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In Consultation

Peer Supervision Groups that Work

By Eleanor Counselman

Three steps that make a difference

Q: I’d like to organize a peer supervision group, but I’ve heard their failure rate is high. What do you recommend?

A: Peer supervision groups provide a welcome respite from the isolation of private practice and an informal, nonevaluative setting after years of formal supervision, particularly for young therapists. They offer valuable guidance on difficult cases and tough ethical dilemmas to therapists at any level of experience. And they’re free! However, as you note, many of them fail. In my experience, careful attention to the initial contract and the ongoing group process can make a huge difference in helping them sustain their membership and thrive.

Though they’re often called peer supervision groups, it would be more accurate to call them peer consultation groups. Members don’t have direct supervisory responsibility for one another’s cases: they simply offer suggestions, which members can accept or reject. They typically have four to six members who have approximately the same level of professional experience or share a specific area of interest. Members meet on a regular, usually biweekly, basis.

Group consultation, with or without a leader, offers advantages over individual consultation. It includes the possibility of multiple perspectives on the same problem and the reduction of clinicians’ shame about confusions and mistakes as they share similar stories about their struggles with difficult cases. Another benefit is peer interaction, which develops one’s professional sense of self. The hall-of-mirrors effect—seeing yourself as others see you—which is so potent in therapy groups, is a major component of the supervision group experience.

Nevertheless, despite the many benefits, it’s challenging to start and maintain a consultation group, particularly if it’s a leaderless one. They can fail to thrive or suffer from “task drift,” moving them away from discussing clinical material and into a form of therapy. It can be difficult to integrate new members and maintain clarity about the group’s own process. Presenting cases in supervision in any format poses obvious risks to one’s self-esteem, and group dynamics add additional risks: issues of power, competition, exposure, and shame can lead members to drop out. It’s especially challenging to manage group dynamics in leaderless groups, as it’s usually the leader’s role to remain aware of what’s happening within the group, and without a leader in charge, shame or fear of being judged may silence members.

The most successful leaderless groups seem to be those in which the group members find a balance between a focus on cognitive and emotional issues—talking about cases and about the feelings that arise when seeing clients—while consciously managing the functions that a designated leader would serve. These include protecting the group contract, setting and maintaining appropriate norms, and handling gatekeeping matters, such as bringing in new members.

A crucial component of maintaining an atmosphere of group safety is regular, dependable member attendance. Without this, a group will never feel like a place to take risks. Members need to be willing to bring up concerns about irregular attendance because, just as in a therapy group, member lateness and absences can indicate issues that need exploring. Chronic irregular attendance can be demoralizing and cause a group to fail. When it comes to group safety and cohesion, Woody Allen was right: 90 percent of supervision group success is about showing up.

A significant issue in any supervision group is shame and the reluctance to expose oneself. To make supervision groups feel safer, therapist David Altfeld developed a model of group consultation in which all group members simply share their emotional reactions and associations to a situation being discussed, instead of one person presenting a specific case issue and everyone else giving advice as resident “experts.” This procedure levels the playing field by not allowing members to compete for the best case analysis. It leaves room for highlighting emotional issues, countertransference reactions, and parallel process. Making everyone vulnerable in this manner avoids opportunities for excessive criticism (or its counterpart, excessive niceness) and encourages emotional sharing.

Another group consultation model, developed by Irish therapist Bobby Moore, focuses only on minimal case information, such as a patient’s age, length of time in therapy, and perhaps a little demographic information. Then the presenter talks about his or her thoughts, fantasies, feelings, and associations about the patient and the therapy. Group members then share their associations. Following that, the initial presenter is invited to share any further associations. Only at this point does the presenter give the facts of the case and the clinical dilemma. Finally, the group thinks together about what’s been discussed and what it indicates about the case. For those interested in the power of the collective unconscious, this is a fascinating process to experience.

To succeed, a consultation group must feel safe and useful to its members. Here are a few simple principles to follow:

Clarify the group structure. The group needs to agree on the frequency and length of meetings, which is best accomplished with a predictable schedule. The group needs to agree on its task and focus: is this group for any clinical issue or just for couples, or trauma, or group therapy? How much time will the group spend on “schmoozing,” and will there be one or more than one case presented each time? What will be the presentation format? While most groups use verbal presentation, some groups are now using videoclips—which makes the discussion much livelier.

Agree on membership issues. How many members will the group have, and how will new members be integrated? Once a group has formed, I believe that decisions about adding more members should be a group decision. While it may be tempting to accept a request from someone who wants to join the group, a total of six members seems to be the maximum number for each member to have enough opportunities for presentations.

Attend to the group process and dynamics. While groups should build in a “schmooze” or “check-in” time, there needs to be an agreed-upon limit to the socializing, so that the group doesn’t become a therapy group or a coffee klatch. Without a leader, the members themselves must monitor the group’s procedures and raise any important issues. Some groups do this ad hoc; others schedule a regular review meeting to evaluate how things are going.

Leaderless peer supervision groups can help clinicians at any stage further clinical learning and combat professional isolation. They’re likeliest to succeed when the group members have a clear working agreement, maintain regular attendance, and create an environment in which both emotional and cognitive learning occurs.

Eleanor Counselman, Ed.D., is a past president of the Northeastern Society for Group Psychotherapy and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She’s published numerous articles on psychotherapy and has a private practice in Belmont, Massachusetts.

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