Characteristics of an Effective Clinical Supervisor

“It was the bad supervisors who taught me what NOT to do.”
Are you an effective clinical supervisor? What is helpful… and unhelpful in supervision? Read about Reddit users’ experiences with clinical supervision, including the traits of “bad” supervisors.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP

Shortly after being trained and approved as a clinical supervisor, I took on my first supervisee (whom I’ll call “DM”). I was confident in my abilities and knowledge as a counselor, but quickly learned it takes more than skill or expertise to provide effective supervision.

In one of my first sessions with DM, I inadvertently offended her (and thereby damaged our newly forming rapport). We were discussing personal and professional growth, which led to a “bucket list” discussion. I shared how I’d always wanted to do a police ride-along; DM immediately stated that as an African American woman, this was distasteful to her. Unfortunately, I missed my cue and continued to talk about how exciting it would be. Meanwhile, she felt disrespected. In this instance, I got carried away with talking about myself and my interests, ignoring her feelings on the subject. I came across as ignorant, in the least, and at worst, culturally insensitive or uncaring.  

Another time, I suggested that DM (who held a doctorate degree in counseling) stop referring to herself as “Dr. ____,” as it caused confusion when coordinating with outside agencies. Once again, she felt upset and misunderstood. She later explained that I failed to take into account all she had overcome to earn that degree. It was more than a title to her; it represented triumph in the face of adversity. Furthermore, it was a piece of her identity as a helper and as a role model to African American women. Although well-intended, my suggestion was offensive on several levels. In hindsight, I could have explored how she viewed herself as a professional or simply asked why she called herself “Dr. ____” before commenting.  


Self-awareness is crucial for effective supervision and self-care is essential for coping with stress.   

More recently, a different supervisee (whom I supervise both clinically and administratively) told me that I had been acting out of character by “harping” on her about completing various assignments. I checked myself and was able to recognize my high level of stress was indeed impacting our interactions. Self-awareness is crucial for effective supervision and self-care is essential for coping with stress.   

Reversing roles, looking back on supervisors I had in grad school and as a new counselor, I can recall what was beneficial and what wasn’t (or was annoying/upsetting/disturbing… even unethical). What helped the most was direct feedback, along with specific suggestions for improvement. Constructive criticism, while unpleasant, made me a better clinician (and probably a better person). Feeling supported and having my doubts or fears normalized was also helpful.


The bad supervisors taught me what not to do.

On the flip side, unhelpful, “bad,” supervisors were the ones who rambled on about their clients, micromanaged, were punitive, or who never met for supervision. There was even one who called me a hurtful name; the comment came from a misunderstanding, but I took it to heart. It was inappropriate and unprofessional; I carried it for a long time. The bad supervisors taught me what not to do.  

This post was inspired by my desire to learn more about what makes supervision effective. I looked to Reddit for others’ experiences and opinions and asked what’s most (and least) helpful in clinical supervision.

Gr8minds is a master’s student and MFT trainee who wrote, “For myself, what I find most helpful is when my supervisor shares questions I may have not thought of about the client’s case. This really helps give a second pair of eyes and I can take those into the next session.”

Questions are as fundamental to supervision as they are to the counseling process. A question inspires contemplation and may lead to a new understanding. An effective supervisor asks thoughtful questions about the client, their upbringing, their beliefs, etc., providing the supervisee with valuable tools to use with their clients.

RomeRawr, a doctoral student, shared about a self-centered supervisor who used sessions to talk about their clients instead of promoting the supervisee’s growth. “What I’ve found least helpful is my supervisor complaining to me about clients. Not conferencing, or asking my opinion, but just complaining to unload.”

A supervisor who complains/vents about clients should not be in a supervisory role. It’s one thing to consult, but to complain shows a lack of empathy and professionalism. It makes me question why that person is even in the field.

To an extent, I can relate; I previously mentioned a “bad” supervisor who, while he didn’t complain, regularly discussed his difficult cases in group supervision. This is how it would go: Dr. BS (Bad Supervisor) would present a case and then seek our (the students’) opinions. He had the audacity to take notes. When we were provided with (rare) opportunities to talk about our clients, he’d make comparisons to his private practice… and seek advice (un-cleverly disguised in the form of, “Well, what do you think you [I] should do?”)

While it can be helpful for a supervisor to share client stories, it should only be as a teaching tool (or to convey empathy). Similarly, a counselor should self-disclose for the client’s benefit, never their own.

grace_avalon, clinical counselor, holds a master’s degree and has been licensed in Minnesota for over a year. “I’ve had so many supervisors. The best ones worked me hard, required consultation with every DA (a word-for-word transcript of a counseling session)… [were] highly involved and observed me closely, tirelessly… and responded neutrally and understood my tears. We met privately, which was pivotal to growth.”


A supervisor can’t be a gatekeeper if they don’t know to close the gate.

An effective supervisor expresses empathy; they’re not reactive. An effective supervisor is also dedicated; they strive to help the supervisee by observing his/her interactions with clients and/or reviewing lengthy transcripts. A lazier supervisor might give advice/feedback based solely on the supervisee’s report, which is subjective. There’s a place for this in supervision, but it can’t be the only method of assessing a supervisee’s skill. Reviewing recorded sessions or transcripts is time-consuming (and, not gonna lie, boring), but imperative for a counselor’s growth. (It should also be noted that a supervisor can’t be a gatekeeper if they don’t know to close the gate.)

_PINK-FREUD_ is a clinical psychology doctorate student (with an MA in clinical psychology) who provides therapy to children, adolescents, and families. “My most helpful supervisor taught me to examine how my history comes into the room with clients. For example, my very first client told me something painful about a learning disorder and I responded with humor. Basically achieved the polar opposite of attunement. The footage was cringeworthy af. She didn’t shame me about it (of course, I was shaming myself anyway), but just inquired as to why I did that I realized I’ve dealt with my own LD with humor and by “laughing it off,” which led me to automatically and inappropriately apply that same response to my client… That supervisor showed me to move past the shame of making mistakes and towards understanding why I made that mistake. She led me through that process of self-examination countless times, and it taught me to do it independently.”

Being aware, both self and of what the client/supervisee is experiencing, is a vital component of counseling and supervision. In fact, many of my early (and more recent) mistakes could have been avoided had I been more attuned.

_PINK-FREUD_  also shared, “Another good supervisor trait IMO is someone who does not guess why a mis-step was made. I’m currently working on interrupting my clients more instead of letting them ramble –something I think mainly stems from the very common newbie clinician fear of invalidating or injuring the client. That supervisor pointed out my mis-step, then spoke about my need to “be friends with clients,” which felt off to me. When I tried to express that, I was perceived as defensive about having poor boundaries. It really broke my trust with that supervisor. I felt that he had made blind judgments about my underlying motivations for responses without listening to my explanation. It made it difficult for me to go to him for help with tough cases as I was afraid of the conclusions he would jump to. ASK, don’t tell your students for their motivations. It builds trust that you seek to understand them and also teaches them how to do this independently.”

Similarly, it broke trust when one of my “bad” supervisors called me a name. She made an assumption based on a blind judgment. Assumptions, sometimes true, but more than often not, have no place in supervision (or counseling). Going back to awareness, it’s important for a supervisor to recognize when they’re making assumptions.

alfredo094, an undergraduate student, shared that as a supervisee, “having [a supervisor] that knows me very well and listens to everything that happened to the session in detail is important.”

As counselors, we listen to what our clients say. By listening, we learn and are able to provide support and guidance. The same is true for supervisors. Listening and being fully present with the supervisee will help him/her to become a better counselor.

What are some of your experiences in supervision? Share in a comment!