CYC-Online issue 96 JANUARY 2007
ListenListen to this


A Time to Reflect – Humour within the supervision process

John Digney

Some years ago, during a “supervision session” with a staff member, I began to despair somewhat, feeling that the process was not meeting its (my) objectives. “Do you know what supervision is all about?” I asked in a somewhat dejected tone.

"It’s a time to reflect,” was the response.

"Did you say a time to reject?” I enquired (suggesting I had heard incorrectly).

"No, a time to respect,” he contradicted immediately.

He was smiling, but not in that smug way, it was a genuine witty retort, that completely counteracted my sarcasm.

This person had been pressing my buttons for some time: he didn’t seem to be listening, learning or even connecting on any level (with me). Here we were, locked into a seemingly fruitless supervisory relationship, but something was about to happen.

Not to be outsmarted I looked at him and said, “I think you mean a time to dissect.”

"No, I mean a time to protect,” came the calculated counter.

So it began, all-out war. For the next two or three minutes the words flowed: “eject”, “interact”, “protect”, “counteract”, “deject”, “deflect.” I can’t remember who ran out of appropriate retorts (this memory lapse suggesting that it was most likely me) but by the time we stopped, we had connected – and more than this. Through our use of these “the single-worded sentences,” akin to rhyming word association, we presented our individual positions and listened to each others' perspectives on supervision.

I had been looking at supervision as an on-going opportunity to tell staff what I expected; here he was expressing that it was more about counseling and support. I had been looking at the organizational management function; he was clearly stating that it was much more. I started to listen and learn that day.

The initial smiles had grown into full-blown laughter, defining the beginning of a relationship and indeed a friendship. Upon reflection, I now recognize this event as my introduction into the use of humour within the framework of supervision. This occurred not as a planned intervention but “in the moment”.

Looking at this in the context of a child and youth care approach, this event occurred during our daily working life and had a therapeutic outcome. It occurred with two people where they lived their working lives and it presented an opportunity for engagement and connection – it ignited a relationship.

When I undertook the role of supervisor, being anxious to be a good manager, I committed myself to the process as presented to me. I blindly accepted the literal “Aims of Supervision” contained within the policy manual; more specifically:

To promote quality of service to clients by maintaining and developing the quality of practice,
to ensure the individual is clear about roles and responsibilities,
to develop a suitable climate for practice,
to assist professional development,
to ensure that the individual meets Health Board objectives,
to acknowledge individuals' need for appropriate resources to do their job,
to facilitate communication between the organization and the worker and
to help reduce stress.

I now know I was being naive and narrow in my focus.

"Understanding what supervision can be as an instrument of learning and quality assurance is a necessary starting spot for effective service delivery. Supervision is not meant to be therapy, however therapeutic may be the experience” – (Hilton, 2005).

Obviously, the supervision process does not only occur in the formal structured sessions, it is an ongoing process that occurs in the context of a relationship. It has many definitions and means different things to different people. The four interwoven principles we were inducted to in the job were: management, education, support and mediation. It was thereafter a matter of focus and prioritization. Looking back it would now seem more appropriate to emphasis the S.E.T. format, focusing on Support, Education and Training (Garfat 1992), for if we were to concentrate on these, the management and mediation issues should take care of themselves.

Humour in Supervision
Humour can facilitate discourse in a manner that encourages openness, it can place people at ease and allow difficult messages to be transmitted, it is something that occurs in the “minutiae of everyday life experience” (Maier, 1981), so why not let this follow through to the supervisory relationship.

As I stated in a previous paper, “Humour can be described as a message whose ingenuity or verbal skill or incongruity has the power to evoke laughter. It is this incongruity that we “can utilize as a valid approach to working with children and youth” (Digney, 2005). Holding this belief and translating it along the notion of “the parallel process”, (McNeill and Worthen,1989), humour must have a valid role in the supervision process.

As supervisors we enter into an agreement to follow through on agreed actions, to role model and mentor, to advise, listen and suggest. Whilst working on the floor, we must undertake to do “counseling on the go” (Krueger, 1991). The elements of using humour for therapeutic purposes also translate very well to this process: showing concern, connecting, communicating, calming and cajoling are all aspects of the role of supervision, as they are with the role of child and youth care worker (Digney, 2005).

It is necessary to remain alert for signs of conflict, (such as was evident in my opening reflection) and by “understanding explicitly the roles and expectations of the process, it is possible to minimize threats to the supervisory relationship” (Olk & Friedlander, 1993). Minimizing threat should be foremost in our thoughts when considering this relationship and what is less threatening that appropriate use of humour?

With all this in mind, we should remember the supervision will “enhance and increase specific content areas along with self-awareness, competency/knowledge, and actual practice” (Ricks, 1989).

To finish I would again recommend the same cautions as I did previously (Digney, 2005). When using humour within the supervisory relationship (as in during interactions with young people) one must always be clear of purpose and have a beneficial intent, be aware of the context – gauging the initial reaction and never attempt to force humour. The supervisor needs to remain sensitive to feelings being expressed and remember that over-use of humour can be seen to undermine ones competence or integrity and thus the efficacy of the supervision process and one’s credibility as a supervisor or indeed supervisee.


Digney, J. (2005). Towards a comprehension of the Roles of Humour in Child and Youth Care. Journal of Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18(4):9-18.

Digney, J. (2005). You Gotta be Kidding me, CYC-Net, Retrieved from

Garfat, T. (1992). SET: a framework for supervision in child and youth care. The Child and Youth Care Administrator, 4(1), 12-18.

Hilton, E. (2005). Understanding Supervision, CYC-Net. Retrieved from

Krueger, M.A. (1991). Coming from your center, being there, meeting them where they’re at, interacting together, counseling on the go, creating circles of caring, discovering and using self, and caring for one another: Central themes in professional child and youth care. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 5(1), 77–87.

Maier, H. (1981). Essential component in care and treatment environments for children. In F. Ainsworth & L. Fulcher (Eds.), Group care for children: Concepts and issues (pp. 19–70). London: Tavistock.

McNeill, B. W., & Worthen, V. (1989). The Parallel Process In Psychotherapy Supervision. Professional Psychology, 20, 329-333.

Olk, M. E., & Friedlander, M. L. (1992). Trainees' experiences of role conflict and role ambiguity in supervisory relationships. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 39, 389-397.

Ricks, E (1989). Self-Awareness Model for Training and Application in Child and Youth Care J. Child and Youth Care, 4 (1) 33-41

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App