Peer supervision—why do it?
Human service workers get together in peer supervision sessions to discuss practice, to reflect, and to wonder about ethical considerations. Lucky souls, aren’t we? And, it feels entirely congruent to approach peer supervision sessions from a strengths-based perspective. The idea of talking together about practice issues, valuing both difference and commonality, recognising what is working, and identifying the strengths that will help reach that collective ‘preferred future’ is valuable. We do this hoping that the people we work with—the clients of our services—will benefit.
Several elements of great peer supervision
- Great peer supervision can be strengths-based practice reflection at its best. It draws upon the principles of shared leadership, co-design and shared responsibility, recognising that profound learning can take place when it comes from a collaborative standpoint.
- Great peer supervision separates ‘problems’ from the people who experience them and reflects on the universality of these experiences, thereby normalising them. Understanding this shared experience opens doors to shared information, shared strategies and, sometimes, a collective ‘sigh of relief’, reducing stress and building capacity. The effect of this lasts longer than a glass of wine or taking that bath after arriving home.
- Great peer supervision enables the examination of attitudes, values and beliefs, as well as the assumptions that workers consciously or unconsciously apply, whenever they meet with a client or community group. This kind of examination healthily interrogates these assumptions, bringing them out into the open. If assumptions are named and, if necessary, challenged, practice will be seen as an interaction between worker and client, informed by the values and beliefs of each. Ultimately, by examining practice through this lens, workers can take more responsibility for the effect of their own practice ‘self’ and consequently, more responsibility for how ‘engagement’ occurs.
- Great peer supervision builds and maintains teams and sometimes redefines them. If we take the viewpoint that anyone can be a peer, the weight of a hierarchy can be diminished. One worker’s experience will be held alongside that of a team leader or manager—no more nor less valuable.
Peer supervision sessions don’t always run smoothly
Sometimes eagerness to explore practice issues can have unexpected consequences and the very terminology used can quickly become a hurdle. Whilst the word ‘issue’, in its communal sense, is relatively benign, when equated with an individual, this can feel more like a synonym for ‘problem’. We may intend for it to be universal but the experience of it can be somewhat different. Instead, it may be more useful to consider, and give weight to, the ‘burning questions’ that need to be asked.
In this way, and by being mindful of the power of the language used, we can propose the telling of practice ‘stories’ rather than the naming of practice ‘issues’. Whilst any story may contain problems or issues, it will also contain challenges, successes, learnings, exceptions and strengths.
Practice issues reframed as practice stories
Listening to a story is different from hearing about an issue. ‘Listeners’ listen and are less inclined to offer advice before it is necessary or requested. ‘Listeners’ are keen to hear more, know more, or discover what happened next. When the story is over, ‘listeners’ can reflect on what they have heard and perhaps share a similar story. Just as in any story-book, another chapter, perhaps yet unwritten, can be pondered. Peers could wonder what an illustration to the story might look like. For example, ‘If this story is about practice, what does that look like in action?’ In a peer supervision session the next chapter could be a story about what ‘could be’ rather than ‘what is’. The group could then wonder what is getting in the way of that story being told and written … and, by invitation of the storyteller, be part of its authorship.
By Andrew Shirres,
Practice Development Coach
(Andrew is available to deliver workshops on the subject of peer supervision)