Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Panic and the coronavirus pandemic: emotional transference when coaching during a crisis

In her fourth article in a new content series on panic and the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Ellison MBE discusses the challenges of emotional reactions for coaches during this time of uncertainty and how to avoid playing ‘emotional ping-pong’ with clients. 

27th Mar 2020
Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Concept image of anxiety and negative emotion. Waste paper and head silhouette.
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We continue to acclimatise to these unsettling times. Phrases such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘lockdown’ were not in the average worker’s lexicon until a couple of weeks ago. Now eight year olds walk the talk of lockdown and contagion.

To keep your coaching high quality, it’s vital to stay ultra self-aware of the effect that things you hear are having on you. This is both about coaching but also about your reputation longer term.

Some coaches are still coaching, and let’s be frank, many have seen their bookings collapse as clients bail out of the city and, simultaneously, out of their diaries to set up shop at home. We are changing the way we do business and there are new issues to navigate.  

Emotional ping-pong

Client conversations are inevitably infected by the stress and uncertainty of what is going on. Coaches may start to absorb the emotional overload. This absorption is known as psychological ‘transference’. It’s an unintended form of emotional ping-pong where the client expresses how they are feeling, the coach starts to feel the same, and in the case of ‘counter-transference’ may issue a return serve and throw the emotion in play, back at the client.

This would rarely be conscious or intentional, but rather, a beneath the surface reaction to each other’s current experience – both expressed emotions and unspoken ones. Have you ever suddenly felt angry, bored or really tired whilst a client is speaking? If you know you’ve had a good night’s sleep and are fully present, what’s this about? It’s possibly ‘transference’.

Self as instrument

Coaches can make good use of transference. This non-verbal data can be a rich source of information with a client who is dancing around how they really feel, or who may not have accessed how they actually feel. It’s about the cognitive and logical versus our ‘animal’ responses, e.g. rage, envy, desire.

Making use of transference can offer laser insight. It can help the coaching conversation travel further and deeper, faster. Clients will thank you for helping them find their squashed down feelings. It’s a relief as well as a risk sometimes, to mention how they are making you feel.

Lobbing it back

Coaches must guard against counter-transference, however. This is the coaching equivalent of lobbying back a serve, rather than catching the ball and holding it comfortably, for a while at least.

In the current pandemic, both client and coach are likely to be worried about health and becoming ill. Many are also worried job security, food supplies and home schooling. Some employees are feeling cramped and overcrowded (both physically and emotionally). Others stuck at home, fear isolation and loneliness.

Coaching conversations convey the confusion, unexpected candour of direct reports to managers, of unexpected intimacy created by speaking to your boss in his bedroom office, or your boss ringing you up and seeing your lounge or kitchen. We will see how all this plays out over the next two weeks. Or is it six weeks? Or 18 months? Nobody can know.

Coaching skills may be vital at this time. To keep your coaching high quality, it’s vital to stay ultra self-aware of the effect that things you hear are having on you. This is both about coaching but also about your reputation longer term. Noticing what you have absorbed or what you want to throw back – that’s the counter transference bit – indicates to you something that you cannot seem to tolerate. This is an important piece of additional data for your own personal reflection.

Practical self-reflection questions on transference and counter-transference:

  • What effect is the client conversation having on me?
  • What do I notice is happening to me head-wise?
  • What do I notice emotionally?
  • What do I notice in my body (e.g. feeling tired, bored, irritated, impatient)?
  • What parts of the client’s narrative do I feel too right now?
  • What else?
  • What part of what the client is saying can I not tolerate?
  • What is it that I might not be able to tolerate at the moment?
  • What might this tell me about me?

Psychoanalytic themes:

  • Change
  • Uncertainty
  • Ambiguity – the unknown
  • Running out
  • Not enough
  • Isolation
  • Loneliness
  • Intimacy
  • Defences
  • Transference
  • Counter-transference

Duty of care caveat: This article shares ideas and suggestions but does not represent official advice. Individuals need to make appropriate decisions in relation to their safety, health and psychological wellbeing, according to the latest medical and scientific knowledge in their locale and from government or the NHS.

Rachel Ellison book cover

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. She was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic. Visit www.rachelellison.com

Replies (1)

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Michael Maynard
By Michael Maynard
08th Apr 2020 19:33

Thanks Rachel for highlighting a really important dimension of the coaching dynamic. As you say, being aware of our own thoughts and feeling are valuable information about what's going on with our clients. It's a subtle dance, however. And I've found my own therapeutic journey helpful to my executive coaching. It's hard to work on stuff with clients when you've not done the work yourself.
Good practical piece.

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