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Navigating Transitions: A Conversation with a Career Coach

navigating transitions
“Because you’re not alone, you don’t have to navigate [this uncertainty] completely alone,” says Elisabeth Kingsley. Illustration: Shutterstock

As international educators continue to experience unprecedented uncertainty, they are undergoing change on multiple levels: in their personal lives, in their communities, in their careers and professional lives, and as global citizens. How can the international education community deal with these changes on collective and individual levels, as well as consider what might be next for themselves and the field?

International Educator spoke with life and career coach Elisabeth Kingsley, MBA, about this uncertainty and the opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic and the current movement related to racial justice offer in this collective moment, as well as ways to navigate “the neutral zone” of transitions together.

Kingsley, who earned her MBA from Seattle University, left a corporate marketing career at Starbucks to pursue coaching full-time in 2017. She cofounded a nonprofit in the Seattle area, where she was also a collegiate gymnast and active in the city’s refugee community. Since 2018, Kingsley has lived in Porto, Portugal. She is a Certified Professional Coach and credentialed with the International Coaching Federation. Her areas of specialty include one-on-one coaching to develop leadership and navigate transition; values workshops; and coaching skills for managers.

Like many industries, the field of international education is experiencing unprecedented uncertainty, and no one knows how long this period is going to last. How do we, as a community, acknowledge this moment that we’re in together?

Acknowledgment is a very good place to start. Acknowledge how uncertain it is, and that a lot of people across the globe are experiencing this. Acknowledge that you’re not in it alone, as an individual or as an industry—lots of industries are experiencing this. None of us have been through this before.

Elisabeth Kingsley [square]
Elisabeth Kingsley

And because you’re not alone, you don’t have to navigate it completely alone. There’s an opportunity to pull together with your team or your colleagues and share your experiences. Talk about how you want to move through it together. With that comes an opportunity to really listen to each other and to what’s coming up. That’s a starting place.

How can teams best do that when most people are working remotely, which can make it tough to feel connected to each other? What can leaders do?

Creating space to check in and to do what we sometimes call in coaching “a clearing.” Before I coach with an individual or before I facilitate something with a group, sometimes we’ll start out with, “What needs to be said today?”—just to gauge where everyone is, personally or professionally. It can be as simple as “I’m feeling pretty demotivated today,” or it can be the opposite: “I’m actually feeling hopeful today.” Or “I have kids running around in the back room, sorry if you hear them.” It’s a space to be human together and “clear” what’s up for people—particularly with the rate at which news is happening, it’s stirring up a lot of emotions in people. Teams can be intentional about creating space at the beginning of a meeting to give everyone a chance to speak for themselves and their experience.

There is also such a thing as team coaching. Instead of a coach working with an individual, it’s a coach that’s there to coach a group or a team that’s gathered for shared purpose. The coach is there to recognize how that team is working with each other, recognizing what’s coming up between them that’s getting them stuck or keeping them from moving forward. The coach can also help facilitate creativity or thinking if that’s what the group wants and needs and asks of the coach. Team coaching can also be a good way to move a group forward, or to support the team or organization in this [time of] reimagining.

What are some ways that international educators can move from that starting place of acknowledgment to begin dealing with this prolonged uncertainty?

There’s something about recognizing [what is] very normal in the midst of change and uncertainty, and those are feelings that don’t feel very good—things like apathy, or feeling disoriented, frustrated, or fearful. One way to deal with that is to remember that it’s normal. I personally can think, “Oh my gosh, something’s wrong with me! I’m feeling so disoriented or so unmotivated.” In times of big change and great uncertainty, those feelings are normal. To normalize that can be one way of dealing with it.

A different perspective that can be helpful is that within change, big and small, personal or global, there is always an opportunity for reimagining. A lot of businesses and organizations are forced to shift and pivot right now and having to sink into creativity—imagining a new way forward. I would hate for some of the fear and uncertainty to mask the opportunity to reimagine.

When you’re feeling stuck and scared, creativity seems like the hardest place to get to. But it is something that’s needed right now, and [it is] an opportunity that’s there for people and teams and organizations. I like to encourage people to focus on questions like, “What do we have control over right now? What can we affect right now?” And also dream a bit [and ask], “What would we really like to create? How could we restrategize? What’s our current context and environment? All of these changes—what are they calling our industry to step into? How could we be more accessible or more diverse in who we serve?” In the midst of all the yuck, there’s a place of reimagining that I think is a pretty special place. It’s holding them together, acknowledging that they’re both happening at the same time.

Many in the field have experienced high levels of stress for the past few months. First, caring for students and making sure they were safe, then caring for their families and themselves against the backdrop of this pandemic. Now, some people are facing job insecurity. How can people begin to deal with those layers of stress as they’ve compounded?

There are some practical things in terms of resources available in the midst of a job loss or job insecurity. But there is the emotional place people find themselves in with so much stress and so much change. Particularly for people who are doing a lot of caretaking of others, be it students or their own family, it’s also important to take care of yourself and create your own support system of people that you can talk to—people who you can tell how you’re really doing. It sounds like people might be holding that space for others, of letting them share their fears and what they’re experiencing, and it’s important to find that same space for yourself and have a couple of people who you can go to so that it doesn’t stay stuck inside of you.

The other thing that comes up a lot for me in my work is this question of, “What’s your way of coming back to yourself? What’s your way, your unique way, of being completely present with yourself—that place inside of you that’s uniquely you? Where you can feel grounded, where you can take a deep breath.” And getting really familiar with that place inside of yourself, so that it becomes a place that you can access anytime you need it. It also is a place that you can learn to access on a daily basis as a habit or in an intentional way. There are a million ways to do that; everyone has their own way of accessing that place in themselves. Mine usually has to do with taking some deep breaths, whether three deep breaths or deep breaths for 10 minutes.

Related to that, in times of super high stress or really high anxiety, having something physical to help you get [to that place]. Maybe it’s a glass of cold water, or maybe it’s lighting a candle or having a flower or something to look at. Something physical that helps ground you and connect to yourself is something that people I work with have found a lot of comfort [in] and encouragement [from], and [serves] as a way to move through something on a daily basis.

The other thing is to notice fear. Fear can creep in and take over. Sometimes it does that without us even realizing it, and we can become so scared and so stuck that before we know it, we’re not doing anything except focusing on how scared we are. I encouraged people to notice when that’s happening, when fear has you stuck, and to find one small step forward, whatever that is for you that day. Because action is a very good antidote to fear. Even if it’s small, there’s something about not getting stuck in one place, or recognizing when you are, and doing something to move out of it and loosen that grip of fear. [It] can be individual [or it] can also be as a group or an organization or a family. You can notice and do one thing.

For those who are concerned about or are facing job insecurity, how can they use this time? What are some of the steps they can take to prevent fear from keeping them stuck? Where are the opportunities?

I think it comes back to that reimagining that I was talking about—re-imagining what might be available to them and to international education at large. That same kind of reimagining can take place at an individual level. There is an opportunity to use this [time of] change to reflect on your own personal values and what brings meaning and purpose to you. What are the changes happening in our world right now? [How can] you reprioritize or step into [those changes]? Take a look at those values, and look at them in the context of these changes. There’s an opportunity to take inventory, [which] can put some specifics around how you might want to move forward.

Are there particular questions or resources that can help guide people through this process of taking inventory and rethinking their priorities?

I have a worksheet that [includes] values to take inventory of and some questions about narrowing it down to which ones are most important, which ones are you honoring the most, which are you honoring the least. Which ones may have been important prior, but now in this new season, maybe they’re less [important], and there are a couple others that scoot to the top, and you want to figure out how to honor [them].

The other thing that comes up a lot from my clients, who are often people moving through transitions, is ritual. In Western culture, we aren’t the best at ritual, but other cultures do it a lot better than us. They have moments across a person’s life, or a community’s life, where they’re marked by a certain kind of celebration or a certain mourning process. We have an opportunity to make up our own [rituals] when we’re experiencing a shift into the new season, and there’s something that maybe we have to let go of in order to move forward.

How can we create rituals in our lives, especially during times of change?

Now is a really good time, whatever you’re going through personally, to look at what you might want to create a ritual around—so that you can let it go in order to step into what’s coming. It can be lighting a candle and watching the smoke go away; some people like to create something to mark a moment in time and keep that with them; other people like to throw things away. You can be creative about what your ritual is and what you need and how you want to mark this for yourself.

[It is] the ability to reroute and be present to what is right now. Sometimes when people let things go, it’s not because they no longer want them in their life. It’s because it was so good and they learned so much from it, and yet they need to step into something new or take a detour [for a] new direction for a little while. The ritual is a way to say, I learned from this, I loved this, and I want to honor it so that it gives me space to be creative about what else I could do right now or what else I need to do right now.

A lot of your work is working with people who are going through some sort of transition in their life. What tips do you have for people who are navigating transitions of any kind, but especially career transitions? Is there a typical process, or is it different for everyone?

It’s different for everyone, but there is a structure that has been super helpful for me; [almost] everyone, whatever their varied unique experiences, can fit in this structure. It’s from William Bridges, and he has a book called Transitions that I recommend for anyone going through transition at any time—but right now would be a good time to read it, too. There are two concepts that really help me and help those I work with.

One is to differentiate between change and transition. Change is something external—a global pandemic, changing a job, having a baby, moving across the country. That’s an external change. Transition is that internal process associated with that change. And it’s usually the internal process that can trip us up or that maybe we weren’t expecting. It’s helped me to remember that there is change, and then there is an internal processing and catching up that I have to do [that] comes with change.

The second piece is that transition is structured as an ending, then a neutral zone, and then a beginning. The ending and the beginning parts make sense to most of us pretty easily, but that neutral zone—it’s what we’re all in right now, individually and collectively. This old way of life has ended and a new way is coming, but we don’t know what it’s going to be yet. We are in this neutral zone, experiencing all the things that make a neutral zone a neutral zone: confusion, apathy, disorientation, frustration, moments of complete inspiration, moments of “maybe this is possible.” But it’s not comfortable. Neutral zones aren’t comfortable. And most of us like to end something and get to the beginning and skip right over this neutral zone. But it’s part of the process, and it’s part of life.

I find [it] immensely helpful, when it comes to talking about change and transition, to expect some time in the neutral zone. Once we know there’s a neutral zone, we can be a little bit more conscious about it. How do I want to relate to it? What questions do I want to be asking myself right now? I think we’re at a cool place in time, in that the neutral zone isn’t an individual experience, but it’s a collective experience. There’s opportunity for growth and transformation as individuals, but also systemically, to stay in that neutral zone and see what’s available for a new beginning, because we do have a big opportunity to rethink some things as a society.

How can working with a coach help people navigate transitions or assist those anticipating change and transition?

When we’re in that neutral zone, and we’re asking questions that we haven’t asked before, and we’re experiencing disorientation and sluggishness, it is much easier to move through with the support of a coach. I sometimes call it a thinking partner, [someone] to be with you in that space to ask you what’s most important for you right now. [It] might seem like a question you could ask yourself, and of course you can, but…someone who’s trusted, who is unattached in some ways to your outcome and can be curious with questions [can] help you find the clarity that you’re wanting in the way that’s going to be most meaningful for you.

And they’re not trying to fix you. Coaches have a unique perspective in terms of the modality in which we help. We see people as wholly capable, creative, and resourceful, and not like we have the answer or that the person in front of us needs to be fixed—they have it within them. That’s the other reason why coaching is so great for transition. People don’t come to coaching because they have all the answers; they come because they’re in some degree of not knowing and not able to quite figure it out on their own. [Having] someone to be with you in that not knowing, and to think of things and see things and ask things and notice things about you that you’re unable to see when you’re in a place of not knowing, is really useful.

Over the course of our lives, there are many big and small moments of transition, and they each require a different level of pause to reevaluate the direction we want to go in at that moment. What kind of moment do you think we’re in collectively—both with the pandemic and the current movement against police brutality and toward racial justice?

I think we’re in a moment of pretty significant change. Maybe that goes without saying. In the structure that I gave for transition—an ending, a neutral zone, and a beginning—I’d say we’re pretty squarely in that neutral zone. Sometimes the bigger the external change, the more time we need in that neutral zone. There is an opportunity to stay in that neutral zone, individually and together, and ask a lot of questions that maybe we haven’t been asking before—about what we want to see in the future and what kind of personal responsibility we want to take toward creating equity in the world.

And not just personal responsibility, but whatever groups and communities we’re a part of. If we’re asking those questions together without having the answers, that’s what the neutral zone is about. We don’t always have the answers, but it’s a chance to ask questions and think and learn, and to listen to people we haven’t listened to before or people whose life experience has been much different from ours. There is an opportunity to listen quite deeply in the neutral zone, and it’s a listening to yourself, but it’s also listening to people we haven’t been listening to, as a society, for some time. [Then], use what we’re hearing to move forward in a different way.

I do really hope that we as individuals take some time to listen, to read, and to be clear about how we’re going to be different moving forward so that history doesn’t continue to cycle and repeat itself.

In the past few years, you have gone through significant change and transition when you chose to move from Seattle to Porto, Portugal. How have you navigated the neutral zone of that transition, and what have you learned from the experience of living in a different country and culture?

One of the reasons I’m able to speak about transition in the way I do and to speak about the neutral zone is because moving to another country is a great way to find yourself smack dab in the middle of a neutral zone. My old way of life has ended. I’m in a new country. I’m in a new culture. I don’t speak this language well. I’m in a whole new way of living and being, and this was something I chose and wanted.

And while I thought I was jumping into this new delightful beginning, which in some ways it has been, I’ve also found myself in this disorientation, [thinking], “Was this a good idea? Maybe I should go back and undo all these decisions I’ve made”—which is something that often happens in the neutral zone. Instead, I’ve had to be in the discomfort of figuring out a new life and asking myself, “What do I really want? How are all these decisions I’ve made and this new place in alignment with my values, and how do I want to move forward?” I have wanted at many times to speed up the neutral zone, and sometimes you just can’t; sometimes it catches you and [you] can’t believe this is it.

How are you personally dealing with this collective moment of transition?

I’m glad you asked that, especially given everything I’ve said so far. It’s important to acknowledge that I’m another human being alive right now and experiencing all of this for myself as well. I’m doing a lot of the things I just said—reevaluating what’s important to me, looking at what is going to make a meaningful life or career for me, and how I can do that in a way that creates equity in the world and creates opportunity for other people. I’m practicing coming back to myself every day as well, and finding my place of groundedness, where I can be resilient.

This article first appeared on International Educator.