A Coaching Power Tool Created by Lemise Dajani
(Career and Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Emily was thrilled to start her job at the advertising firm that she worked – it seemed to check all the boxes of being fast-paced, dynamic, and ever-evolving. But eventually, the luster faded, and she found herself dreading to go in each morning. Along with her loss of enthusiasm came a loss of engagement in her work, constant complaining to those closest to her, and damper in her general demeanor. This went on for over a year. She continuously acknowledged she was unhappy but did nothing. Then one day Emily quit her job. She decided to go back to school for a completely different field and has begun a successful and fulfilling career as an interior designer. She now feels empowered, happy, and fulfilled.
I have countless examples of friends, family members, and clients who experience this drudgery in their current situation – they complain endlessly about the same things and yet they do nothing. What then is this transition where it clicks and they can suddenly do what they need to make that change?
The shift is from paralysis to ignition. In this paper, we will explore how to move one’s perspective from a state of feeling negative, stuck, and out of control to one of action, empowerment, and progressive forward movement. While this applies to many situations, I will discuss its particular application in career development.
Paralysis vs Ignition
Let’s examine these states further to understand what types of thoughts and actions exist to put us in them. Reflecting on the word “paralysis”, we may associate with states of immobility, idleness, passivity, and even death. When we are in this state, we are not taking action and living life. We are simply drifting through life like a stick floating down a stream, going wherever the current takes it. When assuming the fate of the stick, we assume we have no say in our course and simply complain when not happy with the direction our life has taken us.
From an outsider’s view, you may look at this person and say “if you are unhappy with your current situation, why not simply change it?” But for the individual, they are stuck in their heads. Their thoughts are likely grounded in an external locus of control, in which they believe their successes and failures are due to factors outside of their control and thus they do not have the ability to make changes. They may be consumed by fear (fear of the unknown, fear of not being good enough, fear of losing what is currently good…the list goes on). They may find themselves making excuses for why they have to keep things as they are. And with all this, they continue, passively floating through situations that they feel are less than ideal.
This is in contrast with a state of “ignition”. Thinking about something igniting conjures up images of flames, light, and motion. These words imply life, starting, energy, and hope. When we are in this state, we feel in control, empowered, and optimistic.
When one enters this state, they are likely operating from an internal locus of control, in which they feel their successes and failures are a result of their own hard work, investment, and abilities. With such a perspective, they can seize the moment and mold it as they please. There is a shift from looking backward to looking forwards; from thinking/ saying to act; from passive to proactive; from suppressed to energized. It is not to say that they suddenly go from point A to B overnight, but they have ignited some momentum that allows them to begin the journey from where they have been stuck towards the place they want to be.
Making the Shift
How then does this shift occur? One of the themes you may have picked up on is the focus on negatives in the current situation vs a focus on positives in the future. As a coach, you can help your client move away from replaying a loop of everything wrong with their current situation and help them refocus on their ideals.
Connecting with one’s dreams releases one’s passion, energy, and excitement about life… Developing that ideal image requires a reach deep inside to one’s gut level. You know you have touched it when you suddenly feel passionate about the possibilities of your lifeholds. To begin—or sustain—real development, you must first engage that power of your ideal self. There’s a simple reason: Changing habits is hard work… That’s why making lasting change requires a strong commitment to a future vision on oneself—especially during stressful times or amid growing responsibilities.(Daniel Goleman, 2013)
By refocusing on something positive, you are creating the energy needed to push them out of their current state, make efforts, and take risks. It’s igniting that spark to fuel the momentum needed to take action. Reflecting on a vision gives them something clear to strive for and to ground their energy in reaching.
Once clear and energized on where they want to go, some time needs to be spent reflecting on their current state of one’s real self. At this point, it is worth looking at what is going on in our brains. Richard Boyatzis grounds his Intentional Change Theory in a mechanism that allows for the transfer between two states found in all of us: Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) and Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA). The NEAarouses a psycho-physiological state that elicits a feeling of obligation, which stops the sustainability of any changes because there is no intrinsic motivation. Whereas the PEA creates a state that allows for openness to new ideas (Boyatzis, 2017).
The understanding of one’s real self includes having a realistic understanding of what has been preventing them from making this change. Therefore as a coach, it may be worth exploring what thought patterns exist that could get in the way, such as fears, anxiety, or self-doubt. It is important to acknowledge these to be able to manage around them, but not dwell on them. Boyatzis writes
In the Real Self, there should be an emphasis on your strengths, not on the development needs. This stimulates the PEA because it’s about building upon what you’re already good at and filling in the gaps, rather than dwelling on weaknesses (Boyatzis, 2017).
Therefore, as a coach, we need to help our clients focus on what they can leverage in their current strengths to help them reach their vision. By stimulating the PEA, we are feeling more of that positive energy that they need to take (and continue taking) action.
Let’s apply this in the realm of career development by examining a case study with Henry. Henry has been in his job for 5 years. He works in the back office of a bank in what is a very operational role. This was his first job out of school and at the time he was excited to be working, but now feels he is not learning, not stimulated and there is a lot of red tape in his department. He has felt this way for a couple of years and continues to complain to his friends and family.
As coaches, how can we help him get out of this loop of negativity and into a state where he can take action to make a career that energizes him? We can start by moving him out of the here and now, with which he clearly is displeased, and refocus him on something exciting to him. We can help him paint the vision for his future by asking questions like What gives you energy at work? What components would make up your ideal work situation? How do you want to be spending your time? At your retirement, what would you look back on and be proud of?
Upon this exploration, we find that Henry really enjoys interacting with people, making deals, and thinking about new ways of doing things. He starts to see that his current job really does not tick any of those boxes and a front-office, client-facing role would be quite intriguing for him. Great, we have a vision of a career path that excites him. But that does not mean he is ready to take action yet. In fact, he has known for a while that he wasn’t fulfilled in his current role and would eventually want to change.
Now we explore his current situation. We need to uncover what it is that has prevented him from making a change. We may get him to reflect on this by asking questions like: What would it mean to make this change? What uncomfortable feelings do you have about making this change? What thoughts do you find yourself replaying when you think about making a change? In our exploration, we find he has a lot of security in his current role and there is fear around losing that. We may then need to challenge him: How important is security to you? What would it mean to lose that? To what extent do you actually lose that security with this new job? What is the value of giving that up compared to what you would gain?
Once he has reconciled that security is not as important to him and that there is a fair amount of security in that future type of role – it just looks a bit different, then we explore what strengths and resources he currently has to work with that can help him land this new job. This is to build up that positive energy that he needs to make the first steps. We have him reflect on a recent 360 that he took with feedback from his colleagues. He sees his strengths in dealing with ambiguity, being a creative problem-solver, and negotiating with others, which he acknowledges are assets in his ideal role. He is now feeling like he has what it takes to make this move. The momentum continues.
Next, we look at what he needs to make this shift. The focus here may be on baby steps rather than making the actual job transition tomorrow. In Henry’s case, he feels he needs to network with people in that area of the organization before he can apply for a position. This is energizing to him because he is a people-person as well as sees a link in how it will help him towards that vision.
The focus of coaching in this situation is on igniting that energy that excites the client and using it to make progress, even if slow, to prevent the flame from running out. Like with an old car, you insert the key and may hear it rev up and then stop, rev up and then stop. You keep working it until it ignites and the car is running. You are not immediately at your destination when the car turns on, but once you have the engine running it puts you in motion until you eventually get there. In Henry’s case, it is these small bursts of energy that we keep bringing out that builds up momentum and allow him to eventually make that career for which he has longed.
Boyatzis, R. (2017, February 21). The Five Stages of Intentional Change Theory. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.keystepmedia.com/intentional-change-theory/
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R.& McKee, A. (2013). Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Jody Michael Associates. (n.d.). 5 Ways to Prepare for a Career Change. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.jodymichael.com/blog/5-ways-to-prepare-for-a-career-change/