Face to Face on the Line:
An Invitation to Learn from Online Supervision
Claire Fialkov, David Haddad, and Jackie Gagliardi
Our intention in this commentary is to discuss the ways in which the medium of online supervision1 might enrich and enhance the supervision process. Online relationships are a relatively new area of study. When we first began to supervise trainees online, we had many questions: How do we define ourselves as supervisors and trainees online? What is the nature of "place" and "presence" during online supervision? What supervision practices might best facilitate online conversation?
The language we use to communicate online is written, as opposed to spoken. Speech is not in itself, natural, spontaneous, truthful, or expressive of a kind of pure interiority. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1996) indicates that on the contrary, speech is immediately theatrical. Speech borrows from a whole collection of cultural and oratorical codes. It is immediate and cannot be taken back, therefore, the speaker needs to calculate the words before they come out. However, written speech provides enough time for the composer to censure him or herself (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1996). Online conversation provides both the trainee and the supervisor with the "temporal breathing space" necessary to sustain reflexive supervision.
Reflexive supervision (Haddad & Fialkov, 1996) occurs when a person practices supervision, and simultaneously thinks about the process while doing it. Reflexive implies a "turning back on one self", so when the supervisor comments on the therapy process, she/he is also saying something about themselves. Schon (1983) talks about "the recognition that oneís expertise is a way of looking at something that was once constructed and may be reconstructed, and there is both readiness and competence to explore its meaning in the experience of the client (or trainee). The reflective practitioner tries to discover the limits of his expertise through reflective conversation" (Schon, 1983, p. 296). We address questions such as: Am I doing what I think I am doing? What alternative truths do I hold that might be equally important? What is it about my history that guides me to this particular way of thinking?
We refer to this practice of inward exploration, in which one thinks backwards and wonders aloud, as self-inquiry. Self-inquiry often takes the form of wondering: Do I feel connected in this conversation? Do these words capture my intentions? What might I change to achieve my goa1s? When inquiries are shared in conversation, they inform and facilitate intentional practice.
An intention is an aim or purpose that guides an action. Once intentions are shared, goals may be established. Coordinated intentions promote coordinated actions, and insofar as intentions create the reality you experience (Zukav, 1989), shared intentions create the experience of a shared reality. This experience enhances connections in relationships, including the supervision relationship.
Online conversation provides the opportunity for even higher levels of intention than face-to-face conversation. There is no place for idle, off-the-topic chatting. Some of the social conventions which are part of the fabric of face-to-face supervision, do not seem to be as necessary online. "As the volume of communication increases, so does the need for intentional reflection" (Ellinor & Gerard, 1998, p. 286). Creating shared intentions in supervision practice organizes and focuses collaboration, and permits the exploration of questions such as: What is it we are practicing? Did we accomplish what we set out to do? How do we need to interact with each other in order to achieve our mutually desired goals?
We wondered how to design online conversations in ways that help us focus our attention on these questions. What additional skills are necessary for meaningful asynchronous conversation? What are the practices that will be useful in their development? We supervised three trainees over a four-month period. The following excerpts from an online conversation reveal a bit of the supervision process. This conversation begins with a trainee saying that she is afraid to talk about suicide with a self-destructive, adolescent female client.
Trainee: What I am saying is that Iím afraid to talk about death at length for fear that she will be less safe. I sense my need for control in a situation where I have none. I actually donít know what is best for her. But I do know that she feels safe with me and therefore has a place to explore her deep feelings. Iím not worried about working with her long term; just about being available in some profound way. I donít mean this to be grandiose, but Iím stuck finding words (interesting in itself) to say, do I have the depth of skill to be of use?
Again, the trainee pauses from stating her intentions and reflects on the process of online supervision. She says:
This process is very interesting. Iím sitting here with a catch in my throat. I am fascinated and a bit awed that writing on e-mail has this power.
Supervisor: Can you say more about "being available in some profound way?" You wonder if you have the depth of skill to be of use. What does your model of therapy say about what those skills might be? What do you think it is about e-mail that connects in such a powerful way?
Trainee: It would be nice to feel I had a definite model of therapy that I drew from. Iíve told you that Iím attracted to Bowenian feminism because of the intergenerational view combined with validating the feeling system and equality of power...Iím attracted to solution-focused and postmodern pieces. I really like the idea of a conversation and dialogue with a client. I find it harder to see how to have the conversation with an at-risk person. I guess Iím still stuck wanting to be the expert, in the fixer position. I am afraid/love the power of words. Will I have the right words so nothing bad happens? I donít know yet if I can trust the conversation to evolve in a safe enough way.
The supervisor responds to this self-inquiry by stating:
Supervisor: Your concern for safety is very important, but I would encourage you to consider the connection between "saying the right thing so nothing bad happens". In my experience I can say all the right things and bad things happen anyway. Do you think of it as cause and effect? Perhaps it is less about trusting... the conversation...and more (about) trusting that you will be present and real. In contrast to your concern about saying the right thing, I have been hearing your voice very clearly. Your questions and concerns are very clear and strong.
The trainee ends her conversation by reflecting on the online supervision process by saying:
Trainee: Email connects in a powerful way because it gives me the time to reflect. I didnít expect to find it so compelling as I am impacted by visual cues and tones of voice. Perhaps the absence of those sensory overlays is good for me. I thought this would be more one-dimensionalóit turns out to be "different dimensional".
In general, the transcripts of our conversations suggest that online supervision is a concentrated form of supervision, a "high potency" formula. While stating oneís intention and practicing self-inquiry certainly occurs during face-to-face supervision, these reflexive processes seem to form more of the entirety of the online communication process. There is quite simply, less fluff. This simplified communication process, free of nonverbal cues and temporal constraints, provides a clean and smooth canvass upon which to paint our reflections.
Claire Fialkov, Ph.D., is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and a Co-coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Cambridge College2, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Claire specializes in supervision and training and has a clinical practice in Needham, Massachusetts.
David Haddad, Ed.D., is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor with over 25 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. He is on the MFT faculty at Cambridge College and maintains a private consulting and psychotherapy practice.
Jacqueline Gagliardi, M.Ed., CAGS, is a Co-Coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Cambridge College, and an AAMFT Approved
Supervisor. She has co-authored a study guide for candidates preparing for the national MFT licensure exam. She consults with school systems and has had a private practice for over twenty years.
All three authors have worked together for many years teaching collaborative supervision. They have presented workshops nationally and hope to continue to expand ideas about training and supervision at community agencies in the New England area. This team will be presenting the session "Face to Face on the Line: MFT
online Supervision" at AAMFTís 59th Annual Conference.
1We use the term online to mean asynchronous e-mail.
2We are grateful to Cambridge College for providing a Technology Grant to explore this area of inquiry.