Sanctuary and Meta-practice

Supervision has a crucial role as a place, away from immediate practice demands, where practitioners can safely share and seek to resolve their uncertainties or consolidate and augment what is going well. We can think about supervision providing us with a place of sanctuary to share our practice uncertainties or burdens with a trusted individual but also as a meta-practice (a practice about practice), where we can explore what is going well and what we might need to pay more attention to.

Supervision as a place of sanctuary

‘You know, often, kind of the experiences of supervision, of being in this context of crazy busyness where, you know, sitting in that room at least gives you a moment to stop the train for a bit.’

This quote is from one of my research participants. It really captures something I often hear from practitioners about how supervision can provide this bit of sanctuary in the course of our crazy, busy practice lives. Elsewhere I have suggested that when we are permeable practitioners, we recognise practice uncertainties can provide us with a prompt for learning. Sometimes, the opportunity for a bit of awareness-sharing in the sanctuary of supervision is sufficiently restorative but other times, sharing uncertainties is a necessary precursor for more extensive exploration of the ways in which those uncertainties might be resolved and or tolerated. Either way, finding sanctuary in supervision relies on practitioners perceiving the conditions are favourable for them to share and to begin to explore uncertainties.

Creating the conditions for supervision

Creating the conditions for supervisees to find some sanctuary in supervision is an important part of being a supervisor. If supervisees feel uncomfortable sharing their uncertainties, there are implications for both professional and public safety. Permeable supervisors recognise that even the most permeable supervisee will be reluctant to share stuff if they don’t feel sufficiently supported, so the supervisor will be attending to what conditions each supervisee might find conducive and recognising that this might differ from one supervisee to another. For the research participant quoted above, having the supervisor’s undivided attention was important:

‘So, you kind of, like there’s just this moment, this hour or whatever, to sit down with somebody who, you know, you have their undivided attention, stop the train for a bit, sit in their hand for a bit and kind of try and work through some things together.’

I’ve referred to the conditions which make for effective supervision in other blogs and signpost you to work by Martin and colleagues and by Rothwell and colleagues which you will find in the Suggested Further Reading.

The role of favourable conditions in supervision is among the reasons I suggest it’s helpful for supervisors and supervisees to check-in with each other about what their expectations and assumptions about supervision are, not just at the start of a supervision relationship, but from time-to-time thereafter. Without favourable conditions, at best, practitioners may be selective about what they share and at worst, avoid sharing uncertainties altogether.

Supervision as a meta-practice

In the second quote above, the practitioner talks about ‘trying to work through some things’ with the supervisor. This is supervision as a practice about practice; a meta-practice. I’ve picked this quote to share in this blog because I want to draw attention to the idea that meta-practice can be about working out how to get more of what’s good as well as addressing things that might need a bit of adjustment. Trying to work things through also implies that the supervisor and supervisee are exploring options together, that there may not be immediate answers and that importantly, the supervisor is neither there to deliver an answer nor to craft a ‘mini-me’. Supervision is part of a suite of things we engage in to maintain professional and public safety. In many ways it is the cornerstone of our ongoing professional development, offering the supported space where we can identify what other things will help us to augment practice or resolve our concerns; courses, training, research, published literature, shadowing and so on. Creating favourable conditions is just as important for meta-practice and most effective when both supervisor and supervisee are permeable:

  • Permeable supervisees recognise, share and seek to resolve their uncertainties,
  • Permeable supervisors recognise their duty of care to their supervisee; seeking to establish favourable conditions, focussing on the presenting uncertainties,
  • Permeable supervisors and supervisees recognise their duty of care to the public,
  • Permeable supervisors and supervisees care about and care to resolve the presenting uncertainties in the interests of both professional and public safety.

Protecting time for sanctuary and meta-practice

When I first became curious about supervision in health and social care, I had conversations with colleagues where we would agree we recognise the importance of supervision and that it is embedded in our professional standards. However, we also acknowledged that there were times when supervision got lost in the ‘crazy busyness’ my research participant described, at best postponed and sometimes lost completely. There are other reasons for this de-prioritisation of supervision including employers’ focus on patient or client-facing activity, how permeable supervisors are and whether supervisors create sufficiently favourable conditions. I aim to explore some of these ideas in future blogs. However, if sharing and resolving our practice concerns are so central to both our own professional safety and that of the public, it’s imperative that we get better, not only at creating favourable conditions, but also that we regularly schedule and protect the time for supervision because, as my insightful research participant notes:

‘The problem is that you know that as soon as you open the door after supervision, the train’s erm, you know, I’m back on the train again.’

Further reading and resources

To find the possible further reading mentioned in this blog and activities for exploring definitions, understanding and expectations of supervision go to Ideas and Resources