A Coaching Power Tool By Dominique Hawkins, Career and Work Wellbeing Coach, UNITED STATES
Coaching for Work Wellbeing: Obligation vs. Freedom
Everyone at some point or another in their career has faced the challenge of trying to juggle a multitude of different work and personal obligations. Often, we perform many of these obligations because of societal, familial, and cultural conditioning over the course of our lives. Conventional wisdom has taught workers to perform a balancing act between personal and work commitments. Work-life balance is a misnomer because it puts individuals in a never-ending struggle of flipping back and forth between work and personal commitments. The more we try to achieve this balance, the more we feel our lives are out of balance. The result is that many people end up prioritizing the very things that create a further imbalance between work and their personal lives; these are often items we feel are obligatory and for which we feel we have little control over. Newer frameworks espouse work-life harmony as the ideal for which employees should strive; however, harmony can feel like an unrealistic, aspirational goal. Harmony, from a practical standpoint, is out of reach for most people and implies a seamless blending of work and personal that leaves no room for discomfort.
The reality is that we all have work and personal obligations that will conflict with one another from time to time. While not all obligation is bad, we can benefit from minimizing the types of obligation that deplete energy, cause suffering, and leave us with very little bandwidth for ourselves. What individuals truly need is the freedom to make choices that allow them to feel that both their personal and work lives are integrated in a way that supports the whole person. Work-life integration acknowledges that individuals have agency over, and the freedom to choose what they support. As a result of moving from obligation to freedom, individuals gain self-awareness around what they need and can choose to support the things that ultimately cultivate a sense of well-being.
The Significance of the Obligation vs. Freedom Power Tool
The Obligation vs. Freedom power tool helps clients identify the default obligations that cause them to feel tethered and their life unbalanced. Many workers stay tethered to a job, or feel stuck in careers that no longer serve them. Believe it or not, no matter the job, role, or career we’re currently in, we all have the ability to move from obligation to freedom. Through exploration of core values and closely held beliefs clients are able to grow in their awareness of, and let go of, external expectations and conditioning that keeps them operating in obligation. Obligations can be found in many different types of relationships (family, friends, coworkers), within our careers and jobs, and are even influenced at the societal and cultural levels. Individuals have no shortage of obligations, experience the constant pressure to choose to meet other’s expectations, and prioritize those over their own needs.
What if instead, we helped our clients shift their perspective from the feeling of obligation toward the feeling of freedom instead? The freedom to choose how they spend their time, who they spend it with, and where they spend it? Freedom to choose not to be tethered to obligation opens up the possibility for work-life integration. The Obligation vs. Freedom power tool allows clients to accept that both work and personal commitments can coexist in the same space and are not in competition with one another. The client can prioritize her/himself by choosing activities, people, and work that support well-being.
Obligations are derived from our social, cultural, and familial conditioning. Not all obligations are negative; however, obligations that create burdens or feelings of being stuck can cause us to experience suffering and may result in our putting our own needs on hold temporarily or permanently. These types of obligations stemming from the belief that we “need to do,” “have to do,”, or “should do” something. When we act from a place where we feel we do not have a choice, this results in commitments and responsibilities toward others and is not in support of ourselves. Our own needs are pushed aside in favor of others and our behaviors are the product of conditioning to meet external expectations.
An obligation is a default choice response. Obligations are often second nature, intertwined with closely held beliefs, and infrequently questioned. Our beliefs around obligation keep us tethered to people, roles, and organizations that drain and deplete us. Of course, there are some obligations that are helpful. An obligation to make it home for dinner each night to prioritize spending time with family instead of working late is one example. In contrast, continuing a course of study that our parents wanted for us, or staying in a role for financial stability, when we have identified we are not happily pursuing this path, is an unhelpful obligation.
How it shows up in a coaching session: A client will often describe situations as if there are no alternatives. You might hear:
- “I can’t leave this job to pursue my passion because my parents expect me to work in this profession.” (External expectations)
- “I’ve already put so much time into getting to where I am in my career, I can’t make a change now.” (Sunk Cost Bias)
- “My job pays me well, the benefits are good, I’d be stupid to leave.” (Social conditioning)
As a result, coaching clients may struggle with “either/or” thinking and neglect to explore a third option or middle path that will help them move toward freedom.
Freedom is a state that leaves us feeling untethered to our choices. We feel light, without the burden of obligation to weigh us down. It is a part of personal well-being because it supports our deepest desires to consciously make choices that align with the kind of life we’d like to lead. In the context of work-life integration, it’s the freedom to make decisions about how we work, when we work, and where we work. Whether that’s identifying that working remotely is a better fit for us, or that a hybrid role that allows one to work in an office or coworking space part of the week is what we need; the freedom to choose is ours.
When we are operating within freedom, we are aware of our conditioning, and the external expectations and biases that get in the way of us supporting ourselves. We can ask ourselves, “is this choice one that I truly want to make, one that supports me, or makes me feel whole? Of course, we can’t operate within freedom 100% of the time, because there are some obligations that we’ll need to fulfill no matter what. But on the whole, we should be striving to find more opportunities to operate within freedom compared to obligation—this is especially important for those areas of our lives where we’re fulfilling someone else’s desire for us.
- How will you know a client has reframed their perspective? Here are some things you might hear a client say when they are aware of their freedom or operating from a place of freedom:
- “I feel so relieved to have made a choice to do the thing that makes me happy.” (Positive emotional states)
- “I now believe I have the power to ask for what I need to be supported in pursuing…” (Feelings of empowerment)
- I recognize I’ve always been free to choose what to prioritize in my life, but just haven’t pushed back against other constraints in my life.” (Restoring feelings of agency and control)
- “I never wanted to do X, that was someone else’s dream for me. But I need to stop and ask myself, what do I really want?” (Fulfillment of one’s own ambition)
Using the Obligation vs. Freedom Power Tool
The Obligation vs Freedom Power Tool can be helpful in pure coaching sessions or even as part of blended coaching and consulting work. In a coaching session, when the coach realizes their client is stuck and operating from obligation, some questions to explore are:
- What would it look like/feel like if you could make the choice you really wanted now?
- What would it feel like to put your needs first?
- When a pattern emerges of the client using “should,” “have to,” and “need to”, reflect that back to the client.
- What’s keeping you feeling stuck in this place right now?
- What choice(s) are you free to make?
- What other options could there be other than the ones you’ve mentioned?
To help the client move from the obligation to freedom, a coach might ask:
- If there were no barriers or consequences and you could make any choice you wanted, what would you choose for yourself?
- What is it that you really want the freedom to do?
- What would freedom/making this choice give you?
- What does freedom look like for you?
- If you were to envision yourself making this choice, how would you feel about it?
- What support do you need to begin making the change you desire?
In a blended coaching or consulting role, the Obligation vs. Freedom Power Tool can be used to help organizations and individuals with job crafting and role or career redesign. Working with the client to uncover their passion projects, skills, and desire to learn, and then actively exploring ways to help the client create an action plan to reduce obligation and build in new experiences that operate from a place of freedom.