Embodied and Relational – The Core Supervisory Stance for These Times

Embodied & Relational


The Core Supervisory Stance for These Times


A study through the lens of 5 experience Supervisor Psychotherapists 


This study explored the experience of five Munster based practitioners, an enquiry into how they keep their practice of supervision and psychotherapy relevant to these changing times.

It addresses the question of how they keep their practice alive, vital and relevant, whilst simultaneously being able to integrate the conflicting demands of the role. It is a summary of the findings and seeks to address the impact of changing times on the practice of psychotherapy & supervision.




The participants interviewed came from different training orientations and modalities. Each had over 30 years’ experience; maintain a practice that includes psychotherapy and supervision and were or are involved in the training of therapists and the supervision of supervisors. They each work from different philosophical stances and theory bases having their own individual style.  Two are involved in the training of supervisors. These conversations were transcribed and the data was reviewed using a thematic analysis.  Quotes in italics are taken directly from the transcriptions.




Ireland is in the middle of huge change; a different world with a different set of pressures. We have recently experienced a great deal of social, economic, state and religious change. There has been a seismic shift in attitudes to gender, relationships, family and sexuality.  Assumptions and structures that were familiar to us have been challenged. What was once perceived as a relatively stable experience of life is in a state of flux; ‘liquid modernity’ to use Bauman’s (2002) description.  His idea is that we have moved from a solid to a fluid phase of modernity, in which nothing keeps its shape, and social forms are constantly changing at great speed, radically transforming the experience of being human. In this, he speaks of our thirst to create order and reduce uncertainty.

Could it then be said that as a result of this that we have become a procedural led country, resulting in the strong desire for evidence based outcomes, check lists flow charts, throughput and output figures, measurement of productivity and turnover. In turn these then become the work pressures and external stressors of these times. It is particularly significant in the helping and caring professions. Practitioners are working under a great deal of performance pressure; they are working in a culture of fear and are afraid of getting it wrong.   Supervision as a process offers a unique opportunity for those in frontline work to take time out and reflect on the important rather than the urgent.  Thus, it is important for us as Supervisor Practitioners to remain in relationship and connected whilst simultaneously remaining flexible and being robust.







The following definitions and understanding of terms is the lens through which the analysis was viewed.



Browne (2013 p.531) sees the term psychotherapy, coming from the Greek, therapeia, meaning to treat, to attend on, to serve. The former, to treat, is more readily understood outside of psychotherapy circles. It has its origins in the medical model. The view of psychotherapy that informs this study is from the latter; to be of service and to attend to.


Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy

The view of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy that informs is from IAHIP ethics, which emphasises the autonomous and self-regulatory qualities of the person, who has the ability to go beyond themselves and realise their true nature.  Based on a phenomenological view, importance is on experience and meaningful contact between persons.  (IAHIP, 2016)



I use a definition of supervision adapted from (Carroll & Gilbert, 2011): a collaborative learning space used by supervisees to reflect on all aspects of their work, where they receive formal and informal feedback on that work and where the welfare of clients and the quality of the service they receive is central.




Analysis of the themes led to the emergence of two central concepts: being embodied and being relational. A healthy working tension seems to exist between firstly, the embodiment of the Supervisors own internalised philosophical structure of meaning making, and, secondly, relational connecting.  These findings are interchangeable between psychotherapy and supervision and can be applicable to cross professional supervision.




An Overview of the Findings


Listening to the wisdom and experience of these practitioners, what struck me was how much they worked from their own essence; free and unencumbered. They did not present as ‘experts’ over the other, rather as experts in themselves and their field. Their presentation was of being authentic and congruent with themselves and who they are as people. Each is actively engaged in a continual process of philosophical/theological/transpersonal/spiritual reflection and learning; resulting in a practice that is relevant, vital and alive. My observations were that this personal dynamic framework has become an underpinning resource for their unique understanding of human existence. Each was embodied in a core practice of meaning making, which one described as a “peer support for the heart”.

Another, “holding the bigger picture makes individual work more potent – you open up to those larger levels of awareness and you are also opening up to more support and a sense of your place in a part of something bigger”. Thus, practitioners nested in a larger perspective as such, become the resource for ‘being with’; sitting in the edge of the unknown, a fertile place from which real and depth learning can take place.


In an earlier study I explored the centrality of the restorative function in supervision. The three functions: educative, normative and restorative are interrelated and connected, each having a direction of its own that is linked back to the other two, not unlike a triple spiral. I see the restorative function as pivotal, the foundation for all the functions, the one that takes priority. Without firstly attending to the emotional, physiological and spiritual impact of any relational work towards a creation of well-being, the other tasks and functions become linear and reduced in their potential for transformation. Expanding on this idea, I see the importance of the relational and interactive as the source for lifelong learning.  The primacy of the on-going development of personal and professional competence and confidence became apparent during the analysis. I also saw the foundation for the work in relationship with others as life giving rather than life sapping, or leading to burnout and compassion fatigue.


The findings also show the huge value placed by practitioners on personal development and they noted the limiting nature of approaching the work from theory alone.  For expansion and enhancement, it is essential that any new learning is tweaked, synthesised and integrated into a core footing. Empathy cannot be simply taught and learned, it has to come from within as an authentic experience.  Coming home to self as a source for this is crucial. Supervisors were also noticing a difference in the presentation of supervisees; a more academic approach, to the detriment of the experiential and personal development; resulting in a lack in presence, deep listening and empathy.


The embodiment of all that I am, and all that I have learned, combined with the qualities of being connected and in relationship, were the essential ingredients of the Practitioners in this study.




Participants in this research are still focussing on the relational; a satisfying and mutual relationship which is the basis for healing. Importance was also placed by them on the centrality on empathy; congruence and unconditional positive regard; though this central and essential core has been enhanced and deepened through continuous learning and reflective practice, becoming a clear supportive and embodied internal structure.




The study showed that participants also worked very hard to attune, that is being able to deeply attend to and respond to the other.   In the dance of attuning to their supervisees, the qualities of the supervisor themselves became important. They showed qualities of passion for the work and other; respect; depth and compassion. By being present and having the capacity to facilitate deep listening.  They used a creative approach with a non-imposing curiosity.  I saw that enquiry was central in their approach, both at the contracting stage and throughout the supervisory relationship. One participant described it as “adapting to meet the other without losing essence of self”. The ability to attune makes the partnership with the relational a very powerful element


The study showed the necessity of negotiation in order to establish a mutual working alliance; the context for the work and to establish the learning goals and requirements. One interviewee described a “sensing and experiencing of the other” to inform this process; actively working with the dynamic between autonomy and interrelatedness; the individual and the relational. To keep it dynamic means to hold all of this; the relational and the ability to attune to the underlying. (Cooper, et al., 2013 p67)




The findings showed the importance placed on the use of skills and interventions in refining and researching in the moment, on a continual practice of sifting out. This depth awareness, of being fully awake, in turn, becomes the practitioners’ gateway of honing understanding of the other at many levels. Characteristics of being dynamic, vital and alert using enquiry and curiosity with humility and tenacity were noted.


The ability of the participants to sit with difference and tolerate the experience was vital.  It is easy to understand the world of the supervisee whose view is similar to our own; however, a supervisor spoke of the importance of having cultural sensitivity; a broad cultural awareness and a sense of unconscious bias in values, beliefs and perception. The supervisor unafraid to grapple and be curious, to get to ‘know’, to get to the root of the concern, the interrelationship between field and figure;


“Knowing enough to need to know more, this ironically becomes a kind of

endless deeper knowing”.




Another major theme is the importance of the awareness of being caught in the undertow of transference and countertransference.  It could be the unconscious pull of suffering or pain of human existence, of being drawn into the external landscape of the other; the statistical and cultural demands of an organisation; or the pull of the supervisee/client to ‘fix or be ‘fixed’.

And as such be a dance or tussle between field and figure.


The ability to sit in discomfort without being pulled in by unconscious material as yet unrevealed, or by the seduction of material that at any moment can seem more immediate, and carrying urgency.  There is a requirement of supervisor/therapist to be in moment by moment decision making; in the tension between following and staying with or risking rupture; a continual process of sharpening the figure.




The most profound tone communicated to me by the practitioners was an overriding sense of the sacredness and nobility of being involved in this intimate therapeutic relationship. My sense of them remaining vital, appropriate and robust as supervisors is of an embodied grounded stance in shifting sands, feet firmly planted and anchored.  In a stance or posture that finds traction in fluidity; an internalised supportive structure which does not limit and constrain. To remain true to their unique essential framework becomes a resource that supports the practitioner to stay in a process of constant negotiating and grappling so as to attune and ease in to a deepening connection with the other.  By being themselves, having true compassion and being in relationship with their own vulnerability lends a freedom and an authentic willingness to understand. One example is of a practitioner who has gone beyond their own hyper vigilance and traumatic experience which has been transformed into an acute alertness or antenna. This grants a critical meeting with the other, the tension between the important versus urgent is ever present


To attend by attuning, not just following the urgent, but attempting to reach the important.  One interviewee described it this way, “to use the urgent as the window to see beyond the immediate pull of the undertow”. To work at this level requires the embodiment of all that we are, all the different aspects of us that go to make up our uniqueness both as human being and professional.




New research, theories and models are emerging all the time.  They can be of best value when they are refined, assimilated and built into existing essential principles, modalities and philosophies. Critical reflection on action is the process of a continual critiquing or testing self against theory.  This craft of a continuous process of learning and development in turn cultivates a deepening of process and integration of new learning, tested against existing beliefs, perceptions and behaviours. This then cultivates reflection in action, moment by moment.




Good quality supervision is essential in keeping the work of frontline practitioners relevant and constantly evolving in these changing times. Although society and work practices are continually changing, the same human needs, dilemmas and crises exist beneath. Paradoxically, the context of these shifting times could be turned on its head. The consideration is one of emphasis; it is dependent on individual stance, the embodiment of the individual world view of the supervisor.


Supervision as a model of collaboration and lifelong learning addresses the tension between theoretical knowledge and process; espoused learning versus experiential, translatable into action and changed practice (Carroll, 1996, 2015 p7).  We cannot teach empathy, it has to be learned through experience so that it becomes authentic and flowing; a part of us.  It involves examining practice reflectively and reflexively, which creates a reformulation of existing assumptions to “permit a more inclusive, discriminating, permeable, and integrative perspective” (Mezirow, 2011 p9).  That is to hold an authentic solid presence which makes itself available to the other to explore their personal structures of meaning making.


We have become a ‘procedural’ led world, which has less time for the relational; and as such we have become disconnected. Therefore, to keep it vital and evolving, there is an importance vested in us as supervisors to hold an authentic solid presence which makes itself available to the other to explore their own structures of meaning making. Transformation comes through this interconnectedness; negotiation and grappling with difference to find meaning and understanding not unlike that of mother and baby in forming attachment.


However, I feel that as practitioners we need not to become ‘collusive parents’ and allow the supervisee/client to discover their own sense of themselves.  On one hand it is similar to that of early attachment where mother and child grapple and struggle; negotiate to hone the bond and find separateness.  The difference you could say, now, is that the struggle is concerned not just with me and mother, but is more concerned about me and wider society.  It involves much more ‘conscious knowing’.  We as practitioners have to assist people to go out and be in the world, holding vulnerability in perspective.  It is vital therefore, that we remain countercultural; to continually be aware of where we are getting caught up in fear and urgency of the context.  At one level, this may seem as though we are not ‘doing anything’, we do not appear to be fixing or finding solutions, herein lays the irony or the paradox.




It is important to cultivate an atmosphere that ‘sees beyond’, that does not react but rather considers and responds.  We need to be deepening, broadening and continually integrating person centred themes. We need to focus on relationship rather than just technique and skill and develop an “authentic encounter stance”.  It is imperative that we remain real, robust and clear whilst at the same time be able to sit in a posture of understanding and compassion and not get pulled in. From the experience of the study, I feel that we need to be operating out of a spacious and integrated, theoretical, philosophical and spiritual framework. This comes from and is maintained by an on-going practice or discipline; to ‘chew over’, reflect on and synthesise our experience.


Embodied and relational is the only way forward. It is the essence of working with the only certainty we have, that of ourselves.
































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