Derek Ball is a licensed marriage and family therapist, LMFT, who partners with Motivo to provide online clinical supervision for therapists seeking licensure in Illinois. He’s also an Approved Supervisor with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), the Executive Director of the Illinois Affiliation for Marriage and Family Therapists (IAMFT), and an instructor at Wheaton College.
In this interview, Derek explains how utilizing out-of-the-box resources helps to connect with clients. Whether it is talking about The Avengers with a teen client as a way to access grief or utilizing music during an exercise with a couple, he finds that being tuned into literature, movies, music, and pop culture can provide more depth in a session. Out of the box. Out of the ordinary. That’s how Derek approaches his career, his clients and his supervisees.
In his undergrad psychology program at Indiana University, Derek was taking a class called Behavioral Disorders of Childhood and Adolescence. In that class, he learned about Systems Theory. This was when he knew the direction he would take his career.
“That made so much more sense to me, rather than looking at problems on an individual basis,” says Derek. “Understanding them in the context of the family and the context of relationships really made sense to me.”
So he shifted his graduate school search to specifically find a marriage and family program. He opted for Purdue University, mostly because of its close-to-home location, but it turned out it was one of the best Marriage and Family programs.
Derek’s internship at an agency well-known for marriage therapy in Rock Island, Ill., was supposed to last a year. That was 23 years ago. A full-time position happened to open up after his internship and the rest is counseling history. Despite his long run at the same agency for more than two decades, what Derek says he likes most about his work is the variety.
“Hour to hour, day to day, it’s different,” he explains. “There are some patterns and predictability, but ultimately, each couple is unique because of their personalities, backgrounds and presenting issues. One hour I’m helping a couple learning to cope with chronic illness. The next hour might be . . . he had an affair because he was bored. Those are two very different couples.”
He notes that each couple requires different skills from him. While some couples respond well to challenges and digging deep, others need a more gentle “arm around the shoulder” approach.
“Being able to piece together the right approach for the individual or couple is an interesting challenge for me,” says Derek, who counts theater as a beloved hobby. “I’m a creative person, so I enjoy injecting creativity into what I do. If I worked at a bank, I wouldn’t get that variety and creativity I crave.”
Derek was quite young when he started his career. His first client was in her 80s and he was only 22. This certainly highlights the significant role of supervisors.
“My experience in supervision was mostly positive,” recalls Derek. “The best supervisors were those that allowed me to bring my ‘moments of stuckness’ to them. They were supportive and open to my, ‘I have no idea what to do with this client’ moments. They didn’t just hop in with the answers either. They encouraged me to hypothesize about different directions I could go with it, with the occasional suggestion to nudge me in the right direction.”
Derek responded better to those gentle nudges more than the supervisors who made stern declarations on exactly what he should do in his next sessions.
“They wanted me to be them, and that felt stifling for me,” he explains. “And I try to remember that now that I’m a supervisor.”
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As a supervisor, Derek’s core value is trying to get his supervisees to show up. Meaning, he wants to draw their human side out, because after years of graduate school, it is so easy to just operate exclusively from research and theory.
“If your clients just needed the right information, they could simply read the books written by professionals,” Derek contends. “They came to you because they need the human aspect. So I aim to help them bridge from the academic world to actually apply all that they’ve learned in a human way.”
He often asks them, “If you could just say anything at all to this client of yours, no rules, what would it be?” Often the clinician’s answer is spot on, and then Derek helps them figure out how to communicate that to the client in a digestible way.
“Frankly, in my experience, that’s why clients come back,” Derek asserts. “They don’t come back cause you’ve got great worksheets. They come back because they like you and trust you.”
But he also notes that there has to be a balance.
“Can’t just be all theory, then there’s nothing personal. But it can’t be all instinct, with no basis in research. Then it’s no different than just their friend or hairdresser saying ‘You need to leave her!’”
As a supervisor with Motivo, Derek has enjoyed the experience of doing online supervision. “The whole process has been easy and effective,” he says, especially when it comes to matching a supervisor and supervisee.
“The pre-supervision interviews have helped us make informed decisions about beginning the supervision experience,” Derek explains. “The online experience has also allowed me to connect with supervisees from around the state who might have had to invest much more time driving here in a more traditional supervision format.”
Derek also shared how video conferencing has allowed him to connect with his supervisee better than a phone call, facilitating the connection that is necessary for supervision.
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