Group Supervision in Germany

by Heinz Kersting (July 2004)

1 Historical Development in Germany

1.1 The methods of social work arrive in Germany

German social workers became familiar with social group work and supervision in the years after the Second World War. US American practicians taught a number of them in the context of the re-educational program introduced by the Allied Forces in the American and British zones of occupation. In 1949, encompassing the French, British, and American Zones, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded. From that time onwards social workers who had been expelled by Hitler Germany, or emigrated after the war, as for instance Gisela Konopka and Louis Lowy, began to return to Germany, initially offering summer courses for German social workers and for teachers at the so-called Schools of Social Work. In the United States, the first German students enrolled for social work studies and returned home with a first-hand knowledge of methods hitherto unknown in Germany (cf. Schiller, 1963, Kersting, 1995c). Swiss and Dutch social workers, having familiarized themselves with the North American methods somewhat earlier, offered further education courses in Southern and Western Germany.

1.2 The Importance of the Developmental Model in German Social Work

After the Second World War, social work began to be taught at 'höhere Fachschulen' (Colleges) in the FRG. It was not until 1971 that Schools of Social Work acquired university and departmental status at the newly established Universities of Applied Sciences ('Fachhochschulen'). The academic status of Social Work is, however, lower than that of most other university degree courses. Thus it is not possible, for instance, to acquire a doctorate in social work in Germany.

As psychotherapy in Germany is the province of medical doctors and psychologists, no group psychotherapy models could be established. So far in Germany social workers can only work as psychotherapists after completing a further specialist course of studies. The new Therapy Act of 1998 offers this possibility for the first time so that we can count on the fact that in Germany in future therapeutic models of Social Group Work might arouse some interest.

During the Sixties and Seventies the works of Konopka (1963; 1968), Bernstein (1965; 1969) and Vinter (1967; 1971) and were translated into German. It is interesting to see that from among the models of social group work the Developmental Model, having been evolved at Boston University, before all others was adopted in Germany. To this date, there is no extant German paper dealing with social group work which does not mention the treatise by Garland, Jones and Kolodny (1965, 1969), a fact which in my opinion is due to two reasons.

The first of these being that the Developmental Model, in difference to the Remedial Model outlined by Papell and Rothman (1966; cf. Kersting 1972), does not so much deal with the treatment of group members but concentrates on "learning and puts the main emphasis on the development of individuals and groups over a certain space of time" (Lowy, 1973, p.6).

Learning and developing are two ideas which were already to be found in the concepts of social work and social pedagogics during the Weimar Republic, where they were connected with general group work (cf. Müller, 1970). The field of social pedagogics constitutes a special branch of European social work. In social pedagogics, the education and development of children, young people, and adults plays the major part. Thus in Europe social workers who in some countries are called social pedagogues work in the fields of adult education and educational management.

The second reason for the German predilection for the Developmental Model is based on the fact that Louis Lowy, a member of the Boston group, between 1965 and 1987 came to Germany each year for a few months in order to train German social workers and their trainers. On two occasions he spent his sabbatical year in Germany. He taught several hundred multiplicators the methods of social group work which they in turn handed on to their students. Louis Lowy (1920-1991) himself came from Germany originally. Being a Jew, he was expelled from this country. He then was a teacher and pedagogue in Prague and survived the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. After the war he emigrated to Boston. He had an excellent knowledge of circumstances in Germany and up to today in this country is revered as one of the great teachers of social work (Scherzinger, 1995; Kersting, 1997).

1.3 Supervision arrives in Germany

For Louis Lowy it was a matter of fact that the training of group workers had to be accompanied by supervision. In Germany, though, hardly any supervisors existed. Southern German participants in Lowy's training courses therefore went to Switzerland for supervision, while West German trainees had to go to the Netherlands. That was a somewhat extravagant procedure which made Lowy encourage the institution in Münster/Westphalia, where he trained his group workers, to organize a refresher course for supervision. These courses were organized so as to accompany practical work of the participants. They had a total scope of appr. 500 teaching hours spread over two years. The participants during the training period had to supervise their colleagues and in turn received supervision from their trainers. This model of supervision training exists in Germany to this day. In 1989, an independent professional association catering for trained supervisors was established which at present accounts for a membership of more than 2,500 supervisors and 25 institutions which train supervisors.

During the mid-Sixties the methods of social work found their way into professional training at the German schools of social work, followed towards the end of the Sixties by those of supervision. In more than one way this process, however, took a different course in the German-speaking areas from that in the US (for the following, see Belardi, 1996, 27f.):

  1. In the Schools of Social Work the close connection between case work and supervision did not materialize in the same way as in the States. Though the relevant methods had been taught at the Schools of Social Work since the mid-Sixties, the classical methods lost more and more in importance, when in 1971 the Schools for Social Work were integrated in the Universities of Applied Sciences. Study courses became ever more academic and less practice-oriented in their contents (cf. Schiller, 1997, p.312ff).

  2. At the time of the student rebellion from 1968 onwards the Case Work method was criticized strongly as being extremely conservative. Its at the time in Germany predominantly psychoanalytic orientation and lack of socio-political punch were attacked as one-sided. The method was accused of too little taking into account existing social power situation.

  3. The setting up of social work institutions in Germany was quite different from that in the US. In the FRG in those days almost all heads of institutions and agencies weren't qualified social workers but administrators, priests, members of the legal profession, medical doctors, or psychologists. For this reason, no internal supervision in the spirit of the North American type of supervision could be offered. So the question arose, how under these circumstances the novel possibilities of supervision could be used for social work over here.

  4. A number of further misunderstandings and resisting elements arose in addition. In most institutions of social work supervision could not establish itself straightaway. Many agencies feared extra costs and derogated supervision, claiming it was meant to be of use for "weak and poorly trained social workers" only (cf. Neuffer, 1990, p.198). Yet even social workers themselves initially showed reservations; they did not want to be spied on in supervision, as they feared that the internals of supervision might be used in promotional assessment.

Louis Lowy had to take all this into account when he, together with Irmgard Schönhuber who had been trained in the States, planned a supervision training group in Münster. At the time they created a model of exclusively external supervision relating to German social work, that is to say, professionally experienced and additionally trained social workers employed in external institutions were to work for the new institution in a consultative capacity (cf. Lowy 1977, 1983). From this first blueprint the model arose which is still dominating social work in Germany today.

As the word "supervision" did not yet exist in German social terminology, the American term "supervision" was at first translated into the German as "Praxisberatung" (consulting the practicians), though that did not last for long. As the word "supervision" in German usage never adopted a sense of "surveillance" and "control", could be used quite freely in the consultative sector as a hitherto unfamiliar foreign word.

2 The German Model of Supervision

2.1 Supervision as external advice to people in their professional work

In Germany as in most other countries of Europe supervision in this day and age is understood to mean - and I believe that a certain shift of meaning towards the original North American usage of the term has occurred (cf. Belardi, 1994) - ...

advice given to those looking for it in their professional field of work. Supervision accordingly aims at an improvement in the quality of the work of those looking for advice. Even though it originated in the field of social work (cf. Kadushin, 1976; Weigand, 1991), supervision today in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and Spain is a form of advising people regarding any sort of problem arising from a labor and/or cooperation context. In the countries mentioned above, supervision can be found in social work, school education, pastoral care, the health service, general therapy, in the universities, administration, trade, and in recent times even in politics. Even if at present most supervisors, in terms of numbers, by original profession are social workers, ever more individuals with a different professional background are eager to undergo supervisory training which is on the syllabus of a number of universities and private institutes in the form of post-graduate studies. In the German-language area at least, supervision has acquired an independent professional image in the field of consultancy which clearly distinguishes itself from such professions as therapeutic or organizational consultant.

2.2 The Group as the preferred consultative setting

As far as the setting of the consultative situation is concerned, in the early years dyadic supervision was dominant at first. One supervisor gave advice to one supervisee. This I attribute to the fact that a dyadic method, i.e. case work, was the first of the North American methods of social work to arrive in Germany. The training measures of the group worker Louis Lowy were of great innovatory importance in terms of the German development of supervision. We were introduced at a very early stage to the experiences US group workers had made in group supervision (cf. Group Supervision, 1962). Furthermore, at the beginning of the Seventies the first papers of Dutch group supervisors cooperating with Louis Lowy were translated into German (cf. Wieringa, 1970; Foole, 1974).

Today, only few individual supervisions are held in Germany. The following forms of group supervisions have become established:

  1. Group supervision during the training of social work students; during the first professional year of social workers; and in the course of their further training;

  2. Group supervision for members of socially inclined professions (social workers, medical doctors, educators, teachers, psycho-therapists, pastors, nurses, police craft, etc.). These groups can be professionally homogeneous, or mixed;

  3. Balint Groups: in the Fifties the Hungarian psychoanalyst Michael Balint together with his wife Enid, a social worker, developed in the U.K. a special form of case supervision (cf. Balint, 1959) which later on he mainly employed in cooperation with family doctors (cf. Balint, 1957). The German Sigmund Freud Society proffered this form of group supervision to all those caring professions which work person-oriented while taking into consideration their own internal interrelative dynamics. This form of group supervision has become rather frequent in Germany since the Seventies (cf. Kersting, 1995a)

  4. The majority of group supervisions carried out in Germany are those benefiting working groups, i.e., those who cooperate within the same institution, or else on a common project. Occasionally they are members of the same professional group, while often they are recruited from diverse professions and different hierarchical levels. There is no institution in social or health work which, given a choice, would not make use of this possibility of supervision.

2.3 Similarities between Group Work and Group Supervision

Apart from the special form of case supervision developed by Balint the similarity to Social Group Work of all other above mentioned forms of group work is clearly pointed out (cf. among others Kersting, 1975; Krapohl, 1987; Nebel/Woltmann, 1997), so that in Germany for valid reasons we can identify group supervision as applied social group work as the major form of group work. We have to take into account, however, that social group work in the form of therapeutic group work is quite unknown in Germany.

Remembering that in Germany the Developmental Model of social work has established itself quite in particular, we are able to recognize the apparent similarities. The colleagues at the School of Social Work at Boston University understood the social working group to be a "training room" which served the members to gather experience which could then be transferred to assist in other life situations. In Germany, this kind of group work is not understood as therapeutic group work. Though the applications of the Developmental Model in the field of therapy (cf. Bernstein, 1970) have been translated into German (cf. Bernstein, 1975), they were not adopted. The group is defined as the place of learning. That model then puts the main emphasis on the development of individuals, whose development is supported by that of the group as a whole and during the group process (cf. Lowy, 1973, p.46).

The shape of the model is sufficiently open-ended to take into account the special importance of the contract, agreements on teaching targets, and the formulation of those targets. The special emphasis on transferring the acquired knowledge to other situations is identical with the targeting of group supervision.

Members of a supervision group establish a system of communication by discussing and reflecting upon their work. In the context of this system of communication the group members are able to learn as much about the contents of their work as about intercommunicational forms of cooperation in a workaday routine. Watzlawick and his colleagues in Palo Alto call this the content, resp. relation aspects of any communicational situation (cf. Watzlawick, 1967, 1969).

The supervision group to the same degree as any group within social group work has the chance of becoming the reference group for its members. Group workers obtain the experience and firmly believe in it that group members in the long run will accept the norms valid for the social working group. They justifiably convince themselves that with this type of learning the group worker due to his experience, his knowledge, his professional ethics quite often will play a more important part than the other group members.

Like any group worker the supervisor also continuously works on two levels within the group; on one level he functions as an observer, while on the other he intervenes. Whenever he is in the observing function, he sets himself up as an observer of observers, just like any other group worker. For the supervisees are just that, that is to say, they are observers of their clients. With the help of the phases model incorporated in the Developmental Model the supervisor is able to work an observation schedule (cf. Garland, 1965, 1969) which tells him how relations within the group develop and how the learning potential of individual participants is able to unfold. As he can influence group processes by employing his strategies, he will try to help the group members in his supervisory group to achieve as rapidly as possible the 'fourth phase' of group development which according to Garland and his colleagues is called the phase of differentiation. In this phase cooperation between the members of the group is particularly effective and learning-from-one-another is most easily achieved.

3 Second-degree Observation, or 'Bird's Eye View'

3.1 Group supervision from a constructivist point of view

In the German language the word 'supervisor' is frequently translated following the old Latin primary meaning of 'supervidere', that is to say, "to observe". The supervisor is one coming from the outside who is not involved in the everyday routine of the supervisees. He overlooks, as it were, the entire supervision group from a bird's eye view.

This observing of observation (2nd degree cybernetics) is one of the most important basic forms of constructivism (cf. von Foerster, 1973, 1993). Some German scientists even go as far as maintaining that US American social workers by inventing supervision about 100 years ago had already anticipated constructivism in their practical work (Bardmann, 1996a; Kleve, 1996).

Social work became the first profession which with the help of supervision pursued self-reflection in its work. The technique of supervision enables social work to put itself right in the center between the ambivalences and paradoxies which modern society continues to produce. Social work does not attempt, like most other professions, to get these ambivalences out of sight.

The basic paradoxy of any modern society consists in that it regularly excludes certain groups of the population, while on the other hand demanding the integration of all citizens into society. Social work does its job in the exact place where this paradoxy becomes problematical for a substantial part of the population. Since the end of the previous century social work has become responsible for the inclusion of individuals into society (cf. 'Exclusion', 1998). Without modern society living in a paradoxical state, social work would not have arisen. In this sense it is the first truly modern profession. That it also is the first consciously modern profession it owes to supervision, its most ingenious invention. Supervision is no less than the observation of observation, thoroughly integrated into the system of social work; it is the cybernetics of cybernetics, reflecting the own self from a bird's eye view (cf. Kleve, 1996; Bardmann, 1996b).

A further basic tenet of constructivism maintains that human individuals with the help of communication are able to erect their own realities. Supervision for this reason not only observes the results and consequences of this construction work, but it also notes how humans manage to construct it. Above all, the supervisor takes note of ...

This distinctions are helpful for the observation of all settings of group work, supervision, therapy or organisational development. They all are systems of 2nd degree cybernetic.

3.2 A pattern for the observation of working groups

A further useful pattern to be employed in observing especially working groups is represented by the following maxims (cf. Kersting, 1994, p. 100ff.):

  1. No working group without leadership: Even when members may deny the existence of leadership - informal though it may be - experience will usually tell a different story.

  2. No working group without a group ideology: The way each working group works is determined by experiences, values, norms, stories. As important means of differentiation these characterize the self-understanding and the ideal image of the group which sometimes is out to achieve harmony. Apart from the official ideology frequently a "secret", a latent ideology does exist and works effectively. As a rule there is no difference either made or even noticed in this respect. Depending on the group ideology differences with regard to power distribution, payment, status, competence, position, etc. do or do not exist within the group.

  3. No working group without taboos: Taboos can quite likely impede the efficient working of groups, yet at the same time they guarantee shelter and security. They are safety devices and keep the fear potential under control.

  4. No working group without a history, stories, myths: Beyond the historical dimension of a working group, that of mythmaking (stories about one's own working group, about differences to other working groups, about superiors, the institution, the clientele, the system) can throw a clear light upon the working, communication patterns and the rules regulating the system. Mythmaking opens up possibilities of interpreting the views of group members and bystanders. By way of telling myths and stories the members establish their working group. They tell each other a group story and thus constitute their collective identity. Forming a part of institutions and organizations, working groups exist in confrontation with other hierarchically organized, co-, sub-, resp. hyper-ordinated systems. The working group obtains its identity through limitation, delineation, and differentiation. All these are processes which can also be connected with insults, loss, and restrictions. A working group will be able to establish a useful identity, if it is capable of successful "self-persuasion" in terms of finding such a group identity.

  5. Working groups are linked to a task and to labour: This is a rather self-evident, maybe even banal statement which is, however, justified to the extent that many working groups are involved in power struggles, in bouts of insulting others, quarrels over competence, and in personal animosities, all of which are time and energy wasting exercises. Occasionally a working group puts its personal well being above its own intimacy and in terms of group energy concerns itself almost entirely and frequently over long periods of time with nothing but itself.

  6. Working groups develop close ties, conflicts and existential dread: Conflicts in working groups, whether originating from individual, group dynamic, or institutional sources, may rapidly develop into existential dread. Depending on the kind of constellation, conflicts with one or more group members can rapidly lead towards the group internal or external termination of cooperation, or to 'mobbing' (psycho-terror at work), to submissiveness, or denial.

  7. Working groups are parts of a larger system: Working groups may be understood as sub-systems. Though they are independent units, frequently creating for their members a particular identity and a delimitation towards the outside, from a different perspective they can be seen as parts of a more extensive system of institutions which belong to society. Apart from the relevant conditioning social forces in this context aspects of identification, of loyalty, and the legitimization of the respective activities inside and outside of working groups gain particular importance. Changes in the sub-systems effect the overall system and vice versa.

This pattern has excellently withstood the test of searching for the factors which are relevant for the working efficiency of a group. It is able to assist working groups in operating on the levels of contents, interaction, institutional and social developments.

4.3 Systemic intervention in group work

Groups usually accept supervision, when the previously used solutions have become problematical (cf. Watzlawick, 1974). The task of supervision is to disturb (irritate) the formerly employed processes of description, reasoning, evaluation, and pattern of decision in such a way that the group is forced to reconstruct its existing procedural rules. There is hope that perhaps these new solutions may be more useful than those employed hitherto which have become problematical. Being a constructivist group of supervisors we have long since divested ourselves of the superstitious notion that we might know what is right for the ideal working of a group (cf. Anderson, 1992). The group itself decides what appears to be practicable for it in the long run. As a rule, it might be said, today's solutions turn out to be tomorrow's problems.

The supervisor attempts to disturb the impracticable descriptions of group members. All incidents of disturbance by the supervisor, interrupting the problematizing attitudes of group members and stimulating them into creating new constructions, can therefore be considered useful interventions, so that interventions can be defined as incidents disturbing unusable reality (more extensively, cf. Kersting, 1991).

Many useful intervention techniques we have taken over from the repertoire of family therapy (in Germany it is called systemic family therapy, in difference to psychoanalytic family therapy; (cf. Kersting, 1991, pp. 116-130; Kersting, 1995b).

As examples I mention:

  1. Circular questioning (cf. Selvini Palazzoli, 1980, 1983; Penn 1982, 1983): On the one hand the interpretations of the group members can be erudited and hypotheses be formed by means of circular questioning, while on the other the working system can be so disturbed that it by itself may manage to create new perspectives.

    Here are just a few examples of circular questioning:

  2. Sculpturing (cf. Duhl, 1973): A member of the supervised group following his own views organizes the other group members in the room in such a way that the sculpturing member finds that he/she has achieved an arrangement in tune with the emotional relations of group members to each other. The sculptured grouping thus may become the starting point of a multitude of new reflections.

  3. The reflecting team (cf. Anderson, 1987, 1989): Outside of the circle of the supervision group some group members, forming a reflecting team, are seated in a meta-position, as it were. From time to time the supervisor asks them to pronounce their observations.

  4. The second-future technique (according to Vogel, 1997): The supervisor asks the group members, for instance in the course of the first session to "imagine that supervision were to take a satisfactory course. After completing the session you have already done excellent work for half a year. The news of it spreads and representatives of other institutions ask you to report on the positive experiences you have made during supervision. What are you going to say?"

These are just a few examples for possible interventions. We also make use of reframing (well-known from the NLP, cf. Bandler, 1982, 1988), the various methods of provocation (cf. Farrelly, 1974, 1986), paradoxical interventions (cf. Watzlawick, 1967, 1969), picture painting (cf. Vogel, 1997), constructing of causal structures (according to Weick, 1979, 1985), and above all story telling (cf. Erickson, 1982, 1990; Vogel, 1997, pp. 97-119).

As far as we are concerned, the Developmental Model is a kind of frame story which above all procreates other stories which are constructed according to the motto of distance, proximity and distance once again. This type, however, for us is just one of the many possibilities of story telling. Would we turn it into the only possible, indeed true story type, we would inadmissibly whittle down the complex nature of reality (cf. von Foerster, 1988). Only the widely different stories which people tell each other about their respective situations, increase their action potential. Group supervision thus becomes the place where people, like in the Oriental bazaar (of Marrakesh, cf. Canetti, 1978; Goytisolo, 1995), forever tell different stories and invent new ones, unheard of so far. On that kind of market the supervisor is an agent of views who holds that the telling of new stories alone is able to raise into view the eventful complexity of existence and to help foster new, hopefully happier perspectives on life.


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The Author

Heinz J. Kersting

Dr. paed., Bacc. theol, Dipl.-Supervisor is professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Management, Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, Mönchengladbach, Germany and director of the Institut für Beratung und Supervision, Aachen, Germany (Web:, he is a member of the German Chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups (AASWG). He got the international Group Work Award in 2003.

Veröffentlichungsdatum: 15. Juli 2004

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