Panic and pandemic: a series of coaching and leadership conversations – part 4

In this series, leadership coach Rachel Ellison MBE shares a beneath-the-surface approach to what’s going on around us, for leaders and coaches.

Part 4: Panic and the pandemic: emotional ping-pong

The risk of transference when coaching during a crisis 

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 talk the talk of lock-down and contagion.

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 – throwing 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 richer source of information with a client who is dancing around how they really feel, or who may not have accessed their emotions sufficiently. It’s about the cognitive, and logical versus our ‘animal’ responses, e.g. rage, fear, 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 on the client’s behalf, 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 fearful about job security, food supplies and home schooling. Some employees are feeling cramped and overcrowded (both physically and emotionally). Others who are stuck at home, may experience 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 three weeks. Or is it six weeks? Or 18 months? Nobody can yet know.

Coaching skills may be hugely valuable at this time. But 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 – indicating a thing or an emotion 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
  • Defenses
  • Transference
  • Counter-transference

A version of this article first appeared in the online publication Training Zone.

About the author

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. Rachel 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.

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