“Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.” – Virginia Satir
Many of us choose to work as career development practitioners because we want to support people to not only find work, but ultimately to live better lives. With all its rewards, our work can at times feel quite daunting.
Fortunately, The Code of Ethics for Career Development Professionals (2021), along with the new Pan-Canadian Competency Framework for Career Development Professionals (2021), clearly outlines what is required to do this work.
However, even with greatest tools and resources imaginable, and no matter how long we’ve been working with clients, at some point we will find ourselves stuck. You might feel lost and unsure of what to do to help a client, or their behaviour or responses may make you feel stonewalled. Practitioner: “Have you thought of this?” Client: “Tried that, didn’t work.” And repeat.
Chances are, you’re both stuck at the same time – “unable to move,” “feeling blocked” or “feeling paralyzed.” If we think of this professional relationship as a dance, there is no dance if one of you stops moving. Let’s unpack what “stuckness” looks for the client and for us.
There are many reasons why a client may get stuck. Those reasons can be divided between those we can address and those we can’t due to ethics (see 1e. Boundaries of Competence in The Code of Ethics).
A client’s lack of confidence about finding work is clearly in our wheelhouse. The impacts of past trauma, relationship breakdown or substance use, to mention a few, are clearly not and we need to refer the client to another professional to address these issues.
It sounds simple on paper, but in real life, the layers that make up “stuckness” tend to merge. We are working with the full human. Lateness, missed appointments, low energy and lack of motivation to complete tasks are only a few examples of how clients can show evidence of challenges that are both within and outside our wheelhouse. In a session, the client may appear angry and shift that anger on you; they might be tearful because they feel there’s no way forward or appear withdrawn and disconnected. These behaviours signal a stress-response.
Being in a session where a client presents any of those behaviors can wake up all sorts of demons in us. Imposter syndrome may make us doubt our competency; the fear we can’t cope also rears its head. The pressure to “fix it” for the client becomes overwhelming. What happened to being client-centred? It’s now all about us and we’ve disconnected from our client.
Understanding the brain
Let’s go deeper into what’s behind the stuckness. The client is experiencing a stress response to being out of work, and any combination of other related or unrelated factors. As the practitioner, you are also experiencing a stress response due to feeling unable to assist the client, compounded by any number of your own related and unrelated issues.
Many of us are familiar with the “fight, flight, freeze” stress responses in mammals. For humans, there is also “fawn or appease.” The oldest, most primitive part of our brain drives these stress responses, which allow us to defend ourselves from threat. The problem is that this part of our brain can’t differentiate between the threat level posed by a bus bearing down on us as we cross the street and a moment of feeling professionally helpless. To further complicate things, this response happens instantaneously and unconsciously. When an individual is experiencing a stress response, they may be unable to engage rationally and will respond poorly to questions.
“It sounds simple on paper, but in real life, the layers that make up ‘stuckness’ tend to merge.”
The angry client who can’t find work is in fight mode, hoping that anger will change their situation. The client who misses appointments or arrives late is fleeing or avoiding the feelings from their employment uncertainty. The client who seems unable to make decisions and looks to others for direction is in the freeze state. Finally, the client who has done little to progress might try to appease you by fawning – promising to do certain actions and then not following through. More information about these responses can be found here.
Regardless of how clients’ stress response may manifest, our first job is to support them to revert to using the rational problem-solving part of their brain before any useful work can happen. We need to guide them back to safety and help them to engage productively with us.
Put your own mask on first
If you’re feeling stuck, it’s useful to slow down and look at what may be happening for you in the moment. First, take a deep breath. The breath sends a message to your body that you are safe. It allows you to move out of the unconscious, conditioned response and regain control over your own flight-or-flight impulse, so that you can rationally address the situation.
Now ask yourself: What are you thinking and feeling? Can you observe and name your feelings and thoughts without judgment? Before you say, “I don’t have time for this, my client is waiting for me to respond,” bear in mind that you have an ethical responsibility to the client to ground yourself (i.e. put your own mask on first). To quote 2a. Integrity/Honesty/Objectivity: “Career Development Practitioners are aware of their own personal values and issues and avoid bringing and/or imposing these on their clients.”
With a little practice, this internal check-in can be quite quickly achieved. Okay, feel better?
Back to your client, who will likely also be in an unsettled place. How will you support them to become grounded? “Let’s just take a moment here …” If the client is in a visibly emotional state or appears shut down, this can be followed by “… and take a deep breath.”
This is where the mightiest of communication tools comes into play: reflective listening and open-ended questions. Reflective listening – “I’m getting the sense that you are thinking/feeling …” – can give you both a starting point to acknowledge the stuckness, then begin to move toward a more open and curious place. You are back in the dance and reconnected.
For the practitioner, the shift from a conversational place to openly addressing underlying fear and survival responses can feel unfamiliar and a little risky. However, like any practice, this process will likely feel more natural over time.
Step away if needed
There may be times when you feel triggered to the point where you need to remove yourself from the situation to personally regroup and/or to seek consultation from a colleague or another professional, like a therapist. This may require you to wrap up the session (hopefully after agreeing on some actions the client can do until you meet again).
There is a plethora of tools beyond communication techniques that we can use when dealing with stuckness. Appreciative Inquiry, Motivational interviewing and Solution-focused Coaching are additional approaches you can draw from to engage a client who is feeling stuck. Over time, and with practice, we can manage our stuckness and support our clients to address theirs.