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Psychoanalytic Business Coaching

Communication Skills: Transference and counter-transference

We are not always able to perceive our counterpart as he or she really is. Subjective distortions have a great influence on how we communicate and interact with our colleagues, employees and superiors. Transference and counter-transference – two central concepts from psychoanalytic business coaching – try to track down these distortions.

Transference and counter-transference

Regarding the concept of transference, Freud already recognized that his patients perceived his person in a false light. He assumed that they had certain expectations and ideas about relationships that they already knew from previous interpersonal experiences with their close attachment figures – their parents and siblings.

Put very simply, our early relationship experiences shape our psychological reality, which we transfer to situations in the here and now. In doing so, we expect from our counterpart to act like what we already know from our childhood. We therefore project our early relationship experiences into the outside world and thereby perceive current interpersonal interactions and situations accordingly.

Phenomena of transference are completely normal as long as the current situation is not only viewed due to experiences from the past, but we can still perceive our counterpart and the relationship with this person realistically. Finally, such inner patterns help us to reduce the complexity of reality and to classify it. It only becomes difficult when there are strong distortions of reality and the perspective of our counterparts

Here is an example: Imagine a young man had a very authoritarian and sometimes frightening mother. He is used to not being able to go against his mother’s decisions from an early age. At some point in his development he developed an inner attitude in which he simply gave up and accepted his mother’s decisions. He experiences himself as powerless and feels subliminal anger towards his mother. Now imagine that this young man now experiences a decision of his superiors at his workplace that is unfavourable to him. Probably he will not be the first to talk to her in a self-confident and relaxed manner, but will rather withdraw in an angry and resigned manner and be firmly convinced that his boss’s decision is irrevocable. THIS is transference. He transfers qualities of his mother to his boss. The distortion is that it is not clear how the boss would have reacted – maybe she would have heard and understood the employee, maybe she would have had a different attitude than he had, but would have been willing to discuss it with him.

In addition to transference, phenomena of countertransference in interpersonal interactions are also important. These are the thoughts, feelings, images, fantasies and behaviour patterns that arise in the counterpart in reaction to offered transference of the interaction partner.

Back to our example: The mentioned employee, who then withdraws and experiences himself as helpless and powerless, will express his aggression rather subliminally. It will probably manifest itself in withdrawal or possibly also in withdrawal from the situation through sick leave or procrastination. It is also possible that the aggression will appear in annoyed conversations with colleagues during the coffee break. The direct conversation with the boss (the mother) is avoided. He rather avoids her, does not talk to her or reacts to her in a cold and distant way. As a result, the boss feels very uncomfortable, she identifies with the mother role that has been assigned to her and reacts angrily, with increased control and persecution towards her employee. So it happens that she accepts the unconscious relationship offer of the employee and thereby the inner early patterns are being repeated.

Transference and countertransference in psychoanalytic business coaching

The more rigid and inflexible these inner images, expectations and relationship concepts are and the more reality is distorted by them, the more interpersonal relationships among colleagues and superiors can be hindered and teamwork can be made more difficult by conflicts and problems. At this point, managers and employees often approach psychoanalytic business coaching.

In the context of psychodynamic business coaching, clients also transfer early relationship expectations to the coach, so that the coaching relationship repeats what the executive already knows from early childhood. A special way of dealing with the phenomena of transference and counter-transference is scenic understanding.

To illustrate this, I would like to return to our example: The young man now seeks support in psychoanalytic business coaching. He meets an experienced coach, who pays special attention to the non-verbal signals of the client, which contain unconscious relationship expectations. The young man also unconsciously assigns her a certain role. Let us assume that the hierarchical situation, which implicitly displayed by a counselling situation, reactivates the early relationship patterns. Here too, the young man seeking advice will expect out of experiences the rather steep hierarchy from his relationship with his mother. Now the psychoanalytical coach makes herself available to the client, perceives the young man’s transference phenomena with the help of her feelings of counter-transference and makes them available to him. In this way a process of reflection can be set in motion and the repetition of early childhood relationship patterns can be understood and reflected. In concrete terms, this means that the coach senses how much the young man adapts to her and seeks her advice, and she notices how little he dares to contradict her. In the course of the coaching session she may also feel how much the young man wishes to receive support, orientation and advice from the coach. That would be the counter-transference. An experienced coach is able to let herself be drawn into the dynamics of the patient, to reflect on them during the coaching session and to make her perceptions available to the young man. This should enable the client to recognise his pattern of recurring

re-enactment, to recognise this in future situations and to be able to react to it by adopting new behaviour patterns. Such patterns of re-enactment are unconscious and sometimes very strong. In order to develop new behaviour patterns, recognition must first take place. Through re-enactment, which also takes place in coaching, it is possible to notice what the client is doing with the situation and what enormous influence these enactment have on communication. In a joint coaching process further behavioural strategies can then be developed: How could a conversation with the boss look like, if it was not based on a massive dominance. How would he experience himself if he were seen and heard? Would he experience himself as capable of acting? In the course of time, this can lead not only to changes in communication, but also to a further development of one’s own personality.


Julia Perlinger, Coach at DynaMind

If you are a manager looking for support in the current crisis situation, please do not hesitate to contact us. We also coach with video contact and on the phone.