Transference in coaching can play havoc on the trust and relationship between a coach and a client. When a client projects deep feelings, often subconsciously, originating from another time or person in their life, onto their coach, the coaching process can be disrupted, often because of wrong assumptions and misinterpretation.
What is transference?
The concept of transference in therapy, counselling, or coaching simply refers to a subconscious projection of feelings by the client toward the coach that are redirected from another person, object, or situation. This means that a quality or characteristic of the coach unwittingly reminds the client of previous experiences.
As a result, strong feelings come forward that the client may be unaware of or not able to explain. The client may act in a certain way toward the coach that is inconsistent with the interaction.
Why is transference a big deal?
The several layers of disconnect that transference involve can cause tension and misunderstanding in the coaching relationship. Keeping in mind that the coach observes feelings or behavior from the client that seem out of place while the client is often not aware that he or she is projecting them, or why, conditions are favorable for misinterpretations.
Various outcomes are possible.
- The client does not achieve the expected progress.
- The coach-client relationship becomes strained.
- The coach misinterprets the client’s feelings or behavior, which leads to a wrong direction.
- The client feels guilty, awkward, or self-conscious.
- The emotions of the client and coach may become entangled beyond the professional relationship.
- The presence of any dual relationship becomes more complex and volatile.
- The client does not see the coach as a safe and trusted person to open up to anymore.
- The deeper roots or underlying issues of problems or potential may be overlooked.
So, to become a good coach, you want to avoid the potentially negative consequences of transference.
How to manage and benefit from transference
If you want to become a life coach that continuously learn and supports their clients better each day, you will be cognizant of transference issues and use the following strategies to manage it to your client’s advantage.
#1 – Awareness
The first requirement to manage and deal with possible transference issues is to raise awareness of the client and of the self as a coach. As transference is typically a subconscious process, the client must develop the ability to recognize feelings that are misdirected or seem out of place. Similarly, the coach finds improving skills of mindfulness and observation valuable to correctly assess a client’s projection or transference.
As with many other issues that clients seek to address with a coach, awareness is the first step to handle transference beneficially. Any emotional entanglement left unattended can easily derail a good relationship.
Awareness is the first and foundational step (A1) in the Jay Shetty ABC coaching framework, which a good coach cultivates by,
- gathering detailed information about the client’s background and situation, his or her values, beliefs, and abilities,
- assessing priorities using a tool like the Wheel of Life [insert link to tool] evaluation,
- guiding the client to practice mindfulness to improve their openness to inner experiences, and
- helping the client develop regular a daily journaling habit.
These activities are effective ways to help clients develop healthy self-observation skills.
Similarly, as events in the coach’s life, his or her beliefs, values, and biases could affect their demeanor, reaction to the client, or projection of inner experiences, a good coach also ensure to raise their own awareness through regular self-reflection. Useful avenues are feedback from a supervisor, reflection on session notes or journal entries, and mindfulness meditation to cultivate empathy and non-judgmental awareness.
#2 – Communication
At the heart of any transference issues, in addition to a lack of awareness, is poor communication. The client is typically unable or unwilling to accurately articulate their feelings, reactions, and assumptions, exacerbated by an inability to correctly assign the true origin of these experiences.
Always ask yourself, “How do I listen effectively?” which also involves attention to questioning techniques and body language.
This means that the coach must often painstakingly explore the roots of any unexplained or inconsistent feelings or reactions that the client shows. Only if both parties become aware of possible transference is such a discussion likely to succeed. In the process, the coach utilizes the following skills to prevent negative effects of transference.
- Effective listening techniques – listening to understand, remove ambiguities and misunderstandings, keeping an open and mind and nonjudgmental attitude, and observing body language to note discrepancies.
- Probative questioning – using deep and open-ended questions to probe different possible underlying issues.
- Demonstrating mindfulness and empathy – displaying a genuine and nonjudgmental interest to help the client succeed.
- Learning to profile the type and characteristics of the client correctly – the needs, personality, and values of the client play a huge role in the inception and projection of feelings.
- Building trust and rapport – the client must feel safe enough to share deep feelings that may have been suppressed or the cause of distress.
#3 – Solutions
After a coach has started to raise the client’s awareness of their subconscious projections and used effective communication to explore the roots of the transference, finding and implementing creative solutions become possible. A process of goal setting, building good habits, and goal-directed action – steps B2, B3, and C1, respectively – follows to resolve any issues underlying harmful transference.
Let’s consider the case of John to explore a scenario of transference and the process of finding and implementing solutions.
John, a manager at an international consulting firm, sought the services of a life coach because he believed that improving his personal and work relationships would make him feel happier and more fulfilled. Initially, to Marianne, his newly appointed coach, John appeared to be warm and receptive demeanor. Although he hadn’t had a romantic relationship for the past few years, he did not express it as a devastating loss.
As their discussions went deeper below the surface and further into John’s feelings and background, he appeared to become colder and more distant. Marianne got the impression that he acted dismissive and defensive, without much of a clue explaining his emotional retreat. When gently pulsed about his feelings, he denied being aware of any negativity.
As a result, the relationship and trust between John and Marianne began to show signs of vulnerability.
Eventually, Marianne learnt that John had been bullied by his older brother. He blamed his mother for not being sufficiently protective or emotionally available for him. She always dismissed his complaints and made him feel weak and worthless.
As a result, throughout his life, he built and maintained relationships successfully until they reached a certain level of depth and intimacy, which is when he always defensive and distant. Marianne concluded that his demeanor toward her followed the same pattern, which is based on a projection of his experiences with his mother.
Together, they set out to build his awareness of this problematic pattern, explore the consequences and potential solutions through deep communication, develop a mindful attitude to help break down his defensiveness, set goals, build habits, and implement action steps to encourage and strengthen relationships.
In John’s case, his transference issues with Marianne helped her to identify a major change potential in his life, which they tackled using the ABC coaching framework.
Therefore, the issue of transference in coaching can have a disruptive influence that is often elusive to pinpoint. The client may project positive or negative feelings toward the coach, often subconsciously, that the coach finds inconsistent and difficult to interpret. As awareness is a core foundation of any effective coaching process, a good coach always asks themselves “How do I listen effectively?”
They continuously learn and practice communication skills and apply it in the best way to suit the individual client while using self-reflection to understand the influence of their own biases, values, and assumptions. Any relationship is built on a bilateral interaction that involves all personal facets and is therefore highly fluid and nuanced.
While many a love-struck analysand may seek to force themselves on us by reducing the distance too much, there are others who do not want a personal relationship. They want us to remain for them like a mechanic who mends a car, no more than an impersonal psychic repair shop. And between these extremes there are a thousand nuances. Even in the analyst both extremes exist. – M. L. von Franz (1993).
A good coach appreciates these extremes and all the shades in between.