My clients, like me, are service-centered professionals. We get a deep sense of satisfaction from making a difference, being the one others turn to for help, and from doing work that helps build a better world. Many of us grew up experiencing the very life difficulties we seek to help others cope with, fueling the passion we bring to our work. We also sometimes carry with us the continued effects of those earlier experiences.

The giving we do can get to be a nonstop, 24-7 way of life that permeates our professional and personal lives. We swim in a sea of never-ending need and pressing priorities. We get caught up in trying harder, giving more, always aware of the struggles and needs all around us. Many of us work in settings that demand ever more from us – more time, more energy, more effort — without necessarily providing environments or supports that help replenish and restore our reserves.

This scenario, this combination of personal motivations and the stresses of our work sets us on the path to burnout.  Once full blown burnout sets in, it’s hard to reverse and can lead to a decrease in quality of work and to harmful effects for professionals, programs and their participants.

There are things our organizations can do, and that we ourselves can do to create a different path, a path that supports resilience and a sense of satisfaction in our work. This post focuses on how organizations can use relationship-based, reflective practice to promote resilience and reduce the likelihood of staff burnout and turnover. A future post will describe what we as individuals can do to prevent burnout.

At its heart, a relationship-based and reflective organization recognizes the power of one relationship to powerfully and positively affect other relationships.

Organizations with service-centered missions can adopt the principles of relationship-based and reflective practice.  At its heart, a relationship-based and reflective organization recognizes the power of one relationship to powerfully and positively affect other relationships. This leads to an exponential impact, increasing the organization’s capacity to achieve its goals and meet its objectives. This happens through the phenomenon often termed “the parallel process in relationships.” Each person in the organization who experiences the supports needed to promote coping and resilience is in turn able to do so for those with whom they’re in contact. Staff members who receive such support can promote one another’s resilience and coping capacities. With this support, staff members are better able to be present for program participants and genuinely supportive of their resilience and well-being. Program participants are supported in recognizing and develop their own strengths and coping capacities.They have a positive impact on those in their own circles of family, friends and community.

Relationship-based, reflective practice builds resilience for programs, professionals and participants, supporting the creation of the world we want to live in! (Making Connections, nd)

It’s A Process

Learning about and implementing relationship-based, reflective practice is a process, not a set of quick-fix tips. Implementation is most likely to be effective when an organization’s leadership is committed to it for the long term, engages all staff in the process and consciously uses the key principles of relationship-based and reflective practice to guide organizational policy and practice. Many find it helpful to engage an expert consultant to provide relationship-based, reflective support the organization’s leaders, and guiding them in the process of becoming a relationship-based, reflective organization.

Offering Reflective Supervision

…the supervisor creates a safe and welcoming space for staff members to reflect on and learn from their own work with a trusted mentor/supervisor at their side.  ~ Mary Claire Heffron & Trudi Murch, 2010.

One of the things organizations can do is create and protect time for staff members to reflect – to think deeply and carefully about their experiences working with clients who are highly stressed and coping with serious life difficulties. To be effective, service-centered professionals need to enter into warm, caring, empathic relationships with participants. At the same time, they need to maintain the ability to hold a boundary that buffers themselves from the emotional impact of these intense encounters. Sustaining these relationships and the necessary boundaries is best done when staff members have access to regular, collaborative, reflective support and supervision.

Reflective supervision is a relationship-based approach to creating the time and the safety that allows staff to do this deep and careful thinking. Skilled, caring, trained and supported supervisors can assist staff members in exploring, learning from and making meaning of their challenging workplace experiences. Reflective supervision can sound mysterious, but rests on accessible skills that most supervisors already possess, and which with support they can deepen. It integrates with other essential aspects of supervision, including its administrative and clinical aspects. (Heffron & Murch, 2010; Scott-Heller & Gilkerson, 2009).

Skills for reflective supervision include: listening carefully with both caring and objectivity, creating a safe environment for open exploration, wondering together, accepting “not knowing,” and using open-ended inquiry to get to the heart of the matter under discussion. The courage to raise sensitive issues and doing so with care, and the ability to be transparent and genuine are important too. Providing reflective supervision calls for reflective support for supervisors. In this model, no one is ever too expert, advanced or experienced to need reflective supervision for themselves (Heffron & Murch; Scott Heller & Gilkerson, 2009).

These capacities, this “how you are” part, is far more important to reflective supervision than the “what you do” part, or the structures used in supervisory sessions. (Pawl & St. John, 1995). Still, some structure is helpful. Structure creates the safety of the familiar and keeps both supervisor and supervisee focused on the purpose of the supervisory meeting.  It can be helpful to think of each session as a story, with a beginning middle and end.

A Structure for Reflective Supervision



The story can begin as most conversations do, with greetings and an exchange of information to get caught up. This could be discussion of progress and remaining questions from the most recent supervisory meeting. It might also involve informational updates, things like upcoming meetings or events, new policies or procedures, and other things relevant to the business of doing the work.

The middle of the story is about the experiences of the person doing the work, and can be guided by the supervisee, the supervisor, or both. The middle of the session can begin with making a brief list of questions or concerns for discussion. Supervisor and supervisee can decide together where to begin, but in general, the supervisee “owns” this time and sends the agenda, identifying what is important to discuss today, and the kind of input sought. The supervisor can contribute to the agenda as well.

Whether addressing a struggle the supervisee has identified, or raising an area of performance that could be improved, the supervisor is empathic, direct, open and caring. Reflective supervision focuses on the supervisee’s professional development. Being reflective and relationship-based does not mean ignoring aspects of performance that are worrisome or unacceptable. It means addressing these clearly, respectfully and in a way that can elicit a shared commitment to improvement.

The end of the story is a time to summarize key ideas that emerged, reflect on new understandings that may have been identified, and develop a plan for next steps, if relevant.

Regular, consistent and collaborative opportunities to participate in this story-telling together yields positive results. It strengthens the supervisor-staff member relationship, which creates the context for professional growth and development.  It supports staff members’ strengths and resilience, allowing them in turn to support participants’ strengths and resilience. It reduces the forces that promote burnout, improving the quality of the work and reducing the rate of staff turnover. (Kansas Workforce Initiative, 2010; Multiplying Connections, nd).

Reflective supervision is a key part, but not the only part, of being a relationship-based and reflective organization.  Watch for the next post, which discusses the 6 principles of relationship-based, reflective organizations.

Ready to learn more about consultation for relationship-based, reflective organizations? Contact me here!


Heffron, M.C., & Murch, Trudi (20201). Reflective supervision and leadership. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

Kansas Workforce Initiative (2010). How supervision relates to workforce outcomes.Available online at

Multiplying Connections (nd). What is reflective supervision? Available at

Pawl, J. & St. John, M. (1995). How you are is as important as what you do. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

Scott Heller, S. & Gilkerson, L.,Eds.(2000). A practical guide to reflective supervision. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.
Photo Credit: Nancy L. Seibel