External Supervision – Just Do It!

For the last 3 years I have been supervised externally by someone not in my profession. I hadn’t thought anything of how this may differ from previous supervision at the time of seeking it – I was more interested in receiving supervision from someone independent from my workplace, their profession didn’t really come in to my consciousness when I was organising it. However, on reflection I think I have benefitted from the fact that my supervisor has a bit of distance both from my work place and from my discipline.

To give some context, I currently work as a Consultant Physiotherapist in Stroke and Rehabilitation. I have worked more years than I care to mention for the NHS and from my first day as a physiotherapist, supervision has always been a key element in my learning and development. Physiotherapy is a very practical profession and my previous supervision had always reflected that; either through clinical supervision / joint sessions, caseload reflection or advice re: management of others. On the whole, supervision felt like my time to talk about any difficulties or challenges and be advised on how to address them; it has always been quite solution-focussed.

I have found my supervision over the last 3 years or so to be far more reflective. Some of this is a consequence of the fact that my supervisor doesn’t work in my Hospital Trust. For example, I have to be very clear when describing any situation for which I am seeking advice. My supervisor doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of processes, colleagues and their characteristics, the background to & anything that might influence the situation, the ethos of the department, etc. This necessitates an element of contemplation to formulate a true reflection of the situation, which in itself is helpful in starting to process how I might best deal with it. The benefit of the external nature of my supervisor is that she can be truly objective; she has no pre-conceived ideas of the cause of any conflict (if that happens to be what we are discussing) or judgements regarding an individual’s character or relationships within the department or Trust. This allows her to explore any given situation further with a totally open mind.

An added bonus (in my opinion) is that my supervisor is not a physiotherapist. I am benefitting greatly from a different approach to supervision; a different background, experience and training all result in exploration of the same ‘terrain’ but from a different aspect, as she naturally has a different perspective to me. She is also very questioning and through her questioning allows me to explore fully the wider context. Supervision feels ‘fresh’ rather than alien and more reflective than solution-based. That is not to say that my supervisor never offers advice regarding alternative solutions or approaches but rather that she gives me space to truly understand or explore all aspects of any given situation, including my feelings and response to it (something that more-practical physiotherapists are perhaps not so naturally good at). I have always had a tendency to be ‘easily led’ (as my Mum would have said) or influenced by others. My supervisor helps me explore my roles, responsibilities and boundaries in terms of work relationships, supervision and management of my team. This validation allows me to own my next steps and personalise any response to ensure I remain authentic to me, my personality and values (as opposed to following my supervisor’s, friends’ or colleagues’ path or approach).

In the past, if I didn’t have a list of things I needed/wanted to discuss within my supervision session I would potentially cancel it. On occasion, I have found myself wondering what on earth I am going to talk about with my current supervisor; I seem to have no issues or problems and work-life is going well (surprising given the last 18 months the NHS has endured, I know, however I do also get an enormous amount of support from my peers). Irrespective of whether or not I have a particular topic I want to discuss and explore, I always find the session invaluable, the hour and a half inevitably flies by and I leave feeling more grounded and yet lighter.

Being supervised from someone without a background in physiotherapy really works for me for several reasons. My supervisor and I share the same commitment to each session, we have an excellent relationship based on mutual trust and respect, the approach is reflective and exploratory rather than solution-focussed and I am encouraged to review each topic from every perspective. Together, my supervisor and I explore how I can respond best to any given situation, ensuring I am comfortable with any approach and remaining true to myself. I feel as though over the last three years, my emotional intelligence has developed enormously and I have learnt so much about myself and others, yet I am aware I still have so much to learn.

If you haven’t considered seeking external supervision before, I would highly recommend it. As the famous advert says – Just Do It!!

By Fran Brander

Consultant Physiotherapist in Stroke & Rehab