Tension in the supervisory relationship

The nature of the tension does vary according to the setting – I will return to this – but the new worker has first of all to come to terms with its existence. It is easy to jump to conclusions about this tension and people entering the probation service often expected more tension in the form of conflict, than did those who imagined their client group would be more compliant and eager for help. It soon became clear that the world is more complex than that. First of all, many probation clients are remarkably compliant. Some groups of clients such as some sex offenders are almost notoriously compliant.  Secondly, one discovers that there is an almost inverse relationship between compliance and change. Agree with everything, obey the rules (explicit and implicit), and avoid having to change. If the crime is especially horrible, evident in incest cases, clients can take this compliance to the point of tearful remorse, very useful if you want to stop someone saying something truly challenging. They can almost invite anger and condemnation – it merely confirms what they know that they are, ghastly people, and so can do no different.

Other people are compliant in a different way. They simply obey the rules and say, sometimes openly, that they have done what is required of them by attending supervision regularly, and that is all that they are going to do. The more ‘professional’ criminals, often people on parole in my practitioner days would often adopt this approach. The more serious the offender, the easier it seemed they were to supervise (and the less likely they were to change.)

Conversely the people who did seem to change were often those clients with whom supervision had been a kind of argument. This could be that they would attend appointments and be persistently difficult, or it might be that they engaged you in a ‘war of attrition’ in trying to get them to report regularly.

This phenomenon made me very suspicious of colleagues when they said they had just had a good interview with a client. So many ‘good interviews’ turned out to be interesting discussions but no more than that, and so many ‘bad interviews’ that you would come out of feeling useless or angry turned out to be part of a change process.


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