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May 31, 2016

Three Key Roles of Effective Supervisors

The month of May is graduation season and ‘tis the season for counselor trainees graduating with their master’s degrees in hand to begin their post-graduation journey towards licensure starting with residency. Part of this process includes finding an approved supervisor to register in order to start logging hours towards licensure. Supervisors play an important role in the professional development of supervisees and are influential. Clinical supervisors are required to meet certain criteria in order to serve in the role of supervisor. This often includes a given number of years’ experience post-licensure as well as training. For example, in the state of VA supervisors are required to demonstrate that they have received “professional training in supervision, consisting of three (3) credit hours or four (4) quarter hours) in a graduate-level course in supervision or at least 20 hours of continuing education in supervision, offered by a provider approved in regulation 18VAC115-20-106.” Most, supervisors that take a graduate-level supervision course will get training on models of supervision including social role models of supervision, because the 2016 CACREP standards require that doctoral programs in counselor education and supervision address “theoretical frameworks and models” of clinical supervision. However, those supervisors meeting this requirement by continuing education units (CEU’s) may or may not have training in models of supervision depending on the focus of their CEU’s. So, access to this information may be needed. The purpose of this blog is to provide some helpful information about three key roles a supervisor plays within the context of a supervision model. Having an awareness of these roles and an ability to articulate and communicate them to supervisees may help foster the rapport and strength of the supervisory relationship, which is of importance to effective supervisors (Ladany, Mori, & Mehr, 2013). For a more detailed overview and discussion on many different supervision models see Bernard & Goodyear’s (2004) text, “Fundamentals of Clinical Supervision.”

The idea of looking at roles in supervision has been discussed by many authors throughout the peer-reviewed literature. This discussion includes how supervision is similar to and different from roles in the field such as therapist, counselor educator, and consultant. Although, supervision is distinct from both teaching and therapy, elements of both may be present. It may be helpful to visualize a funnel with the wide end of the funnel starting with the supervisor’s “assumptive world” and the narrow end representing the supervisor’s specific format and techniques used as a result of each previous layer (Friedlander & Ward as cited in Bernard & Goodyear, 2004). A good explanatory tool that has been used related to the theoretical framework for the manifestation of roles in supervision comes from the idea that supervision is a higher ordered task that begins with one’s “assumptive world” which has refers to a supervisor’s professional work history as well as his or her life experiences, these life experience influence one’s selection of a theoretical orientation, which then has an impact on the supervisor’s style or role. That style or role then leads to the selection of a specific strategy, which then impacts one’s style, so the flow goes from assumptive world at the wide end of the funnel to theoretical orientation, to style/role, to strategy/focus, to format, and lastly to technique at the narrow end of the funnel (Friedlander & Ward as cited in Bernard & Goodyear, 2004).

So given one’s experiences professionally and personally and one’s theoretical orientation, a style and role will emerge. Although, there is not 100% consensus about what the roles of the supervisor should be- most all authors agree they should include: 1) therapist and 2) teacher. Many also include the role of consultant (Bernard & Goodyear, 2004). The models of supervision that utilize these primary roles are termed, “Social Role Models.”

The first important role in supervision is the role of counselor. Although, it is important to remember the supervisor is not the supervisee’s therapist, the supervisor may interact with the supervisee in ways that are therapeutic and thus also facilitate insight and offer the supervisee opportunity for experiential learning. For example, as a supervisor may detect and identify a block a supervisee has that is making it difficult to be present with clients who struggle to express sadness the supervisor may then explore this with the supervisee and note the supervisee him or herself has been having a struggle expressing sadness or being present with his or her own sadness. The creation of a safe space for the supervisee’s own experience working with clients and the impact on the personhood of the counselor/supervisee is important. Empathy is of course a key skill in this role. The supervisor’s expression of empathy was one of the behaviors associated with the strength of the supervisory relationship in a study on effective and ineffective supervisors and the facilitation of a safe and “open” forum for discussion was also associated with effective supervision (Ladany, Mori, & Mehr, 2013). In addition Ladany and colleagues study on effective and ineffective supervisors revealed that some of the practices of effective supervisors involved demonstrating skills sometimes that occurs when a supervisor demonstrates with a supervisee in the process of supervision. For example, a supervisor may invite a supervisee through a relaxation exercise such as relaxation breathing and visualization, assign some reading, and then invite the supervisee to try to process with the supervisor and then subsequently with a client in therapy. This process is likely to have a therapeutic impact on the supervisee.

In addition to the role of therapist/counselor another role often used by supervisors is that of a teacher. Just like students completing practicums or internships may be required to submit video recorded sessions for feedback and discussion during supervision, supervisors may request the same practice during residency. Reviewing video recorded or audio recorded sessions, the supervisor may give the supervisee feedback and direction on how to insert a solution-focused technique in a future session such as the search for exceptions (i.e. Was there ever a time when the problem was not occurring? What was different at that time?) Or the supervisor may provide some training on an intervention that the supervisee is not familiar with.

In addition, to the common roles of therapist and teacher, there is a third role that some authors in the research literature indicate is critical for supervisors (though there is less consensus regarding this role). This is the role of consultant. Here a supervisor and supervisee may collaboratively discuss a treatment plan, case conceptualization, or perhaps do an empathy building activity. Ladany, Mori and Mehr in their 2013 study explored the practices of effective versus ineffective supervisors. They found that effective supervisors encouraged the autonomy of their supervisees. For example, if a supervisee is wondering what relaxation techniques may work best for a client with anxiety the supervisor may ask, “What has been effective with similar presenting problems in the past? Let’s take a moment to reflect on some of your previous cases.” This may encourage the supervisee to participate in the process of decision making via self-reflection and subsequent self-directed thinking. This may also help a sueprvisee to develop the practice of reflecting on skills and techniques that have been resources in the past and may also serve as resources in the present.

So three important roles that an effective supervisor may often adopt are: 1) that of counselor, 2) teacher, and 3) consultant. These roles are all within the umbrella task of supervision, thus offering supervisees a broad sampling of developmentally helpful interventions. Articulating these three roles to new supervisees and preparing them for the distinct nature of supervision may strengthen the supervisory working alliance (yet another priority of effective supervisors).  This trifecta of roles (therapist, teacher, & consultant) may compose most of the distinct yet familiar process of supervision and communicating about roles in advance may help supervisees navigate this novel yet familiar terrain with greater confidence and less anxiety.  


Bernard. J. M. & Goodyear, R. K. (2004). Fundamentals of Clinical Supervision. 3rd ed. Pearson, Boston, MA. 

Ladany, N., Mori, Y., & Mehr, K.  (2013). Effective and ineffective supervision. The Counseling Psychologist, 41(1), 28-47.
Anita Knight is a counselor, counselor educator, and author. See for more information. 



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