Wednesday, 2 March 2022

Questioning as a reality check

What approach should we take when seeing a client who is miserable in their work? What can we offer - or should we offer - when such a client is about to jettison everything to get out of a situation they are finding intolerable?

As a career practitioner, assisting clients in what are life-changing decisions requires a delicate balance of skills. Firstly we need to listen deeply (Smith, 2019). We need to use our microskills to ensure that we hear correctly. 

We next need to acknowledge how the client is feeling. We need to be with the client in the situation, to reflect back to them that we appreciate what they are experiencing. We allow the client to own their situation, and to own their desire to get out of the situation. 

When the client is ready to move from describing, then questioning is likely to be our most useful skill set. This is questioning where, channelling the naive inquirer (read more here), we may use 'asking' to provide a 'what next' for the client; or - if they already have many ideas - to provide a gentle reality check for those ideas.

Some examples of this type questions might be:

  • What do you feel you might want to do?
  • What might you want to do after that?
  • How would those actions make you feel?
  • When do you realistically think you might be able to make a change?
  • What might that mean for you?
  • What might that mean for your career?
  • How might that fit with your career goals?
  • Are your career goals still relevant?
  • How important is your work to you?
  • How full is your private life?

One of the things we need to remain aware of as career practitioners is the cost - financial, social, professional - of moving for clients. In the regions, changing employer may mean changing locations, and being able to widen the client's focus from themselves to their family can be useful. Clients may underestimate how much of an effect changing cities, countries, or even suburbs can make. "The impact of uprooting our lives continually creates profound uncertainty" (Brabazon, 2021, 27:46) and "it's very very challenging to make careers operate, and long distance [...] relationships are very very difficult, very expensive, and they tend to break up" (29:50). "It's almost impossible to try and get two people into one [new] institution. And then of course, I've only been talking about two people. [When] we're dealing with families, [...] where do they [the children] go to school? What happens to their university? What happens to their career?" (30:04).

Some general questions for us to provide a reality check here might be:

  • How do you imagine this working in your private life?
  • How long do you think this might take?
  • What might that mean for your partner?
  • What might that mean for your partner's work?
  • What might that mean for your family?
  • How much do you imagine this might cost?
  • What might that mean for your home? Your belongings? Your broader whanau?
  • How will you know if it is working for everyone?
  • What about logistics? Commuting? Relationships? Professional Development? Friends? Networking?
  • What happens if it goes pear-shaped? What fall-backs could you establish?

We may want to ask for some of these questions to be answered using scales. That gives the client an extra guide to importance, which may help them when they get to making their decisions. These questions may help our client to think through the impacts of moving, and to slow a potential head-long rush into something more measured. It is not intended to prevent change, but to create room for planning, for strategy, and for broader deliberation. 

It also gives us time to refer our client to other potentially useful services, such as counselling, or grief counselling. This may avoid the embedding of 'running away' being repeated as a solution for our client.

I would be interested to hear what questions you find useful!



  • Brabazon, T. (28 August 2021). Vlog 284 - When is it time to move institutions for work? [video].
  • Kaye, B., & Giulioni, J. W. (2012). Help Them Grow Or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 
  • Pike, F. (2005). Balance your life and work - How to get the best from your job and still have a life. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  • Smith, G. (2019). Career Conversations: How to Get the Best from Your Talent Pool. John Wiley & Sons.

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