“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”
Alexander Pope in his poem An Essay on Criticism (1709)
Also the title of an Elvis Presley song.
I notice that I often get myself muddled and confused about the definitions of projection, transference and parallel process. And so do my clients.
I am not a psychologist but I have developed a way of working with these energies which has helped me and my clients who are leaders, OD consultants, mentors, coaches and supervisors. My client, in a recent supervision session, asked me to write it down to share with others .. so here goes…!!
Everything is energy
We start by understanding the nature of energy. Everything is energy. Everything at a particle level is interconnected. Life is therefore a dynamic interconnected energetic exchange between all particles, matter and all living beings. We pick up, transit and transfer energy all the time which is felt by another as “who we are being” and “how we are in our relationships as we work”.
Coaching and supervision take place in what is variously referred to as a crucible, a temenos, a container or a bubble where the super-Visor or coach is asked to create a safe space for the others’ inquiry, curiosity and reflection. This to me evokes a powerful image of a cauldron full of bubbling ingredients to make stew or a crucible where alchemy happens. This is the place where the clients’ raw materials of experience are transformed by a reflective meaning making process to be then taken back into the physical world in some shape or form.
The coaches or super-Visors’ core role is to BOTH use self as instrument to facilitate the others’ inquiry AND hold a clean space for the others’ inquiry. We can do both by developing an understanding about how energy works; and how in the interconnected world our consciousness and our intention is transmitted and energetically exchanged in ways, which can either, release or restrict another’s potential. For non-psychologists, psychology can then help us fill in our theoretical and knowledge gaps.
Use of self as instrument in our work
In order to best serve our clients, we need to know who we are and who we are becoming BOTH in the moment and in the wider trajectory of our work and lives. Coaching and supervision are essentially relational practices and in essence “WHO we are is HOW we work” both in the moment and across time. We bring our own histories, experiences, gifts and vulnerabilities to the work – the heart of the human condition and the heart of our shared humanity, which enables us to powerfully connect with other human beings. But we also need to hold that our personal experiences of human experience – like joy, anger, courage, love, fear, sadness, grief and loss – are our OWN experience constructed from our own ways of seeing the world and NOT to assume that our own experience is just like another’s or to impose our own paradigms onto another.
Holding our own ‘stuff’ in awareness and knowing what triggers, provokes or hooks us whilst also managing that from a place of grounded centred wholehearted presence allows us to meet another human being from the heart, heart to heart.
As coaches and supervisors we need to know our own scripts, our excitements, our vulnerabilities, our shame, our fears, our egos – so that we can be aware when we are being triggered and can proactively discharge the fuse. These are feelings or feeling states, which usually lurk beneath the surface, always present, but often outside our field of conscious awareness. The work is not about us, but always about what best serves the client. The place we take our own ‘stuff’, is to our own super-Vision. As one super-Visee said to me recently “it is me getting out of my own way”.
The Terms and Processes Briefly Explained
Within this frame I give examples of how the psychological terms of transference, parallel process and projection might work in practice.
TRANSFERENCE is where the coach or supervisor reminds the other of a figure who is powerfully charged for them and they seek to TRANSFER their ways of relating to from that past experience onto the coach or super-Visor in the present. A typical example might be where a supervisor reminds their client of a teacher they found challenging who provoked in them shame or guilt reactions. They then transfer the expectation of that experience into the present work – the expectation of being found lacking, expecting judgement, of being scolded…… Or where a recent bereavement in the client’s world provokes triggers in the super-Visor, of memories of their own loss and they are triggered to transfer those memories onto the client – their experience is the same as the clients. COUNTER –TRANSFERENCE is when one party buys into the others TRANSFERENCE . An example of transference might be where one party treats the other as a parent who then responds to them in a parental way.
PARALLEL PROCESS is where the system between both client and coach or supervisor evokes similar or parallel responses. For example, the client is being bullied and starts to exhibit or TRANSFER bullying behaviour towards their coach. Or where the relationship between client and coach feels stuck and disempowered because the wider system within which the client works is also stuck.
PROJECTION is where either party seeks to attribute their own unacknowledged aspects of themselves onto the other. For example, the supervisor may deny their own anger or frustration, but assume it in the other.
Understanding energy is a really powerful way to intuitively navigate and work with complex psychological processes for the psychologically unqualified. Using energy, understanding energy exchange and how we can purify or contaminate the crucibles because of how we are being as coaches, supervisors or leaders, frees our clients to think for themselves. In my view, super-Vision is critical in helping practitioners clear their own energy masts and transmitters. Being fully present in this way enables the practitioner to work consistently with clarity, courage, compassion in service of another’s learning and contribution to the world.
Elaine Patterson is Director of Leadership at the Coaching Supervision Academy. Her passion is bringing the inspirational, energizing and creative powers of reflection and our shared humanity into the heart of leadership, work and business practices. Elaine can be contacted on +44 (0) 7990 612646 or firstname.lastname@example.org