"...wisdom and compassion can join hands in finding a Spirit that both transcends and includes this world, a Spirit eternally prior to this world and yet embracing this world and all its beings with infinite love and compassion, and care and concern, and the tenderest of mercies..." Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything.A male colleague asked me once about self-managing feelings of compassion, fondness, and attraction with clients. Therapists refer to these phenomena as transference and counter-transference. I prefer a less clinical explanation of what happens in a profoundly compassionate coaching relationship. We simply experience love—at its best, what Ken Wilber describes as infinite love—which is an important component of transformational change.
Spontaneous change can happen in personal relationships when the partners finally experience unconditional love. In effective coaching relationships, as well, the emotional connection is one of unconditional, caring support. This is especially true when your clients experience powerful insights, access a deep sense of their true worth, or realize how radically they've changed as a result of working with you.
My first experience of this with a client felt like falling in love, only somehow bigger. I was grateful it happened when coaching a man to whom I couldn't possibly be attracted—-so I wasn't confused about the source, only how or why it happened. At the moment this incredible feeling swept over me, I’d been pondering deeply how best to help him. At the same moment, I found out later, he’d been praying I’d be shown the way to help him. It is indeed a kind of love we share at times like these, but it's bigger than everyday love. Instead of being "in" love, we’re being "within" love, both lucky enough to have been present to a special kind of healing.
When your client's the same gender as you, this isn't confusing or threatening to either coach or client. For example, a female client sent me this email after a very powerful coaching session: "Dear Mary, Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think it might not be too soon to say, I love you." She and I understood what that meant. This woman expresses her emotions openly. But I have been within love with clients who aren't so openly expressive. I remember, for example, a happily married, tough-nosed, male CEO of a consulting firm who, after several months of coaching, would respond to a particularly profound insight by saying, “I love you!” We both knew we were feeling something bigger than personal love.
Sometimes, though, social conditioning and role expectations can kick in for both of you when clients are of the opposite gender. Especially male clients with a female coach may define their feelings of shared compassion and gratitude as "infatuation" or "falling in love." When that happens, remember that you’re in a special position as companion on a difficult and life-changing journey. Create appropriate boundaries so they feel safe enough to stay open and explore new territory, and at the same time redefine this joy they're feeling as infinite love, not personal love.