Having Difficult Discussions with Trainees about Competence Problems

In my experience, the last point of my list of representative tasks and responsibilities as a course leader (i.e. having difficult discussions with trainees about competence difficulties) presents a challenge to all levels of trainers – novice and experienced – albeit to different degrees. Thus, I would like to take the opportunity afforded by the web features of this edition of the Handbook to expose my thoughts about the necessity of engaging in such discussions with trainees even though we may find them particularly challenging and uncomfortable. To this end, I will use an example from my own work as a trainer, where I had to have a series of difficult discussions with a trainee on issues that pertained to research competence. (In an effort to protect the anonymity of the trainee I have changed some of the identifying features of this case so that even if the trainee read the illustration they would not be able to identify themselves.)

A few years ago, I worked as a research supervisor with a trainee on his doctoral research who, in our first meeting, expressed his intense anxiety and worry about the research component of his training. Given that his research competency had been scrutinised during the selection process and interview, I assumed that his anxiety was stemming from difficulties relating to the topic and/or methodological issues. As a result, I initially tried to help him manage his anxiety by providing support and guidance in the form of pointing him to relevant resources (literature and research seminars workshops). As we progressed though I observed that I increasingly became more directive and active as a research supervisor than I usually tend to be when working with a doctoral trainee (e.g., offering suggestions to presenting difficulties instead of waiting for the trainee to come up with his own suggestions on how to overcome any presenting difficulties). Soon, this became a distinctive pattern of our supervisory relationship, which seemed particularly unproductive as it was not helping the supervisee into becoming an independent researcher, which is one of the hallmarks of doctoral research. Thus, I decided to discuss with a more experienced colleague.

My discussions with my colleague helped me realize that I had overlooked an important piece of information that was presented at the beginning of my supervisory relationship with the trainee because I felt very uncomfortable addressing it openly with him. This was the evident lack of even basic knowledge and competence in psychological research. What I had originally wanted to see as a result of intense anxiety was in effect a realistic worry based on the trainee’s awareness of his gaps in research competence. The main reason that I had avoided acknowledging this was my own fears that I would have to discuss with the trainee the possibility that in the set time for completing his doctoral research he did not have the necessary time to develop the required research skills and knowledge to successfully complete his research. I was colluding with the trainee as both of us did not want to examine the possibility that, although he was good in the theoretical and clinical aspects of his training (in fact, I knew from colleagues that he was particularly competent in his clinical work), there was the real possibility that he would not successfully complete the research element of his doctoral training and this of course would mean that he could not qualify as a counselling psychologist. Still though, I was feeling reluctant bringing all this to the attention of the trainee as I did not want to be seen as being critical, unkind or unsupportive of his efforts. At that point, my colleague asked me: ‘Are you really being kind to the trainee by not discussing your concerns with him? If you feel that he lacks the necessary research competences to complete his doctoral research by the set deadline, is it an act of kindness to let him proceed, only to fail at the Viva?’ These questions helped me realise the importance of overcoming my own resistance and finding the courage to raise my concerns to the trainee.

In our next supervision meeting, I voiced my apprehensions to the trainee who became quite distressed (and initially was even angry with me for questioning his competence). However, after a long discussion that lasted over an hour (and because in this instance I was fortunate enough to be working with a trainee that was reflexive and willing to examine his own motives), the trainee acknowledged that he was actually never interested in research. He argued that he was primarily interested in becoming a good clinician but he had chosen to train in counselling psychology as he also hoped to attain the status of ‘Dr’. He even said that, although he had his own doubts about successfully completing his doctoral research, the fact that I had not raised my concerns in such explicit manner up to that point had been interpreted by him as a ‘vote of confidence’ (i.e. ‘I may be worried but my supervisor, who is more experienced than me, believes that I will be eventually pass my Viva’).

Following that supervision, we spent another three supervision sessions where I helped him review his work and examine under realistic terms whether he could successfully complete his research on time. Eventually, he decided to exit with an aegrotat award, as he came to the conclusion that the best option for him at that point was to register with another professional body within the mental health field that did not have the research requirements of counselling psychology. Although, this whole process was understandably distressing to him (as of course was to me), a few years later he came to see me to inform me that he had successfully been registered with the other professional body and he wanted to thank me as looking back he now knew that this was the best decision for him.

I am of course aware that, on some occasions, trainers come across trainees that are not that open to feedback or willing to examine areas of weakness, as was the trainee that I described above. In these instances discussions with trainees can be far more challenging than what I have just presented. Moreover, they may not even have the desired outcome. For example, in a quite similar scenario but with another trainee, the trainee denied reflecting on my repeated and quite frank remarks about significant weaknesses on her research project and she gradually became avoidant of supervision. Unfortunately, in that instance the trainee eventually failed her Viva without even being given the option to resubmit.

By choosing to present the example above, my intention is primarily to illustrate that as trainers we should not shy away from having discussions with trainees about competence problems, even though such discussion can be particularly taxing to trainers and trainees alike. Furthermore, I would suggest that when a trainer is in the process of considering whether to have discussions with a trainee in regards to competence difficulties, s/he can be helped by attempting to address questions such as the following:

  • To what degree am I being kind by not raising my concerns to the trainee?
  • To what degree am I fostering or impeding their personal and professional development by not discussing openly with the trainee?
  • To what degree am I also thinking about his/her prospective clients and/or employers?
  • To what degree am I upholding the training and education standards of professional and regulatory bodies?

I consider that such questions can be used as a good starting point for reflection in discussions with other colleagues or in supervision when one tries to decide what to do in such sensitive and challenging moments, such as when we have to bring to the awareness of our trainees gaps in personal and professional development that significantly impact on their training.