How to Foster Successful Clinical Supervision in the Virtual Space

Published on January 23, 2023
Written by Rachel McCrickard, LMFT

As the world moves towards a more virtual landscape, clinical supervision can be hard to navigate. But there are steps you can take to foster success. 

Let’s take a deep dive into the potential challenges of virtual clinical supervision and then explore various ways to navigate this space. Finally, we’ll look at ways you can ensure your clinical supervisions are successful, even when they happen virtually.


Characteristics of Excellent Clinical Supervisors

“The bad supervisors taught me what not to do.” The Mind Remake Project went deep into Reddit’s clinical supervision discussions to find the characteristics of excellent clinical supervisors. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Self-awareness and self-care
  • Constructive, ongoing feedback
  • Support
  • Thought-provoking questions
  • Regular case discussions
  • Empathy and attentiveness
  • Active listening and lack of prejudgment

In theory, all of these characteristics should translate well to the virtual space. Someone who is empathetic and self-aware in person shouldn’t lose those qualities in the transition to remote supervision. But in practice, it isn’t always that easy. The question is, why?


Barriers to Virtual Supervision

Behavioral health has always been a very hands-on practice. Traditionally, therapists meet face-to-face with clients. Body language and other nonverbal cues can help provide valuable clues as to each client’s state of mind. Therapists also use their own nonverbal communication to demonstrate that the therapy room is a safe space and a judgment-free zone.

Clinical supervision has traditionally operated in much the same way. In-person clinical supervisors have a range of tools at their disposal to demonstrate their care and concern for the therapists they mentor. Sometimes it’s as simple as an understanding glance or moving a little closer to review case notes over the trainee’s shoulder.

But the virtual world creates artificial barriers between people. When you are merely a face on the screen, your body language is entirely lost. And it can even be distracting as both parties search each other’s facial expressions for signs of understanding. It’s simply more difficult, though not impossible, to build genuine rapport through a screen.

And this is only one of many challenges that clinical supervisors face in the virtual space. Like supervisors in every industry, you are also dealing with the realities and limitations of technology. Dropped video calls, difficulties with sharing and collaborating on case notes or other documents, children or pets wandering into meetings, and even the stress of isolation can all wreak havoc on your clinical supervision.


Ways to Navigate the Virtual World

Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns taught us valuable lessons on how best to navigate the virtual world. The Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD) notes that flexibility is key.

Like all supervision, there is no “one size fits all” formula for remote clinical supervision. You’ll need to make sure you follow your state’s regulations for the number of supervisory hours and specific topics that must be covered, but within that framework you have a lot of room to design a program that works. Individual therapy students may need more or less frequent check-ins. Different students may be more comfortable with different communication styles, such as text or video chat. Lean on technology to help you build a virtual experience that suits both your and your supervisees’ needs.

Specific steps you can take include:

  • Choose a collaborative platform that keeps all key discussions in a single place
  • Offer a variety of ways to check in, including text messaging, videoconferencing, and chat programs
  • Provide collaboration tools such as document sharing
  • Set standards and expectations early and in writing
  • Develop remote onboarding activities to welcome your new supervisees in an engaging way
  • Create virtual bonding experiences that let your supervisees get to know you and their fellow students in a more informal way. These could include anything from a virtual watercooler chat thread to teambuilding activities such as virtual escape rooms.
  • Supervise both one-on-one and in small groups. Encourage peer review and discussions, which can help everyone feel more connected while also gaining multiple points of view.


Fostering a Successful Experience

Fostering a successful clinical supervision experience isn’t easy, even when you’re meeting in person. Challenges that many clinical supervisors face include:

  • Busy schedules and staff shortages
  • Lack of training and unsupportive managers
  • Misunderstandings about the role supervision plays in clinical training

To ensure that your virtual clinical supervisions are successful, then, you will need to overcome not only the challenges of the virtual world, but also the common day to day stressors involved in clinical supervision. You can do this by leaning into the characteristics of an excellent clinical supervisor detailed above.

Remember that your primary duty is to support each supervisee in a personalized way. Discuss their cases. Ask questions that make them think. Provide constructive feedback. Always lead with empathy and avoid prejudging situations. Use active listening skills to more fully understand where they are coming from.

And be aware of your own biases, stressors, and past experiences, which could unintentionally impact you as a clinical supervisor. Practice self-care, and encourage your supervisees to do the same. Remember, you can only help someone become as mentally healthy as you are yourself.

From that perspective, it sounds a lot like being a therapist, doesn’t it? You already have all the skills you need, or you wouldn’t have made it to the position you’re in. But you’re still only human, and conflicting priorities can make it difficult or impossible to devote the time you need to providing the best possible clinical supervision experiences.


How Motivo Can Help

At Motivo, we understand that the current therapist shortage is very real. You and your experienced therapists only have so many hours in the day, and burnout is an ever-present risk. No matter how dedicated you are, eventually something has to give. That’s why we offer a network of more than 1,000 experienced and dedicated clinical supervisors for facilities ranging from community mental health centers to hospitals across most states. We’re experts in virtual clinical supervision, so you won’t need to figure out how to revamp your entire system.

Let the trusted professionals at Motivo manage your virtual clinical supervision, freeing up your team to provide the mental health care that your clients deserve. Get in touch today to learn more about how we can help!

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