Back to Basics: Transference in Coaching
by Francine Campone, Ed.D., MCC
The term “research” encompasses a broad spectrum of studies, including but not limited to experimental interventions. In a field as young as coaching, however, it is often useful to mine the literature of related professions to gain a better understanding of a phenomenon in the coaching process. In Back to Basics: How the discovery of transference is relevant to coaches today Erik de Haan does just this to unpack the phenomena of transference, countertransference and parallel process in psychotherapy and coaching.
Transference is a subliminal process wherein a client re-enacts or repeats patterns from earlier relationships in the relationship with the therapist. De Hann cites Freud’s observation that transference can be either loving (i.e. friendly or erotic) or hostile. A skilled psychotherapist is able to recognize the phenomenon when it is taking place and can use it constructively in the context of the working alliance or therapeutic partnership. In countertransference, it is the therapist who is engaged in unconscious re-enactment of prior relationship patterns. Countertransference is often experienced by the therapist as an “unconscious sensing” or anxiety which can be turned to use as an antenna for deeper listening. Together they form the basis for parallel processes in which each participant contributes to the relationship dynamic. Thus, within client-therapist and the client-coach partnerships, there is a complex interplay of past experiences manifesting in each moment of the interactions.
De Haan argues that missing or misperceiving these phenomena when they are occurring in coaching can significantly imperil the coaching relationship. He presents the sequence of events leading to Sigmund Freud’s initial discovery of the phenomena and the subsequent stages of refining the concepts by Freud and others. In so doing, he offers a series of insights which might inform coaches as they take on new clients. The stages of discovery are connected to other concepts in psychotherapy, particularly resistance and repetition compulsion. Transference, as seen by Freud and others, is a “form of sublime cooperation and sublime resistance at the same time.” (de Haan, p. 184).
Shifting from the historic evolution of the concepts of transference, countertransference and parallel processes, de Haan applies these ideas to coaching. In particular, he notes that “readers will recognize the power of ‘transference interpretations’ in their work as coaches or consultants: the inescapable and often quite unhinging effect of feedback on here-and-now behavior whilst it occurs.” (de Haan, p.185). When a coach is unaware of the parallel processes in the “here and now”, there is the danger of serious harm to the client and a missed opportunity to facilitate deep and meaningful change. Author Haan proposes six principles to help coaches become more attuned to parallel processes in the course of coaching.
- “Put your own countertransference first.” With this principle, de Haan indicates that coaches must understand and be aware of their own relationship needs, including the need to be loved, to be helpful, to rescue or be the caretaker and similar desires. Coaches must also be able to detect and identify their instinctive reactions to clients and the relationship patterns triggered by the client. In particular, awareness of our emotional states and responses to ruptures in relationship are critical.
- “Attend to the client’s transferential patterns from the start.” With this principle, de Haan encourages coaches to recognize the client’s patterns as indicative of the client’s internal conflicts. While attentive to the cues, coaches must also work to be thick-skinned, not personalizing the client’s behaviors or responding from their own subliminal patterns.
- “Within the sessions, notice resistance to coaching as an undercurrent.” Here, de Haan returns to Freud’s observation that overcoming resistance is the most time-consuming and troubling aspect of change work. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge, accept and work with the tensions of resistance constructively.
- “Try to pick up cues – defenses - which help to deepen the conversation.” Defensive cues can be viewed as offering glimpses of deeper feelings, impulses or anxieties. Coaching with open curiosity can surface these underlying tensions and open up alternatives.
- “Follow the deepening content of the conversation: anxieties”. Defensive cues call attention to the present moment in the conversation, offering glimpses of the client’s unspoken content.
- “Spot authentic feelings and wishes beneath those anxieties.” Such anxieties can point to emerging desires or goals which may be unwelcome or challenge deep-rooted patterns. Recognizing the shadow side of a client’s stated desires and goals can help bring rich resources and deeper energy to the process of effecting sustainable change.
These processes, as Freud and subsequent psychoanalysts define them, are complex and it is not de Haan’s (or my) intention to offer a deep or comprehensive understanding of underlying psychodynamics in coaching. Nonetheless, coaching is first and foremost a relationship and in such a relationship each participant brings a deep-rooted pattern of engagement, interpretation and reaction which affects the outcome. An awareness of these key phenomena – transference, countertransference and parallel processes – is essential to understanding coaching interactions that work well and those that go astray. Recognizing the cues enables the coach to be aware of hidden or unspoken information that may need to be managed in the coaching alliance and that can be put to use in supporting the client to make sustainable and meaningful change.
Erik de Haan. (2011) Back to basics: How the discovery of transference is relevant to coaches today. International Coaching Psychology Review. V 6 (2) September 2011
Francine Campone, Ed.D., MCC, coaches mature professionals to reinvent their lives by reinventing their work. She is a leader in the coaching research community and deeply committed to the development of reflective coaches in practice. Francine teaches evidence-based coaching and coaching research practices for UTD and enjoys a wonderful life in Denver, Colorado beyond her activities in the coaching field.