Most of us know such a situation. We share feedback with a member of the team and their reaction astonishes us. Either there is hardly any or it is more intense than expected.
We are astonished as the reaction doesn’t seem to be adequate for the situation. It makes us feel uncomfortable and leaves us wondering how to address such a situation in the future.
Most often what happened is what psychotherapy calls a transference. It was initially described by Freud as the transfer onto others of emotions a person holds to a person of their past.
It is a normal phenomenon for humans as our brains are wired for pattern recognition. Consequently, we’ll be scanning everyone we meet as well as their behaviors for patterns we know. Any time a person reminds us of someone else we’ll use the experience we’ve had with that other person to interpret the situation we are in. It works in both directions, making it easy to trust people just as much as it may lead us to feel insecure with someone.
Transference is a complex concept that goes both ways. The person who is on the recipient end of transference will naturally also react to it in his way. It includes their worldviews, their own experience, and the dots they connect with the patterns they know.
There are at least two ways transference can lead to: identification and projection.
Take for example Rick who upon receiving a reminder that the deadline for his project is upcoming starts to explain how difficult his situation is. Hearing this, John starts to feel awkward and blames himself for having given Rick a too tight deadline.
John started to identify with the situation Rick describes. Believing he is empathizing with Rick, John doesn’t distinguish well anymore between his feelings and what he perceives in Rick. John is now affected and slightly confused as to who is in difficulty. It makes it difficult for John to remain the helpful leader he wants to be.
Another possibility can be, that John reminded Rick of the upcoming deadline because of the importance he gives to deadlines. In this situation, it is John’s experience of deadlines that led to his projection onto Rick. By projecting onto Rick the idea that he doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the deadline, John is trying to make sure that Rick won’t fail. Which gives a new meaning to Rick’s intense reaction as Rick might not want to be saved. For Rick, being saved is a reminder of his teachers not trusting him to finish on time.
Leading in such a way, John ends up overprotecting his team.
In both situations, John and Rick find it hard to see things through. They have an emotional reaction that overtakes their ability to be present and attentive to their relationship.
If they work in a culture in which people fear to express their emotions and feelings, it becomes difficult for them to sort things out. A rational argumentation doesn’t help as there are no clear facts available. They only have the experience of the exchange. The only way to access it is by describing their feelings in the moment in a non-judgmental way.
But if the culture doesn’t allow them to share them, they will stick to their habit to interpret what is happening based on their experience. It keeps the transferences alive. The cycle of intense reactions that leads to tensions between them remains active.
In a culture in which people feel safe to express themselves, people will find it easier to question the situation. And do it in a non-judgmental manner. They learn that sharing their inner reactions helps them untangle the situation. As both describe their respective experience, they learn to read the other person’s language and way of behaving. By being curious about the other person’s reactions they verify if their interpretation makes sense or not. They also gain an understanding of how the other person’s experience impacts their behavior.
It may take a bit of time. But these conversations create space for empathy and self-awareness. In the long run, they reduce the time and effort invested in misinterpretations of the situation. It allows to let go of mindreading. And people learn to speak a language that can become a shared language between them.