Transference and Countertransference in Conflict Management
Today, I would like discuss the concepts of transference and countertransference in conflict management. This topic is rarely taught in training programs but often arises—usually unrecognized—in conflict management: conflict resolution, conflict mediation, and conflict coaching.
Transference is an unconscious process where a person remembers feelings from a person in the past and projects those feelings on a person in the present. Jones (2005) defined transference as “an unconscious relocation of experiences from one interpersonal situation to another” (p. 1177) and countertransference as “a response to transference and influenced by the particular qualities of whatever is being transferred materially” (p. 1178). For example, a demanding client may be re-enacting a previous experience with a co-worker, child, or spouse.
Countertransference is an unconscious process where a helping professional (e.g., conflict consultant) could transfers feeling from the past to a person in the present (e.g., client). For example, a conflict mediator responding in an overly-concerned way for one client while feeling annoyed or frustrated with another may have something to do with similar previous experiences in that helping professional’s personal life (i.e., abusive relationship; parent-child interactions). As conflict management specialists, we must be conscious of the potential for both types to occur in any sessions with our clients.
In conflict coaching, we see transference a great deal of the time given all the triggers that can occur when the client is telling their conflict narrative. For example, Jill works in a local hospital as a cafeteria worker and has done so for over 20 years. She finds one of the physicians to be very rude and feels like she has done nothing to deserve the treatment. To compensate for his behaviour, Jill was overly friendly with him for a brief time hoping that “being nice” would change his rude behaviour. Soon, her go-to behaviour has been to walk away when he comes to the till and asks someone else to take care of the physician. During our sessions together, two breakthroughs occurred. First, when I pointed out that avoidance is, indeed, a conflict style, it usually leads to very little resolution and often leaves the client unfulfilled. Jill’s reaction was quick and cutting so we discussed why she felt the need to react so strongly. As we unpacked her reaction, she came to the conclusion that my comment reminded her of the aforementioned doctor; transference occurred. Second, it surfaced that Jill was married to a physician who verbally abused her and who would relay stories of how “stupid” and “unmotivated” she was to stay in the cafeteria. Eventually, it became apparent to her that she was re-living that verbal abuse from her ex-husband and letting it affect her work in the cafeteria. She was demonstrating countertransference. Once she “named it and tamed it”, Jill was able to return to work with some relaxation techniques and self-regulation strategies.
In mediation sessions, both concepts can become apparent after only a few sessions. In pre-mediation, Bob pointed out that he often finds it difficult to work with his business partner because the partner has violent outbursts at him which causes Bob’s traumatic experiences with his abusive father to surface unexpectedly. He shared that he was not sure why his own responses to the partner were vitriolic. After discussing the events, it became apparent that Bob was transferring his past experiences with his father to his partner since the partner’s comments and reactions were so similar to his own father’s. Once Bob realized that transference was present, he and I (but mostly he) could watch for triggers and reactions in the mediation sessions between him and his partner.
Transference and countertransference are important concepts to be recognized in conflict management as their acknowledgement can help both client and clinician to work through conflicts. Both concepts surface in the conflict narrative but they might have to be probed for since, often, they are masked by emotions such as sarcasm, humour, anger, and denial.
Next week, I will be taking a day off in recognition of Canadian Thanksgiving. Best to all!
Jones, A. C. (2005). Transference, counter-transference and repetition: Some implications for nursing practice. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 14, 1177-1184.