We can find ourselves facing what-next questions at midlife for a variety of reasons. A common reason is that we’ve experienced and accomplished a lot, creating a home life with significant others, establishing the basis of a career life. So, what’s next?
Perhaps we’ve sold our share of business or we’ve just taken a new position, representing a multi-year rise within our present company. But promptings can also arise from felt “failures”, i.e., things have gotten stale, losing a job, or being passed over for a promotion.
It’s different being out of work, especially with acute financial worries. Our self-esteem is more affected by loss and failure experiences. But in all these situations we feel needs for a revitalized sense purpose and meaning, for a grounded sense of confidence about what to do next and for taking action.
So, as a coach, I must adapt my practices to person’s unique situation and life experience. But there are some common principles that guide our work together. I’d like to discuss them in this article, as well as how we adaptively take individual circumstances into account along the way.
The Work We Face
Deciding what’s next for you inevitably concerns how you wish to further evolve as a person. Therefore, our coaching relationships must be person-centered. It builds upon your life experience and your values and aspirations. It should be tailored to the context of your family life. As you pursue this process, you’ll make informed choices and formulate a more practical and relevant course of action. Informed choices are based upon accurate information, sound judgement, but also deeply felt truths.
Felt truths? Yes, if we thoughtfully navigate a rigorous course of reflection. You will be seeing things as they really are (accurate information) in your experience and current situation. We’ll be appraising this informed view of the situation with a mature and considered quality of judgment, arresting unconscious biases, defenses, and impulses. You’ll notice the settled feelings and intuitions form throughout this discovery process that provide the deeply felt truth referred to above.
Expert skills are required to facilitate self-discovery. They consists in: 1) eliciting the "story of your life," a semi-structured interview, which reveals what has shaped you as a person and professional and what you've leveraged to thrive in life and at work; 2) jointly interpreting assessment results, which reveal your distinctive psycho-social tendencies, those that help and those that may hinder adaptive growth and development; and, 3) synthesizing these data and insights, and finding the few vital developmental themes that feel most important to be mindful of as you formulate priorities and strategies for action.
Some may wince at the mention of “felt truths” and intuitions, but this process is not a mere flight of fancy. It’s also not reductionistic. By the time we reach midlife, we’ve experienced a great deal, and we have acquired a greater need to cope with complexity. Surfacing shaping influences, interpreting how psycho-social characteristics play a role in your life, and defining the values and themes of development at this point in your life, that cannot be reduced to a simple measurement and cannot be explained by means of “mere” discursive reason and rationality. A fuller truth is needed at midlife, one that is more nuanced. That’s why our species has developed a mind and capacity for intuitive insight.
Qualities of Active Engagement
I’ve been a consulting psychologist and coach for a long time. My approach is informed by theory, shaped by experience, and validated by pragmatic criteria, mostly by how well it works for my clients.
What we know from research is that the client-practitioner relationship is one of the most influential predictors of outcome. What I share below are some characteristics of the relationship that I believe matter most, especially in the practice of psychologically based coaching.
Empathic search for meaning. The coach’s empathic search for meaning in the client’s life breeds trust. It disarms unconscious defenses that block the client’s access to experience and motivations that the client has learned to hide even from themselves.
Prompted reflection. Many biases affect us in everyday life. Often benign and embedded in our habitual ways of functioning (i.e., thinking, feeling, acting, and interacting), when we notice them as possibilities, it allows the client to examine them without judgment.
Constructive challenge. At times and based upon a strong relationship with the client, it can be helpful for the coach to confront the client with incongruities or inconsistencies that may reveal points of confusion, mixed motivations, or internal conflicts.
Deepening inquiry. Self, situational, and other awareness will deepen naturally in the process, but there may be moments when pressing with additional “whys” and “what’s that about” probes is particularly important to counter the avoidant tendencies of the client.
Ideation-hypothesizing-reality testing. One of the most important discoveries for many clients is just how free they can be to question the status quo and critically examine how things work and interrelate causally. This can lead the way to practical problem solving.
Homework. When clients are actively engaged, homework becomes a powerful source of learning and accountability. It may be suggested by the coach, but it increasingly becomes the product of how we jointly formulate next-steps at the end of each session.
I hope this helps characterize the holistic growth you can expect from career coaching at midlife.