Seeing What We Can Capture Together: Setting Up the Frame For Reflective Supervision/Consultation

By Jessica Taylor-Pickford, LCSW, IMH-E®

In my work providing reflective supervision and consultation (RS/C) to groups and individuals, I consistently find parallels to my role as a mother of young children. Most recently, I sought to take a family photo — you know, one that looks joyful and warm, showing the connectedness and synchronicity my family and I feel with one another during our best moments together. But after a few attempts, I simply gave up.

This failure to get a perfect family portrait got me wondering about the parallels to setting up a reflective experience for groups and individuals. Perhaps the first step to getting that magical photo is hiring a great photographer who can bring her skills and gifts to the photo session, who knows when a young child has simply had enough or needs a change of scenery, and who can identify when the lighting is poor or knows when she has finally gathered enough images. Similarly, providers of RS/C can hone their craft through ongoing training, learning the skills and practices that support others in settling into a reflective space, feeling held and supported in sharing their feelings authentically, and approaching their work with curiosity and openness. Through ongoing experience receiving and providing RS/C, consultants can build a capacity to trust in themselves, others, and the reflective process as a whole.

In taking a photo, the next step is to choose a good enough time, when children are typically rested, open to new experiences, fed and happy. By some miracle that might align with a time when lighting in the environment makes everyone look wonderful and parents do not have to wake up before the sun to make everyone look polished and presentable. Similarly, consultants and supervisors can be thoughtful about the times, places, and routines they establish for regularly scheduled RS/C sessions. Personally, back-to-back pandemic video conference meetings without pre-scheduled breaks  do not put me in a state to listen intently, attune, and reflect with others. Rather, setting expectations and inviting participants to think about times and places that they can come together  with no interruptions impacts what we can achieve together moment to moment inside the frame of the RS/C session. Important, too, is allowing time to slow down when schedules are busy and everyone is able to attend to the experiences of others in the group or their own reflective process.

Here is where things become complicated because the creation of a certain set of ideal circumstances can be difficult.  Even with the most thoughtful of plans, unexpected weather, illness, a disrupted routine, or any myriad of factors that might impact a small child’s mood or attention can derail his capacity to engage in a novel experience where he is expected to fully and joyfully engage with others.

Like a parent in a family photo, consultants must also keep in mind that life is always happening outside the frame.

Unexpected interruptions, overwhelming feelings of stress, busy schedules, a global pandemic, personal illness, or any number of factors might challenge or disrupt a supervisor or supervisee’s capacity to share their full attention with others in any given moment or session. The expression of hope for uninterrupted time to reflect, as well as acknowledgement of the challenges to this, can be discussed within the sessions on an ongoing basis. Perhaps now, in the midst of a pandemic, this should happen more than ever before.

So, picture day arrives. We are rested, fed, and dressed appropriately. We arrive at our location, but how can we get everyone to look at the camera and smile? Moment to moment shared attention and connection seems like the tiniest task, but perhaps they are the most challenging. My family simply could not do it this year! We were able to explain hopes and expectations to my 5-year-old. She followed suit, showing up as her bubbly, big, performative self in a new and novel experience.  Throughout the session we bounced, rocked, shook toys, and made every silly noise we could think of for my more slow to warm 1-year-old as the photographer snapped away. However, that perfect picture of the four of us never came to fruition — someone was blinking, looking away, distracted trying to get another person to smile, disinterested, or crying.  The subsequent photos did not give anyone a sense of synchronicity and connectedness. Rather, you saw four different people, four different capacities for attention, four different emotional experiences, and four different moment-to-moment responses to our interactions with each other and the experience frame after frame.

In the same way, even when consultants set up what appears to be an ideal set of circumstances to come together for dyadic or group reflection, there are still barriers to connecting with others in the reflective process. As consultants, we can certainly set up some guidelines for the reflective frame, such as letting participants know there might be a greater emphasis on the exploration of feelings and relationships or that supervisors may be “sitting on their hands” instead of problem solving. Yet all we can do is offer a gentle invitation into this way of thinking about themselves and their work, with the hope that everyone will engage, to the degree they can, in any given moment throughout our time together.

Akin to those first few awkward snapshots where everyone in my family was trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing and how we were supposed to be with one another, perhaps in the early moments of the supervisor/supervisee relationship or when reflection is still a novel experience, participants may have difficulty showing up authentically, sharing feelings or exploring vulnerabilities. In certain snapshots of an RS/C session, you may find participants responding reflexively to what they are presented with instead of remaining open and curious. Perhaps in those moments, consultants can offer questions that promote reflection, much like we tried to shake a toy outside the frame of our pictures, hoping to spark a moment of interest and joy.  One moment my 1-year-old burst into laughter, but the next a little too much noise and novelty led to tears. We did our best to anticipate what his responses might be. Similarly, as consultants we can anticipate, but cannot control how supervisees respond to our inquiries. Instead, we can simply offer the opportunity to respond authentically, and wonder about their experiences and feelings, as well as the experiences and feelings of others (baby, parent, caregiver or worker), with the hope that they will feel supported in their attempts to explore experiences and interactions in this way.

Consultants, too, encounter their own barriers to being with others and inviting them into the reflective process. In my own set of family photos, I remember the difficulty of knowing where to focus my attention moment to moment. Do I smile at the camera, respond to the cues of my children, listen to the advice of the photographer or, in ideal moments, try to do all those things simultaneously? As consultants, we are trying to do many things at once: listen deeply, attune to an emotional undercurrent of the reflective process, hold our own internal experiences, and find a way to reflectively respond to others in a way that uniquely resonates with them moment to moment.

In one moment or session, we may have trouble attuning to the thoughts, feelings and needs of supervisees because the relationship is still new, or because the narrative they are presenting pulls on something inside us or our own history that may merit greater exploration in our own RS/C. In another frame, our own drive to teach or move others toward the reflective space actually moves us further from a sense of attunement and connectedness. In another frame, we may find our internal curiosity about certain aspects of the family story, the baby, the parallel process, or the provider’s responses so compelling that we shift the shared attention to those aspects of the narrative without allowing supervisees to fully explore other aspects of their work.  On a personal note, I often wonder how my attempts to do so much during RS/C sessions interrupt my ability to model authenticity and offer genuine connection to others, which is the aspect of my work that brings me the most joy.

In my opinion, the best family photos are filled with shared attention, connection, warmth, and authenticity. Sometimes there is just too much happening, outside the frame or within it, to cultivate those qualities in any given moment. My favorite family photos have not been staged or faked. Perhaps the most disruptive efforts to get anyone, though especially children, to take a “good picture” are the demands that they do so. In the same way, the idea that we can somehow force or fake connection or a reflective moment seems impossible.

Rather, the process of connection and reflection is just that, a process we come in and out of, one we can cultivate, one we can explore, one we can practice, one we can strive for, and over time one we might come to trust in.

When we are in it together, it’s a felt experience that holds for an entire session or a few fleeting frames.  Like my failed family photo attempts, in some sessions it never seems to materialize. When that is so, we can explore the experience, speculate about barriers, and support one another in trying again in our next session. Over time in group or individual RS/C, we will have a collection of snapshots that tell the story of our relationships to one another. Taken together, the snapshots reveal patterns for the ways in which we show up with each other. There will be moments we will look back on and laugh about, moments we are all looking different directions, moments where someone is distracted, moments filled with deep emotion, moments where we look lost, chaotic or awkward, and, if we are lucky, a few moments we cherish so deeply they are worth framing,