new practicum site, and my supervisor’s evaluation of me was less positive than I expected.  She’s been very supportive of me, and I expected her to understand why I’ve had some trouble keeping up with paperwork and applying the theoretical orientation used by my agency.  Should I talk with my supervisor about her evaluation of me?

This is the third blog in a series on difficult conversations.  Click here for the blog related to client conversations and here for the blog related to colleague conversations.  As I have mentioned in the previous blogs, growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk about issues and areas of conflict in a way that is different than our usual social conversations.  When we can expand our repertoire of skills in managing these difficult conversations, we are capable of being effective in a broader range of clinical challenges.

One of the issues raised by your question is the inherent tension that is felt by both supervisors and supervisees between two necessary aspects of supervision: 1) providing support to facilitate professional growth and 2) giving corrective and constructive feedback in areas needing further development.  Both of these aspects of supervision are required for you to gain skill and confidence in your clinical work, but most supervisors and supervisees are more comfortable with the support side than the corrective feedback side.  I will suggest a few issues for reflection before returning to the question of talking with your supervisor about her evaluation of you.

First, I would suggest that you examine the degree to which you experience support and feedback as polarized or incompatible.  Think about other relationships you have had with instructors and other authority figures and whether it has been hard for you to receive guidance or suggestions on assignments or work performance.  This may also relate to your experience with your parents, bringing up issues to discuss in your personal therapy.  You may be looking for nurturing and support from your supervisor without recognizing the need for correction and guidance.

Second, it sounds like you have some assumptions about what it means for your supervisor to be supportive.  Consider your supervisor’s position of responsibility for your clients’ care and for insuring that your clinical work meets acceptable standards in your agency as well as the mental health field.  She may or may not understand the reasons you have struggled in the particular areas you mention, but either way she has a responsibility to evaluate your performance accurately and to give you appropriate feedback.  Being supportive doesn’t mean that you’ll be held to a more lenient standard than your peers.

Third, I recommend reflecting on your own standards for yourself as you learn a new set of skills.  It is often uncomfortable to be a beginner especially when you have developed confidence in other areas of your life.  You may be looking for positive feedback from your supervisor partially in order to counter your own discomfort or self-criticism as you grow in a new profession.  You may also be unfamiliar with being rated as average or even below average, even though this is a predictable part of the clinical learning process.  Mastering clinical work is different from learning academic material, and you may have expected an evaluation from your supervisor that reflects your success in the classroom.

After reflecting on these three areas, give thought to how you might approach a conversation with your supervisor.  I would suggest focusing on the corrective feedback she gave you as an opportunity for you to establish goals for your next semester.  Make sure you understand your supervisor’s expectations and ask her for examples of the changes she wants you to make.  If you are uncertain about how to make these changes, ask for suggestions of ways you can improve.  It will probably be helpful to have a series of conversations about the areas you mention, so you can get progressive feedback on your performance.  It may be hard to focus your attention on areas of growth rather than areas of greater skill, but your clinical work will improve as you bring those weaker areas in line with your strengths.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in having difficult conversations in supervision.  Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.