A Coaching Model Created by Jane Wang
(Cross-Cultural Trainer & Coach, TAIWAN)
Career, life, and cross-cultural transitions and transformation
First, a caveat: I’m not an expert on fish, or fishbowls. I just happen to like fish and water. It has a lighthearted, quirky tone to it – that’s the kind of energy I bring to my coaching, and to crossing cultures and expanding to your best version of you.
What’s a fishbowl?
A fishbowl is a metaphor for a worldview. This worldview consists of a way of doing things, a way of seeing ourselves, other people, the world, life, our place in it, how things are and should be. This worldview tells us what’s right and wrong, good and bad. There’s a set of explicit and implicit rules governing behavior in this fishbowl. This is what’s celebrated, this is what’s not, this works, this doesn’t. It comes from a set of experiences, histories, philosophies, values, beliefs. It is what’s true for a group of people who see and experience the world from a particular set of lenses.
Examples of the ‘fishbowl’ worldview could be (but are not limited to):
- National: i.e. America, China, Brazil; or subcultures: Asian-Americans in California, Ainu in Japan, Indonesian workers in Taiwan
- Roles: mother, wife, daughter; boss, employee; driver, pedestrian; perpetrator, victim; teacher, student; government vs. citizen
- Social status: married vs. single; parents vs. childless; wealthy vs. poor; highly educated vs. practical skill-based workers
- Gender/sexual orientation: male vs. female; homosexual vs. heterosexual
- Appearance: Black, white, Asian; large vs. small; tall vs. short; old vs. young
- Sectors: corporate vs. education vs. artistic; for-profit vs. non-profit
- Organizational: Conglomerate vs. small family-owned vs. start-up
- Functions: HR vs. finance vs. sales; administrative vs. content deliverer
- Generation: Grew up in which decade, age, grandparents vs. parents vs. children; nowadays even a few years could make a difference
- Religions: Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, new age
- Political: Democrat vs. Republican; green vs. blue party
- Personality: Extroverted vs. Introverted; different Enneagram types, etc.
- Identity: Successful vs. Failure; Creative vs. Not creative; Strong vs. Weak
Some of these can change in a person’s lifetime, while others, like certain aspects of appearance, are static. A fishbowl includes culture – a set of learned behaviors to ensure group continuity – but is not limited to culture. In all cases, it feels a certain way to be in one of these worlds, especially relative to context – if you’re in the majority or the minority in a certain fishbowl.
Many of these fishbowls are also interlayered within a person – i.e. someone could be of two races and/or nationalities from a certain generation with a certain political leaning who is married/single, and more. The combination of these ‘worldviews’ inside a person comprises a major part of their identity – how they see themselves, and their worldview – how they see and experience the world.
I do like fish, water, and a bit of humor in coaching.
But more importantly, I find that what keeps a person struggling is when they are fish inside a fishbowl, so completely believing that fishbowl is the whole of reality.
Inside one fishbowl
It could be they are inside one fishbowl, suffering inside that fishbowl because they don’t belong, so something must be wrong with them — and that can lead to them disliking themselves and resigning themselves to pain and isolation inside this fishbowl, or harming themselves to fit into this fishbowl (or others bullying them to).
Or, they belong so well inside that fishbowl that they reject or even want to eradicate other fishbowls because these other worldviews threaten their security in theirs being the only reality – and this rejection of other fishbowls causes suffering too.
Either way, they are so completely immersed inside one fishbowl that they don’t even realize it’s just one fishbowl among many. They haven’t leapt outside of this fishbowl yet to experience other fishbowls. They are so fully identified with one fishbowl that they lack the imagination to see that theirs is just one fishbowl and doesn’t represent the whole of reality nor the whole of who they are or who they could be.
**This becomes ever more relevant now that murders like the Isla Vista killings are happening because a person feels utterly rejected within a cultural context without realizing that it is just a culture (fishbowl) and doesn’t determine his absolute worth.
Another way people get stuck inside one fishbowl is in a conflict situation. They are firmly entrenched in their own outlook on how things should be that they feel hurt or angered that another person could even think/feel/behave in that way! They believe there is only one right way and it’s the other person’s fault. They are viewing things from the standpoint of one fishbowl, without having any clue about the hurts, values, intentions, styles of the other side. It could even be that the way two people resolve conflict itself is different, which makes it even more difficult to resolve. In any case, conflict situations when hurt feelings and resentment are involved are a good example of when it’s important to become aware that we’re inside only one fishbowl.
Leaping into another fishbowl
As they begin to realize there are other fishbowls out there, that this isn’t the only way, there is hope, they attempt to leap out of their fishbowl into a new one. It could be they are not accepted in this fishbowl, so they go to another fishbowl – geographically, group-wise; or they see a certain kind of success they want to achieve and they want to ‘become’ their idea of a successful person, which lives in a different fishbowl where the fish there think, feel, and act in different ways.
The ‘leaping’ itself can be an arduous process, filled with fear and disappointment and emotional rollercoasters, because to completely make a change of worldviews can seem at first like you must invalidate or hush a part of yourself (from the old fishbowl) while not yet reaching the new fishbowl. You are a fish out of water for a while, with no true reflection back to you of who you are. You are in between.
Even once you have landed in another fishbowl – voluntarily or involuntarily – it can be disorienting, because what you thought was ‘who you are’ and ‘what life/world is’ is now completely different. Whereas the world made sense before, now the world has switched on you, and you don’t know where you belong anymore, what you’re supposed to do, what’s right or wrong.
It’s that feeling whenever we face transitions in life – we’ve leapt into a foreign culture and now the way we used to be or do or say is not the right way anymore and can cause us to feel displaced, rejected, isolated, confused. Or when life happens and we are thrust into a completely different dimension – perhaps we suddenly lost all of our success or wealth, or suddenly gained it; or we got promoted from employee to boss, or got fired; when we go from a married status to a single status, or vice versa. Arriving in a new fishbowl can be an extremely tough adjustment as identity, appropriate behavior, relationships are all in flux and confusion.
Stuck between fishbowl
Or it could be that they have leapt from one fishbowl to another, or more, and stayed in those other fishbowls for a while, but now find themselves spread out amongst two or more fishbowls. Even if they used to belong in one fishbowl, now that they have experienced other fishbowls, they feel one-dimensional or out of place now in any one fishbowl. They have become multi-fishbowl fish.
Now, they understand different fishbowls, and pieces of themselves are sometimes in contradictory fishbowls (i.e. individualist vs. collectivist cultures), but the one-fishbowl fish don’t understand there are other fishbowls the way these multi-fishbowl fish do, and therefore don’t see the complexity or share the same worldview or experiences the way they do.
This can be a very lonely and frustrating place for the multi-fishbowl fish to be, because as humans we all need a sense of community and belonging, to have our ways of being mirrored back to us. Third-culture kids (TCKs) are one example of people who feel they have pieces of themselves in multiple fishbowls, yet the people in each fishbowl can only see that one dimension of them, and it’s rare to find a whole fishbowl of people who can see multiple dimensions of who they are. So they often leap from one fishbowl to another, visiting the different pieces of them, wondering if they can collect all the pieces together in this fishbowl, confused about their direction.
Being stuck between fishbowls can also happen when we’re struggling with aspects of ourselves – the ‘corporate’ me or the ‘education’ me, the ‘single’ me or the ‘mother’ me, the ‘Taiwanese’ me or the ‘American’ me, the ‘successful’ me or the ‘failure’ me, the ‘wealthy’ me or the ‘poor’ me; the list goes on. We’re all too familiar with both fishbowls, yet whenever we’re in one, we feel like the other part of us is missing.
Another impact of being stuck between fishbowls is the confusion that can result when there are two fishbowls sending contradictory messages about what is right and good. For example, for someone who has experienced both individualist and collectivist cultures, she might wonder how to fashion her future career. Should she choose a career based on her passions, as the individualist culture and many of her peers would recommend, even if she isn’t quite sure what those passions are yet? Or should she go with a stable income that calms her parents’ anxieties and seems responsible to the family, even if she isn’t passionate about the job? These warring fishbowls can affect a person’s clarity on what work they do, who they love, where they live, and other major life choices that are ultimately all intertwined.
Why two fishbowls?
There are of course an almost infinite number of fishbowls, as many as there are experiences, identities, personalities, cultures, communities, and the list at the beginning is only a list of examples.
Yet the reason there are two fishbowls is because we are often struggling with dualities, contradictions, things that are relative to one another – am I this or that? From this culture to that culture. The ‘old’ me vs. the ‘new’ me. Competent me or incompetent me. Compassionate me or non-compassionate me. Success or failure. Married or single. When we make change and undergo transitions in life or role or identity, or we step into another world, or we feel rejected and isolated inside our own, or we struggle with aspects of who we are, it is often a process of going from one fishbowl to another – and this leaping between two fishbowls can happen on multiple fronts for a single person.
It can also be that when we are inside one fishbowl, i.e. the “poor, underdog” me, we identify so strongly with that fishbowl that we forget that there is also an “abundance, phoenix” me that we seem only to see in other people, but is actually just as much a part of me. There are two fishbowls because sometimes we need to be reminded that the other fishbowl exists, and is just as much a part of who we are – and that alone can empower a person to step outside and embrace the power of both fishbowls.
The most important aspect of my coaching is to help the client unpack and master the fishbowls.
This process begins with a discovery questionnaire, where I’m asking the client to reflect on her strengths, interests, aspirations, and a series of other questions about her experiences and what she wants out of coaching. I also use a combination of the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, strengths & ‘overused strengths’, and cultural and life history to begin understanding my client and helping her understand herself through reflection. These early processes help me get a sense of what’s awesome about the client and what might be holding the client back from his/her stated vision and goals.
The goal of the coaching is to help a client step outside to see the fishbowls for what they are – just worldviews – and instead of being stuck inside or between the fishbowls, they can hold them in the palm of their hands, know that each is only part of who they are – phase in their life, an aspect of their personality, an experience, a cultural influence – but do not define fully who they are. Armed with a full understanding of their fishbowls, and without fully identifying with any single one, they can now relate to their fishbowls as a compassionate master who leverages each fishbowl as appropriate and empowering for the context and intention at hand.
This is akin to what we call flexing or style-switching in cross-cultural training. We help the client see from multiple frames of reference and choose behavior that is appropriate to the context at hand, rather than insisting on behavior from their original frame of reference only. The client is able to disassociate their identity from a particular frame of reference, step outside, and choose behavior.
As a coach, I achieve this by leveraging powerful questions and powerful listening to help the client explore the often confusing entanglement of fishbowls inside of them. I reflect back to the client the awesomeness I see, suggest areas where the client might be living out someone else’s values or overusing a strength (each of these are fishbowls), and gently inquire about it and allow the client to explore roadbumps in the journey. All of the above would be a conversation with the client, where the client has full power to tell me when they agree or disagree with what I observe. Throughout this process I am affirming the client’s values, strengths, and vision.
In addition to exploring fishbowls, I also help the client explore, experiment and develop new competencies and practices to support them in the transition: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual habits that increase their energy and resilience. The enneagram provides a good map for understanding inner world patterns, and can help a client gain awareness where they need to strengthen to better reach their vision and goals.
An understanding of the fishbowls as fishbowls, the ones inside of them and the ones they encounter in others, helps a client achieve self-alignment, which brings the client to a new level of confidence and releases energy that was previously wasted on being confused and pained immersed inside or between fishbowls. Armed with new perspective on the fishbowls, the client is empowered to craft a future buoyed by new self-awareness and self-management practices in new complex contexts.
The awareness of other fishbowls also helps the client see clearly and gain compassion for others who are different from her, and thus energy that was previously wasted on blaming others, groveling to others, or feeling inferior or superior to others can now be released, giving the client a new compassion that allows the client to connect with those she wasn’t able to connect with before.
The client is now an empowered master of fishbowls who is able to create her life and connect across differences amidst fishbowls.