Friday 13 January 2023

Parallel process

The other day I was reflecting on a coaching session I had just finished. I was uneasy; but could not pinpoint the source of my dissatisfaction with it. I had prepared well, opened the conversation well, listened well, helped the individual think in depth and with fresh insight about the issues under consideration, and generate some ideas for action to try out; and I had closed the conversation well, inviting a summary of the learning and actions, and a review of how we were working together; and the individual was happy with the session and the process. 

And yet, I wasn't. And I couldn't quite pin down why - my review hadn't highlighted any particular flaws; I just felt that I hadn't been very creative or resourceful in the session, and I wasn't sure that they individual was really committed to the actions identified.

It was the following morning, first as I was reflecting during my early morning cycle, and then in a supervisory conversation with a colleague, that I realised: parallel process! 

Parallel process is the name we give to the experience of taking on someone else's emotional state as our own, without realising that we are doing so, and that distorting our perception and behaviour.

In this case, I had listened with sympathy to the very difficult situation my client was in, and his sense of powerlessness, arising from having tried many things (he had done a great deal right, and yet some situations remained unresolved). And I had moved beyond empathy into sharing his sense of stuckness. And that had contaminated the session (or at the very least, my experience of it) so that I left the session with some of his feeling of powerlessness.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether he does actually take any of the actions we discussed, and what impact, if any, they have. But regardless of that, it is valuable for me to have identified what was going on for me: it enables me to learn from the experience, and in particular to ensure that I prepare for our next session with a focus on not getting drawn into the same situation.

More broadly, it reminded me that I still have work to do on that most difficult of skills: reflection-in-action. That is, being mindful in the moment, whilst giving full attention to my client, of my own response and how to manage that so that I stay in the most compassionate and also the most resourceful state of mind, so as to offer the best coaching I am capable of.


With thanks to  Alex Motoc for sharing his picture on Unsplash

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