What Do Transference and Counter Transference Mean?

interlinking circlesTransference and Counter Transference are not the easiest of concepts to understand and many new coaches find these difficult.

The term transference originates from Psychodynamic Therapy where it is defined as a client’s unconscious conflicts that can cause problems in everyday life. It is where the individual transfers feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present and where the process is likely to be, at least to some degree, inappropriate to the present. Although the concept is originally a therapeutic one, it is also used to understand what can happen in any type of relationship whether personal or professional such as that experienced in the coaching relationship.

The feelings that your client experiences in relation to you as his or her coach or to a colleague or manager is what is referred to as transference. That is where the individual transfer feelings based on feelings experienced with influential people and early life experiences onto you as the coach or perhaps another person that s/he is involved with. Depending on that relationship a client may either form a positive or negative transference. For example, if someone had difficulties with their parents or some other influential person such as a Head Teacher, they transfer (without their conscious knowledge) these feelings. Supposing a father was very authoritarian which the individual found a difficult experience to be on the receiving end of; s/he might transfer those difficult feelings onto anyone s/he perceives as being in a position of power. For example, managers, the Police or you as a coach. It is irrelevant whether that individual has power or not, as it is all about unconscious processes and perceptions the client has.

The example above is what could be termed a negative transference. However, if the individual had a wonderful mother who was supportive and kind it is possible the client may see you as such. Such a client may be wonderful to work with because they have made a positive transference of these qualities on to you.

Transference is seen as being a general phenomena and for those who believe in its existence is one that is acted out by everyone and often contributes to the decisions we make about those we chose as friends and partners as well as towards those we may not like without that person doing anything other being him or herself.

A positive transference is one where the client experienced positive feelings towards an individual based on the person in their past and a negative transference is just the opposite. If they have negative feelings then it is these that the person transfers onto the individual.

Additionally, if your client responds to you in a particular way you may find yourself responding back to the way s/he is treating you. In this case the term Counter Transference is used to describe the unconscious feelings you may experience towards your coaching client based on the way the client is acting towards you. Again this could either be a positive or negative Counter Transference.

Therefore as a coach the concepts of Transference and Counter Transference are ones that we need to keep in mind.

Some examples of transference could include where your client may have had painful experiences and finds trusting people difficult and is therefore is mistrustful of you and what you can offer being challenging to work with. Alternatively, perhaps your client is anxious about rejection and is keen to seek your approval at all times.

An example of counter transference could be where you are seeing the client who finds it hard to trust people as above. It may take a session or two but you start to see a pattern in their behaviour and realize that you find yourself feeling under pressure to placate and reassure your client over and above the way that you would normally feel or behave towards your other clients.

One big clue that you may be experiencing a counter transference is where you find yourself experiencing feelings and/or acting outside of your normal pattern of behaviour towards a coaching client.

Transference and counter transference is something that is best addressed in your coaching supervision. You and your coaching supervisor can explore this in relation to your work with you client and how these concepts may be acted out in your coaching. By doing this you can then go on to consider how such concepts are affecting your work with the client and what, if anything, you need to do to ensure a healthy and productive relationship is maintained between you and your client.

For example, you might not be aware that you have allowed your boundaries to slip – say in relation to how much time you offer one client over and above that which you would normally see as being part of a coaching contract. Alternatively, you may come to realize that you are much harsher with one particular client compared to the way you are with others. Forming a positive Counter Transference can have a downside as although you may like your client you might find yourself allowing colluding with the individual not encouraging your client to face challenges where it would be helpful for him or her to do so.

Transference and counter transference may seem like difficult concepts but they can be a useful tool that can be used in the coaching process.