As a practitioner within the helping professions, it is highly likely that you are skilled at developing a good sense of connection with your clients. We call it rapport.
We tend to think of rapport as a good thing – however as a supervisor I often witness the difficulties that arise precisely because of our rapport with another person. I call this the dark side of rapport. It is the kind of rapport that pulls you out of the neutral territory of the coach and into the client’s world… a bit too much.
It can happen in subtle ways. A sense of shared experience may just blunt our awareness of the assumptions we are making and the unconscious bias that enters the room. And it can happen in profound ways, countertransference. In connecting with the client, our own “unfinished business” rears its head.
What is troublesome, is that these processes rarely occur in our conscious and rational brain. They are more likely to be on the edge of our awareness. As the supervisor our role is often about drawing attention to what could be happening in a way that is helpful, for both the coach and the client (and perhaps ourselves too).
In the coaching community we talk about “parallel process”. The notion that the supervisor will experience in the here and now of the supervision session, dynamics which were in play in the coaching session itself. As a supervisor there is something naturally helpful about being one step removed. Perhaps a greater objectivity to what was going on in the room and which allows the supervisor to notice the dynamic. Moreover, when a supervisor has worked with a coach over a period of time, they can bring an additional perspective. Through experiencing how a coach tends to work, it is possible for the supervisor to notice how a coach’s reaction to a particular client is similar or different to how they typically work. Variations to the norm hint that something else could be occurring. Knowing that the parallel process is a possibility allows the supervisor to enquire how the wider system might be impacting on them.
Have you ever worked with a client going through a difficult time and found yourself leaving the session feeling heavy and down at heart? The chances are that what may have started as an empathic connection has morphed into a conduit, and not only are you empathising with them, you start to experience it with them too.
Some supervisors would encourage you to set firmer boundaries, to put more effort into staying neutral. I wouldn’t. Instead, I would encourage you to do two things. First deepen your understanding of you – how does your energy manifest, change shape, play tricks on you in your “regular life”. Knowing your typical triggers – motivators and inhibitors is an essential baseline, against which you can calibrate your experience as you work with a client.
Secondly, get good at taking your own energetic temperature. What is happening to you in this moment – do you know why? Can you make sense of it for you? If so then what is happening is probably “your stuff”. If you can’t make sense of it, can you articulate what you are experiencing in a way that is helpful to your client.
This happened to me just the other day – it was a relatively new client and we were struggling to make headway I the session. In every avenue of discussion I felt blocked, I felt irritated yet I persisted with the dialogue. At times I felt like I wanted to be quite petulant and simply say “I give up!”. I knew that I didn’t typically feel like this – so I shared my sense of “being blocked at every turn”. Surprise, surprise – this was how she was feeling about the issue in hand. That’s the parallel process in action. Great for empathy, and sometimes this will prompt the individual to consider a way forward with fresh energy. This didn’t happen on this occasion. So I sought permission to share my own learning of how I work with my “blockedness”. I described the ambivalence I was experiencing (the dark side of our rapport) – both persistent and defeated almost simultaneously. I shared my simple strategy of creating a mind map of all my competing thoughts. She shared that she had done something similar this in her head but hadn’t actually written it down. We spent a few moments creating her mindmap. Something shifted. She did not have an answer to her conundrum, however her energy in relation to it was different. The agitation has subsided and a more objective quality had emerged. Her attachment to the issue had lessened its grip.
Doing this “in the moment” with your client can be tricky, so don’t expect to have a 100% success record! The more you experiment with this, the more artful you will become. Supervision can be a great place to become more aware of when this might be happening with you and your client and is a place where you can rehearse what you might do next. We also need to be open to the fact that what we are experiencing could be much more to do with our unfinished business than it is to do with our client – in which case seeking out an appropriate helping practitioner for our personal development is likely to be a good call.
If this blog is ringing bells for you, then it would be great to have a discussion with you.
Call: Michelle on 07717 122950