Implementing reflective supervision can be a key step in strengthening a relationship-based, resilience-promoting culture. Reflective supervision is one way organizations can assure that all leaders and staff members get regular opportunities to reflect, thinking deeply about the work, their own roles and responsibilities, helping them understand how they impact others, and how they, in turn are impacted by the work. The reflective supervisory relationship depends on creating trust and safety for this kind of ongoing exploration and learning.

…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.


~Heffron &  Murch, 2010.

Service-centered professionals are called upon to provide their participants with the ongoing support of warm, caring, empathic relationships. As they establish these caring connections, staff members need the ability to hold interpersonal boundaries that buffer them 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.

Providing reflective supervision calls for reflective support for supervisors. No one is ever too expert, advanced or experienced to need reflective supervision for themselves (Heffron & Murch; Scott Heller & Gilkerson, 2009).

Skills for Reflective Supervision

Reflective supervision can sound mysterious, but in reality it rests on accessible skills that most supervisors already possess, and which with support they can deepen.  Tweet: Reflective supervision can sound mysterious, but in reality it rests on accessible skills that most supervisors already possess.

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.

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, Collaborative

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 the same for their participants. 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.

Resources and References

  • Heffron, M.C., & Murch, Trudi (2010). Reflective supervision and leadership. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.
  • Kansas Workforce Initiative (2010). How supervision relates to workforce outcomes.
  • Multiplying Connections (nd). What is reflective supervision?
  • Parlakian, R. (2002). Reflective supervision in practice: Stories from the field. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE
  • 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.
  • Scott-Heller, S. & Gilkerson, L. Editors.(2009). A practical guide to reflective supervision. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.


  1.  Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash
  2. Nancy L. Seibel


Originally published on 11-5-16 as part of the post Supporting Staff Resilience with Relationship-Based Practice


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