Projection and counter-projection

We don’t expect coaches and mentors generally to have a deep understand of psychology or psychotherapy. But understanding the principles of projection and counter-projection can help you recognise and manage common situations, where the dynamics of the learning relationship aren’t working as they should.

Projection refers to the process, by which people unconsciously disown their own feelings by perceiving them to be present in or to originate in another person. So, for example, a person might create the belief that her boss doesn’t like her to avoid admitting that she does not like her boss. Symptoms of projection include:

  • Blaming others for our own failures
  • Accusing others of having unworthy thoughts that are actually our own
  • Attributing our own unpleasant behaviours, motivations or character traits to others

Projection can be neurotic (seeing others as operating in ways you find objectionable in yourself); complementary (assuming others think and feel the same way you do); complimentary projection is when we see our own traits in other people – for example, assuming our friends are more like us than is actually the case.

Counter projection happens when you unknowingly encourage the other person to project onto you and so reinforce their behaviour.

Projection and counter-projection can both occur in the client and in the coach. For example, In the learning relationship, it’s easy to move from making an association (e.g. “the way she talks reminds me of…”) to assuming that the learner is “like” the person they remind you of in other ways, too. A useful antidote to this kind of thinking is to explore the assumptions that you both bring to the relationship. So, in getting to know each other, you might wish to share, for example:

  • Your most important values – what’s important to you in life
  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Your greatest likes and dislikes
  • What has brought you joy and sorrow

While this won’t guarantee that projection won’t occur between you (it is always present to some extent), it provides something of a counterbalance.

Within the coaching conversations, you may from time to time suspect that the client is projecting onto other people. For example, they may be exhibiting precisely the behaviours or opinions they are accusing other people of. (e.g. “He’s just prejudiced.”) Useful coaching questions here include:

  • Can you honestly say that you never have similar thoughts yourself? (Getting at projection.)
  • What do you think you might be saying or doing that would encourage this behaviour in the other person? (Getting at counter-projection.)
  • What alternative, more positive motivations could possibly explain what you see in the other person?
  • What alternative, less positive motivations could the other person possibly be assuming in you?

© David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved

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