Over the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of working with a fantastic group of teenagers who all volunteered to let me “experiment” on them with some creative career coaching techniques. Armed with felt tips, post it notes, craft materials and our imaginations, we ventured into the world of images, metaphor, photographs, spider diagrams and visual planning. Some things worked and some things didn’t, but that didn’t matter – we enjoyed ourselves and everyone went home feeling a bit more inspired and motivated.
Working in school, it can be hard to experiment. The bell dictates the length of the session, and the clients that we see are mainly those at key transition points so there is a sense of urgency. The temptation is to stick to the methods that I know will work, and be an efficient use of time. Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, evaluating options, unpicking decision-making processes, eliciting skills and interests through discussion, teaching research skills – these are my comfort zone. It’s a very linguistic approach to coaching, making good use of the more logical parts of our brains, but could more visual imagery strengthen this process?
Language shapes how we think. We can only think about things if we have words to describe them. Working with visual images can sometimes get under the skin of things in a different way, without all our thoughts having to be filtered through the prism of language. This is why daydreaming can be powerful and our dreams can sometimes tell us things that have eluded our conscious thought-process. I wanted to find a way to bring this into my career coaching practice.
And the result? Allowing our imaginations more of a free rein in this process certainly seemed to be really motivational and left the young people enthused about their next steps.
So Which Activities Worked Best?
Backwards action planning was a clear winner for those who were a year off a key a transition point. They stood on a tile on the kitchen floor, which was designated “one year into the future”, closed their eyes and imagined how things would be if they had made good choices, were succeeding in their chosen course, had made new friends and settled into a new environment. We took our time with this, and I asked them questions about what they were doing, what they were wearing, how they felt, what was going particularly well and so on. Once the image seemed to be really strong, I asked them what steps they had taken to get there. They called them out as they imagined them and I wrote down each action on a slip of paper. After they had opened their eyes, they put the actions into the order that they needed to be done in, and photographed it with their phone. Visualising a task uses the same neural pathways as actually doing a task, so imagining the process should actually strengthen the pathways needed to carry it out, which will make it easier.
For the younger teenagers, who, at fourteen, were two years off a key transition point, the winning activity was thinking about all the things they value and want for themselves in the future, and writing each thing down on a post it note. I have done a similar activity in school when the client is thinking about which option to choose, but here we tackled the much bigger question of “What do I want my life to be like?” They talked about wanting to be able to change the world, the importance of being able to be themselves and speak truthfully, their interests in fashion and music, political views, being creative, care for the environment, wanting to be in the countryside, wanting to travel, as well as hobbies, school subjects and part-time jobs. They then put these post it notes in order of how important they were and photographed the list. As one of them said, “All these things were a clutter in my mind, but now they make sense. I can see the connections.” Identity and the big question of “Who am I? Where do I fit in?” is so important for teenagers, and this age they need to expand their career ideas rather than narrow them down.
The moral so far? Don’t go anywhere without your post it notes, career coaches!
A new technique which had a more variable success rate was thinking of images that summed up how they felt about their lives at the moment. I asked them to close their eyes, relax and see if an image, perhaps of a plant, animal or object, came to mind. Some were able to think of images, but they did worry a lot about whether they were “doing it right” and needed a lot of reassurance. They tended to come up with fairly sensible metaphors rather than wildly imaginative images. Strangely, I think I found their images more useful when reflecting on the sessions than they did; these images did point to the high leverage issues to which we returned throughout.
Drawing pictures was also fun and relaxing, especially for the teenagers who told me they couldn’t draw. A wonky picture of an Engineer with a spanner in her hand caused us some giggles, and then we had to add a computer and an office environment, since with a bit of thought, we both knew that Chartered Engineers don’t often go near a spanner.
So, I thank all these teenagers for letting me “experiment” with them, and wish them all the best. Although I have known all of them since they were toddlers I got to know them better in that hour than in all the years I have been around them. And I will definitely be repeating the experience. It is so much easier to try new things out when freed from the constraints of the school environment or the knowledge that the client is paying for the service.