Underlying Assumptions within the Supervision Space

by Eamonn Casey

On a daily basis we meet with, collaborate with, challenge, evaluate and affirm our supervisees within their work. And going forward, as we establish the boundaries of trust and openness in building the supervisory relationship, we may feel we are getting to know that person very well. In reality we will most likely have formed certain opinions, both positive and negative, about that person and their work. Some of those opinions, views or underlying assumptions may be accurate in that they’re validly formulated through emotional, cognitive or intuitive insight or knowledge. But a significant portion of those underlying assumptions may be inaccurate and invalidly formulated. The consequence of this is that we may continue the work of supervision on a foundation of assumptions that are neither of benefit to the supervisee or ourselves.

Professor Jack Mezirow created the concept of Transformational Learning back in the late 70s as a result of extensive research he had conducted on women returning to college in the United States. Mezirow discovered their ways of knowing and how they learned differed substantially from conventional acceptance. Consequently he concluded: “transformative learning may be defined as learning that transforms problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change.”1 In other words, Mezirow has challenged us that in order to properly understand the meaning of our existence, including our work in supervision, we need to examine all our accepted norms of arriving at cosy assumptions and generalisations about our world. This is a very necessary first step within supervision for if we cannot challenge and reframe our own assumptions we will have little chance of facilitating our supervisees to comprehend their world of underlying assumptions.

In directly applying to this to our work within the supervision space we need to stop and critically reflect on the assumptions we have made about practice. But this process is much more than a cognitive experience as it encompasses all our ways of knowing. In this manner it will incorporate emotion, intuition and movements that interact with the body and spirit as well as the head. As a result of this we may arrive at a position where we change or alter our previously held unexamined assumptions about a particular aspect of practice. In this manner we may have transformed our learning. And in so doing we learn to distinguish between reflection, the experience that is external and objective to ourselves, and reflectivity, the experience of looking internally and subjectively at ourselves within the experience.2 This process facilitates us to observe the transformation in behaviour brought about by the experience.

To practically apply this we need to envisage a scenario within which we might have concluded that a particular supervisee would not be able to creatively collaborate with his / her clients because there appears to be a lack of openness, or a secretive dimension of personality that holds him/her back. On critical reflection we may realise this assumption was created on the basis that he / she had arrived 20 minutes late for our first appointment, didn’t offer any apology or excuse, and thereafter we didn’t really seem to form an open and effective therapeutic relationship together. Essentially, we need to examine our own role within this process and in so doing it may be possible reframe our views on the supervisee. There will always be some clients we like to work with more than others and we need to critically evaluate what is happening for us there. The abiding reality is that we cannot facilitate Transformational Learning if our existing frames of reference remain unchanged.

Within a cross-professional setting awareness of underlying assumptions is ever-present is that we are open to transformation, and open to encounter which has a playfulness, a generosity of spirit and a curiosity about it that seeks to engage, learn with, about, and from the supervisee, rather than colonise him or her. Awareness of all the underlying assumptions within the room is a central task of the supervisor in this area where “the supervisor acts as critical mirror who highlights our assumptions, reflecting them back in unfamiliar, surprising, creative and disturbing ways.” 3

Reflective Exercise:

Reflect on your relationship with your supervisees and critically examine what are the underlying assumptions you hold about them!

Is it possible through reflection to reframe those assumptions?

What are your underlying assumptions about practice itself?

Reflect on what happens for you when you change the views you previously held?



1 Mezirow J. et al (2009) Transformative Learning in Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss, 22

2 Carroll, M. (2009) From Mindless to Mindful Practice: Learning Reflection in Supervision. Psychotherapy in Australia.



3 Holton, G. (2014) Cross-Professional Supervision: A Bridge Across Professions. Croi Productions

Recommended Books

Belenky, M. et al (1986) Women’s ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books

Benefiel, M. Holton, G. et al. (2010) The Soul of Supervision Integrating Practice and Theory. New York: Morehouse