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Managing transference and countertransference

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Within a coaching relationship, unchecked transference can hinder the ability to hold positive regard and a nonjudgemental position and research has found it is often the cause of the deterioration of a coaching relationship. In this blog post, I offer three steps the coach might use to help manage transference and countertransference.

This is a guest post by one of our Postgraduate Diploma in Coaching and Development students, Nicola Williams

What is transference and countertransference?

Transference and countertransference are two related psychological processes. Transference occurs all the time in everyday interactions and is where we may be reminded of someone in the behaviour of others or where previous memories are triggered. Countertransference is a specific reaction by the coach to the client’s transference. Here are some examples to help illustrate:

Transference

  • I have the strongest sense at this moment that my boss is just like my beloved father
  • I experience the same emotions towards a team colleague that I felt towards my brother, with whom I competed
  • My current work situation feels just like a traumatic period at school in my teenage years

Countertransference

  • Giving longer sessions than is useful to the client
  • Never challenging the client for fear of losing her love
  • Avoiding confrontation out of her own fear of anger
  • Unconsciously using the client’s dependency to feel powerful
  • Fulfilling her needs for intimacy
  • Giving unnecessary advice out of a need to be an authority
  • Overvaluing the client’s progress for her own success

(See references 1 and 2)

Most research on this topic comes from psychotherapy, where the way of managing transference and countertransference would be to bring it into the room, and use it as part of the therapy process.  There is also some research relating to mentoring, for for example where separation anxiety occurs for the mentor as their mentee reminds them of a time when their own opportunities for promotion were blocked (3).

Research in coaching focuses on transference occurring by the client rather than by the coach, but it can also occur between the coach and client or the client/coach and something or someone in their wider system, be it an individual or an organization.  In team coaching, the challenge of managing transference and countertransference is increased, as the relational spaces in which it can occur are clearly multiplied.

The focus for most of the literature on transference and countertransference in mentoring and coaching is on identification that transference and countertransference is occurring, rather than on methods of managing it.

Practical ways to help manage transference and countertransference

From a review of the literature and my own interviews with some coaches, it is clear there are a number of ways to more actively attend to these processes, which increases the coach’s choice about how or when to manage them. The factors that help manage countertransference in psychotherapy (but I suggest are as relevant to coaching) are:

  1. Empathy
  2. Self-insight
  3. Conceptual ability
  4. High therapist self-integration (i.e. the less unresolved inner conflicts the therapist has)
  5. Low therapist anxiety

Below is a summary of three practical steps a coach might take to attend to these:

Step 1: Increase your own awareness of when it is occurring

  • Ensure you are aware of own countertransference
  • Attend to client transference patterns from the start
  • Notice resistance to coaching
  • Pick up on cues that may be defences
  • Follow anxieties
  • Spot feelings and wishes beneath those anxieties

See references, point (4)

Step 2: Reflect

Self-reflection, the development of the inner supervisor and coaching supervision all increase coach self-insight, resolve inner conflicts and reduce coach anxiety.

Research shows supervision in particular is an important method in increasing awareness of the coach. In psychotherapy the counsellor must have worked on their own psychological history in order to be clear what is their own response and what is their client’s. In coaching, this may not be part of the supervisory relationship as it will depend on the skills of the supervisor. In a survey of 376 coaches, 70% had discussed unconscious processes in supervision (5).

Step 3:  Develop your ‘in the moment’ techniques

If noticed during a session, use presencing or centering techniques, such as mindful breathing to reduce the likelihood of countertransference occurring.

References

  1. Thornton, C. (2010) Group & Team Coaching: the essential guide. Sussex, UK: Routledge.
  2. Whitmore, D. (2014) Psychosynthesis Counselling in Action, 4th Edition. London: Sage.
  3. Mcauley, M.J. (2003) Transference, countertransference and mentoring:The ghost in the process, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 31:1, 11-23.
  4. De Haan, E. (2011) Back to basics: How the discovery of transference is relevant for coaches and consultants today. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6(2); 180-193.
  5. Turner, E. (2010) Coaches’ views on the relevance of unconscious dynamics to executive coaching, Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 3:1,12-29

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