What is Supervision?

As health and care professionals we are all pretty familiar with the word ‘supervision’. Our familiarity with the word can seduce us into assuming that we all know what we are talking about when we refer to supervision and that our understanding and expectations of supervision are shared. These assumptions are not that surprising, not least because registration and professional bodies promote and encourage us to engage in supervision and we find the practice encouraged in health and care policy.

In this blog, I’m suggesting, that we almost certainly have some shared concepts about supervision but that doesn’t mean we can assume we are always on the same page. The situation is further complicated because supervision sits in a wider landscape of professional and personal development and support possibilities. There may be synergies with other activities such as coaching, mentoring or counselling but there is also ambiguity about how to differentiate these. Not only might we have different opinions about what supervision is, but we may also differ in our views about what supervision is not. I don’t think these different perspectives are a deal-breaker for supervision, particularly if supervisors and supervisees are permeable practitioners and crucially, if they engage in dialogue about the possible purposes and meanings of supervision and related activities.

Definitions of supervision

For a large part of my career, I’d say I was someone who assumed that we were all talking about supervision in the same way across the health and care professions and systems. Arguably, not my most permeable self! I also concede that in my early career I was a bit ambivalent about supervision. However, over time I grew to value it and to feel pretty comfortable as a supervisor. I noticed when I first started university teaching, that the things I had felt most comfortable, confident and certain about in practice, turned out to be some of the most difficult things to translate into teaching materials. Supervision was one of these things. I recall thinking that looking up some definitions might provide a good starting point and a sort of truth about supervision. Over a decade later, it is funny to reflect on how my search for certainty in the shape of a go-to definition, led me to realise how varied our understandings of supervision might be. Furthermore, we notice these contrasting definitions in the ways our colleagues talk about supervision; some adamant that supervision is about knowledge and skills, others more focused on well-being and others advocating it as a crucial part of early career while of less importance once the practitioner is experienced, and so on.

I still think definitions are a good place to start our conversations about and training for supervision but not as a way to present some sort of truth about supervision. Instead, I think looking at definitions along with dialogue about our prior experiences of supervision, can highlight and help us to navigate the ways in which our understandings, assumptions and expectations about supervision are similar and or different to those we are working with. Exploring these similarities and differences is facilitated when we are permeable practitioners, in particular when we are open to alternatives, critically aware and willing to change.

Further reading and resources

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