I have been learning from and supervised by psychotherapists for several years as part of my ongoing professional development. The worlds of psychotherapy and coaching are not the same but overlap and in that overlap is rich learning for organisational coaches.
Here I want to explore the concept of countertransference in order to demystify it a little for coaches and for myself. I expect to still be learning about it until the end of my days!
1 What does Countertransference mean?
Countertransference has been defined as the unaware projection of past experiences onto the present. As a coach, this means that when I am coaching, I may be letting my judgements, values, patterns of thinking and feeling, interfere with the process of coaching. In other words, the coaching becomes more about me than it does about my client.
2 Is Countertransference the same as Transference?
Yes, except Transference is used when referring to the projections of a client/patient, whereas Countertransference is used when referring to the projections of a coach/therapist.
3 What is a projection?
A projection is something of mine (an attitude, an emotion, a value) which I attribute to my client or bring to a situation. For example, if one of my clients reminds me of an old boyfriend, I may feel a familiarity and warmth towards him incommensurate with having met him only twice before. Projections may come from my personal experience and upbringing or they may be absorbed from society or other systems of which I am a part. Projections can also be parts of myself that are outside of my awareness. For example if I don’t own the side of me that is powerful, I might vilify or put on a pedestal someone who is powerful.
4 Is Countertransference wrong?
I read that early psychoanalysts such as Freud were nervous of talking about countertransference, perhaps viewing it as a failure of professionalism or objectivity. Sadly, therapists and coaches do sometimes abuse their position of responsibility and countertransference may be the cause. However countertransference by itself is neither right, wrong nor avoidable. It is bound to occur so our awareness of it is essential. Countertranferences can also give us data that is useful to our clients. For example, if a particular client triggers us to feel fear – perhaps this gives the client useful information about himself or the system of which he is a part.
5 Can you give me some examples of countertransference in coaching?
A coach grew up in a working class background, her father was a miner and a Union leader. When she works with a Board who are looking to sell the business she becomes distracted by her strong feelings about the politics of the sale and her concern for the job security of employees.
In my family, anger towards an authority figure was largely unacceptable. Any anger that was expressed was quickly censured and shut down. As my client talks to me about a difficult conversation he needs to have with his boss, I become scared for him and feel inclined to steer him away from confrontation.
During one phase in my career I was part of a team in which I played the role of the dutiful volunteer. I would always raise my hand to take an action and be diligent about executing plans that others seemed to take less seriously. I came to resent this role. Of course I co-created that situation but I never resolved it before moving on to pastures new. As I talk to my coaching client, I fear she is falling into the same ‘trap’ and I begin to tell her my story. The story becomes a lecture and before I know it I have focussed our attention on me for over 15 minutes
In each of these cases, the agility and effectiveness of the coach is compromised and this may show up to the client as a lack of genuine connection. Of course there are other examples of strong emotion that are not about about me but are about the client or the client system – knowing when to use our emotional reactions as data for the client is a skill.
6 How do I spot countertransference in myself?
In summary it’s about self-awareness. We need to be aware of and curious about whether our reactions belong in the present and with this client. It is also about being aware of when we are acting to ameliorate our own discomfort rather than in the client’s best interest. There are three red flags that are worth looking out for:
a Strength of Emotion
When your strength of feeling about a client seems out of proportion to the context, this is a red flag. For example, I am facilitating a group in which one man dominates the conversation, often speaking over his female colleagues. I become more and more enraged by this man and demand in strong terms that he let his colleagues speak. I cannot stop thinking about this intervention and my anger with this man is so strong after the session that I call my supervisor in tears. I explore my feelings about it and end up seeing the connection with a role I play in my family.
When you find that you are holding strong judgements about a client or client group, this is a red flag. One of my clients has had feedback from her CEO that she needs to dress more smartly in the office. I tend to agree that this feedback could be useful data for her. My colleague however, becomes extremely angry with the CEO who gave the feedback. This coach has been brought up to believe that one should not judge a book by its cover. Ironically he begins to judge the CEO for giving the feedback on dress code, assuming all sorts of negative intent on the CEO’s part.
When you find that you are stuck and unsure about your approach with a client it may be that countertransference is at play. For example a coach is finding himself conflicted about whether to continue working with a client who has requested more sessions. With his supervisor he realises that he is feeling resentful that the client seems not to be stepping up to his leadership role and being more independent. With his supervisor he gets some perspective on the issue when he sees the connection to his own struggle with dependence and independence.
7 What can I do about countertransference if I notice it
Inside a coaching session, you can always take a breath and return to the client’s agenda and the present moment. You may even choose to share that you have become distracted. In some cases and with skill, you may choose to share your countertransference as potentially useful data for your client. Outside of a coaching session, supervision is essential for exploring our reactions to our clients and separating our ‘stuff’ from theirs. And where those reactions are repetitive and distressing a therapist can help you work through them further.
I am grateful to Sharona Halpern of the Gestalt International Study Centre for her sensitive work with me on a particularly distressing countertransference experience. I also want to acknowledge Joseph Melnick for his teaching and more specifically for his article in the British Gestalt Journal, 2003 entitled Countertransference and the Gestalt Approach.