Throughout our clients’ lives, they will have to face changes. Sometimes these changes will be ones they choose; other times, the changes that happen will be outside of their control. Either way, change is tough—even for “happy” events like graduating college, getting married or having children. The accompanying internal transitions can be even harder. This is where we, as coaches, can help our clients move through the ending that’s occurring, navigate the in-between neutral stage, and move on to a new beginning.
This theory of change and transition is described in William Bridges book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.” Building on the life stages theories of adult development, Bridges avoids using specific age ranges in favor of two overarching “natural phases” with expected transition points.
The first phase includes the move to independence from childhood in what he calls the “novice phase” of adulthood; it includes transitions such as moving out of the parent’s home and beginning to earn money as well as a time for second thoughts around the age of thirty. The second phase is adulthood, or life’s second half, where transitions include reassessments of hopes and plans as well as a shift from achievement to meaning.
Every transition has an end where the individual must let go of something; is followed by a neutral period where they feel confused and lost (a good time for reflection and being honest about what they really want); and ends with a new beginning that includes an inner realignment and renewal of energy. In our society, there are few rituals that mark these internal transitions; it is left to each person to grieve, celebrate, be patient and figure out what is next.
The coach’s role is to remind the client that there are no rights or wrongs and that transitions are a normal and natural part of life. We assist our clients in moving through transitions with curiosity and patience—and with the understanding that ignoring, suppressing or abandoning transitions may cause them to reappear later in unexpected and difficult ways.
In addition, as coaches we can help our clients make sense of what’s happening, how they feel about it, what it’s time to let go of, and what they want to make room for next. The coach can also help the client to see the big picture—not easy when the client is in the middle of a challenging time.
My clients are a variety of ages—twenties to sixties—so I have had the privilege of being able to help them with a variety of transitions. Here are a couple of examples that demonstrate how understanding change, this model of transitions, and the stages of adult development are helpful.
At the end of phase one, the 30 year olds tend to question if they’ve done the right thing with their lives up until now—whether they traveled, got multiple degrees, concentrated on their careers or started families. Several of my clients have both careers and families, but still wonder if they got it right. Just knowing that this is normal and happens to everyone gives most of them a lot of relief. It also opens the door to questions about “what’s important?” and “what’s next?,” helping them to really focus their attention and energy on the impact they want to have in their next decade. While they would like to “regret-proof” their lives, I try to help my clients see that they are at choice, and they need never regret any conscious choice; they can simply make a new choice, as needed.
Another transition I regularly see is in Phase 2: “reassessing success” and moving from being motivated by achievement to meaning. I have career changers in their 30s, 40s and 50s experiencing this. This one is particularly tough on folks who feel their current career is no longer satisfying. They want to figure out what’s next right now! Unfortunately, they need to be comfortable hanging out in the neutral stage, listening for clues, exploring, and allowing the new beginning to happen in its own time. While this is uncomfortable, I think without a coach many of my clients would rush to fabricate a new beginning just to avoid the discomfort of not knowing what’s next—and end up in another job or career that’s unsatisfying.
One of the major ways I help my clients in this situation is to get really clear about their values, vision, purpose, strengths, interests, passions and skills. Then as opportunities come up that appeal to their egos, we have a place to check if the opportunity is actually in alignment with their spirit. Otherwise, the ego (and fear, self-image, old identities, etc.) might continue to push the client in an achievement direction, rather than allow the natural transition toward meaning to occur.
Understanding the process of change and transitions—as well as having had my own experiences with them—have made my coaching deeper and more effective. You may want to consider the following questions for yourself as well as share them with your clients: How do you deal with endings? What transitions have you left incomplete? What do you need to let go of? And most importantly, what’s the new beginning you are ready to welcome?
About the author:
As a life coach, Jen Frank's passion is to help people become the greatest, fullest, most colorful version of themselves: using their gifts and talents while honoring their deepest desires. Through her training as well as the experience from her own personal and professional transitions, Jen helps her individual and workshop clients as they move to the next great thing in their own lives - whether it’s changing careers, creating work-life balance, adopting new habits, or adjusting to a new life stage. For more information, see www.jenfrankcoaching.com
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