Talking to a friend the other day about ideal client profiles in each of our emerging small businesses, I described mine – their pain points (excuse the non-pun in relation to the cancer topic…), understood, I felt, where they wanted change, and could picture if and where they work, who they hang out with, what they do online and in their physical environment, their families, struggles and desires and all the nuances that makes up these people that we would like to work with and support. She paused when I’d finished, looked at me and said. ‘so, you’ve just described yourself yeah?’ Hmm I thought, maybe I have – and is that a problem? For any coach it’s a pertinent question to think about, so here’s my take on it.
Many of us in small businesses, coaches of not, are drawn to the people and places we work with because we understand that a need wasn’t being met, or met well, for a group of people. Sometimes that comes from personal experience of having been there ourselves, which is a powerful driver to create something new or better to solve people’s problems.
For me, my cancer experience raised my awareness of the lack of structured support to move on from this massive life change, where counseling or other therapies alone were not quite hitting the mark. This drives my motivation now to work with the people I do following their own cancer experience.
At times, it’s incredibly powerful and important that I understand the intricacies of my clients’ lives from this perspective of mine. In having been there too, we can skip layers of information that we might otherwise have taken a long time to get to, enabling a deep sense of rapport and connection to ensure safety and security in disclosing their hardest thoughts and trickiest situations, to be worked through with someone who gets it and is able to hold the space for them.
In having this strong sense of rapport, we efficiently find ways they may be looking at their issue(s) and explore alternative viewpoints. We look at their feelings and emotions that could be altered or enhanced to support their resilience, and their coping mechanisms in life after cancer.
We might also flip gently into mentoring territory, whereby it’s more appropriate for me to share details of my own cancer experience if I feel it would enhance, encourage and support the discussion – but with a big IF. Sharing of an experience can be a powerful tool for some people, whilst for others it would be inappropriate and detract from the support they want and need at that time. But in being able to gauge this it can be used as a method to support the person in the way they need the most.
So understanding their issues from having had cancer myself can be useful.
However, just because someone has had cancer, I can’t and shouldn’t presume to know everything about their experience and neither everything about them – it would be misleading and unprofessional for me to presume someone’s likes and dislikes just from this experience alone.
It may also be problematic to imagine my ideal client being just like me because, even if someone was to fit the ideal client profile, there will be lots that doesn’t fit into that profile that I might miss; if I’m spending my time not looking for behaviours, thoughts and feelings in someone because they don’t fit into the narrative I’ve created about them, that wouldn’t serve them well either.
In addition it’s problematic because we can find ourselves as the professional feeling exposed and emotionally unsafe if we’re spending our time imagining what we might do in any given client’s situation (irrespective of whether they’re ‘like’ us or not, actually). Here the concepts of transference and counter transference come into play.
Transference is the experience of the client bringing their ideas and thoughts about someone or something into the relationship with you and imagining you are like someone else, or this situation is like another for them. It’s the coach’s role to recognise this might be happening, safely enable the client to see the similarities or differences and take the action that’s right for them – in some cases this can be as extreme as terminating the relationship, where it is clear there is negative benefit to the client.
Counter transference is where the coach might bring their own thoughts and feelings into the relationship, and, particularly, bring them into the way they support the client. It’s the coach’s role to sense this might be happening and take control as soon as possible – that might be through a quick talking to in their head mid session or post session de-briefing notes or supervision to gain perspective. Whatever they do, the client needs to feel they’re in a safe space and not littered with the coach’s ‘stuff’.
Clearly, transference and counter transference are more common where client or coach are comparing themselves to the other, which can certainly take place where experiences are similar. Here, the coach in particular needs to stay aware of how this might play out, whilst equally acknowledging that the client might be seeing them for the very reason that they had similar experiences.
In my work, I hope I get the balance right. I write and talk openly about my own cancer experience to provide examples of the finer details of life after it – that mix of joy with fear, energy with fatigue, love and happiness with guilt. It may help others to see that it’s not a simple ‘before cancer’ and ‘after cancer’ life, and it’s OK to hold a complex set of emotions. However, it’s also important for me that I don’t spew everything everywhere and it’s equally important to clients to see that I’m not using this service or space as a means to my own therapy. Sharing is important to build rapport but it’s also important I don’t feel exposed or vulnerable just like anyone else doesn’t want to.
This isn’t an uncommon discussion for support professionals and ultimately it will come down to each person’s line of expertise, who they work with and how they want a relationship to develop. For the client, some don’t want to know anything about a professional they work with, rather just the results and outcomes they’ll get by working with them. Others need to know far more to feel they can use their services and share the space – it comes down to preference and need on both sides.
As a result, I’m OK with me being somewhat like my ideal client in our experiences and hope it enhances our time together as a result.
So, over to you – what do you think?