When a client comes to you and they have a difficult relationship with someone, and in sessions they are constantly talking about this person with a lot of frustration and a lot of irritation — how can you work with your client around this?
It could be a family member. Often it is in-laws, as these are prime candidates for this kind of material, and they just can't get on with them. Maybe it is someone at work they find really difficult, a colleague or a boss or someone who reports to them. Someone that they just find really, really hard to get on with.
One thing that you can do really powerfully is help them to see that their resentment and bad feeling towards someone doesn't just happen, it builds up from tiny little moments. Sometimes it has been a big moment, a very noticeable, identifiable big rift that they can point to directly. But often it is very tiny moments. It was a look, or they have heard someone else say something about them — you know, a kind of water cooler gossip moment.
Those moments are like little hairline fractures. Your client won't have necessarily noticed those tiny moments. But over time these moments layer on each other. That look… and then they think someone said something… and then that comment was made… and eventually you've got a relationship that has completely eroded.
Resentment and bad feeling towards someone doesn't just happen, it builds up from these tiny little moments. Now this is actually very good news because when your client understands why that relationship has eroded you can work with that.
Help your client identify the tiny moments of hurt
You can go with your client to a specific moment of hurt, even if it was tiny, even if it was just 'that comment', or 'that look'. You can help your client to go right to that moment. Really anchor them in that specific moment with questions like, “Where are you? Exactly what happened? When was it? What was the air like? What was the feeling in your body?”
Have them replay that tiny moment and ask them: “What was the offence that that person committed against you in that moment?”
There’s some kind of sacred bond that in that moment was broken. For instance, "In that moment my in-law disrespected me," or "In that moment my colleague lied about me." In that tiny moment they broke some code. They broke some sacred unwritten bond and that is why it hurt so much. So help your client identify what that offence was committed against them in that specific moment?
Help your client question their stories about that moment
Once the moment of hurt is clearly identified, you can then help them question their stories about that moment. Stories like: "Well that means he doesn't care about me… that means that she doesn't like me… that means that he is not supporting me." As a coach you can just really clearly, gently, firmly question these stories:
“Is that true, that what he said means that he doesn't like you?”
“Is that the only interpretation you can see or is something else possible here?”
“Are there any alternative perspectives that you can see here?”
“Identifying what the truth is of this statement, is that interpretation correct?”
Our default is connection. Anytime when we are not feeling connection with someone, it is because these stories have built up.
You can also help your client identify the cost of these stories, by asking them:
“What is the cost to you of continuing to hold this story?”
“What does it cost you on a day to day basis, every time you see that in-law, every time you see that colleague?”
“What does it cost you that that is the story that is in your mind?”
That story was born somewhere. It was born in that moment and then in the next one it got exacerbated. And by helping your clients unpick the truth of all these stories and helping them to see the cost of each of the stories, even the most seemingly impossible relationship can the unpicked.
Our default is connection. Anytime when we are not feeling connection with someone, it is because these stories have built up. You can do such powerful work with the client when you help them to unpick those stories and just come back to connection.
This piece has minor edits for clarity.
Corrina Gordon-Barnes is a relationship coach.