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Lawyers' Feelings: Transference and Countertransferrence - Part II

Emotions at Work in the Helper-Client Relationship

This continues a discussion of Professors Shaffer and Elkins, Legal Interviewing and Counseling (4th Ed. West Group 2004). Below I paraphrase some of the authors’ main points in bold. My comments are in italics.

This discussion of emotions and the unconscious may be unsettling.

You may prefer to deal with facts.

These are emotional facts.

18. Three things we professional helpers can do with our feelings about a client:
  • Repress feelings until we’re unaware of them, then find an emotional release outside the professional relationship through exercise, family life, hobbies, etc.; or

  • Secretly channel feelings back into the professional relationship as tools of manipulation; or

  • (Preferably) partner with the client: bring feelings openly into the relationship.
“Touchy-feely” has come to connote the inappropriate intrusion of emotions into an otherwise “rational” situation – as though emotions could be turned off or set aside. So long as human beings are involved there is no entirely rational situation devoid of emotion. Like it or not, aware of it or not, emotions play a powerful and ongoing role between helper and client. Injunctions like “let’s not get emotional” or “let’s be reasonable” pretend that reason can trump emotions. Too often it’s the other way around. Remember to forget the phrase “touchy-feely”. It demeans the emotional dimension in human life and advertises the speaker’s insensitivity. Better to recognize emotions and deal with them in a professional manner – and to strike “t-f-” from one’s vocabulary.

19. Transferrence is a psychological term for some of the client’s strong feelings towards the helper. Transferrence can occur in any relationship where one person is viewed as an authority figure, upon whom the other becomes emotionally dependent. Transferrence can have a positive or negative impact.

A successful helper-client relationship requires deft understanding of the client’s emotional disposition towards the helper and an appropriate reaction to it.

20. Transference is the tendency of clients to relive an emotional relationship from the past, and to (emotionally) cast the helper in an inappropriate role. The helper is made a stand-in for an important person in the client’s life, typically the client’s father. This can create an emotional dependence on the helper. As a result, choices ostensibly made by the client are, in fact, made by the helper.

A client is likely unaware that transference is taking place. It’s helpful for the helper to ask herself, “Who else might I be in the client’s story?” Elsewhere the authors insist that choice of desired outcomes belongs solely to the client. (See Part I) Though it’s sometimes tempting with a weak-willed client, helpers need to avoid the “Father/Mother Knows Best” role.

21. Countertransferrence is a psychological term for some of the strong feelings of the helper directed towards the client. These helper feelings

  • are linked to the helper’s other relationships (often past), or

  • the helper’s needs and feelings that are not specifically related to the client or

  • both of the above.

As a result, the client may experience the helper as being overly-helpful.

A lawyer may well ask herself, “Who else might this client be in my story?” Remember, both transferrence and countertransferrence take place outside our awareness.

22. Some signs of lawyer countertransferrence are:

  • Feelings of discomfort during or after client interviews.

  • Carelessness or discourtesy towards the client—tardiness to appointments, inconveniencing the client, permitting avoidable interruptions.

  • Strong affectionate feelings for the client.

  • Inclinations to boast about the importance of the matter.

  • Avoidance of the client and neglect of the case.

  • Gossip with others about the client.

  • A tendency to hammer away at minutiae in the client’s case.

  • Boredom or drowsiness – “almost inevitably an indicator of extreme anxiety produced in the attorney.”

23. Countertransferrence is threatening to the lawyer-client relationship because it conflicts with the role expectations lawyers consciously shape into their professional masks (persona).

A persona is an actor’s mask. We helpers wear personas that project our professional roles and insulate our privacy from clients’ curiosity. The hazard is that our masks conceal those portions of our personal stories that clients are entitled to share – our empathy, understanding, concern, our underlying humanity.

24. The unconscious is that area of human interaction that takes place outside our awareness. Lodged in our unconscious are:


  • Feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, impotence, or grandiose defenses against a feeling of helplessness.

  • Affection and sensitivity to rejection.

  • A need to punish or be punished.

  • Passive-dependent feelings, especially in men and women who aspire to high achievement.

  • Intense feelings of loneliness and isolation.

  • Qualities in oneself we can’t tolerate in others.

  • Feelings of unworthiness and despair.

Transference and countertransferrence both originate in the unconscious.

- Gerald Le Van

glevan@uww-adr.com


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