To succeed in modern economies, clients need to be transition savvy and prepared to champion their own career development in ever changing work environments (Rainie & Anderson, 2017). Career experts recognize that transition management skills are integral to career management. For example, Pam Lassiter writes: "The pain is real, the fear is real, and the stress of transition is real.” (2010; p. 14). The question for career professionals is how to concurrently acknowledge clients’ real challenges and help them build bridges from “where now” to “where next” in their careers.
In this article, we discuss the use of transition writing tools as a practical, proven, flexible, and low-cost approach to help clients navigate career transition challenges. We explore the need for transition management skills, positive outcomes for career management and practical tools for transition writing.
Transition Writing Shows Positive Outcomes for Career Management
Transition writing is a personalized approach to enable individuals to make sense of work-life change experiences and envision future career possibilities during a time of stress. It builds on a foundation of expressive writing research (Pennebaker & Chung, 2011) and therapeutic writing practice (Adams, 2013).
Intentional exercises use a range of forms of language, from simple lists to abstract forms such as metaphors. Tools can be adapted for individual use during and between sessions, or in group settings. As Pennebaker notes, writing may influence individuals cognitively, emotionally, biologically, and socially. Writing about difficult experiences can help people confront reality and change perspective.
Overall, research shows that writing has positive outcomes. One career-specific study of effective transition writing is by Spera (Spera et al, 1994). Testing Pennebaker’s writing protocol (Pennebaker & Chung, 2011), she found that laid-off engineers who completed expressive writing secured jobs more quickly. The researchers concluded that writing shortened participants’ time to re-employment by helping them resolve job loss emotions.
Practical Tools for Transition Writing
Transition writing tools developed by Leia Francisco (Francisco, 2015) extended the work of Kathleen Adams (Adams, 2013). Informed by extensive transition coaching practice (with individuals and organizations), Francisco notes that writing enhances “simply talking” about career change in several ways including:
objectify or give perspective
contain and structure emotions
increase awareness of choices
affirm clients’ personal agency
support experiential learning
record events and progress
Building on established transition research and practice (e.g. William Bridges, Nancy Schlossberg) Francisco aligns her writing tools to three commonly-described transition phases: letting go, moving in between, accepting the new way.
1. Tools for Letting Go
No two career transitions are the same. Some clients grapple with imposed change. Others pursue desired changes. Clients may feel stuck or rush into decisions without sufficient information and resources.
Naming the change is one useful tool that benefits both practitioner and client by uncovering the unique meaning of this transition for this client. Imagine you have two clients in their forties. Both have chosen to move closer to family on the other side of the country. They’re requesting help to find employment.
Initially, their circumstances seem similar. But when you read their responses to your “naming the change” writing exercise, you quickly learn a lot more. One client chooses the name “My West Coast Journey.” The second client selects the name “My Reset.”
As you discuss their chosen names, their support needs diverge. The first client sees a journey and is ready to release the workplace, the old job, and to prioritize search. The second client’s chosen name (My Reset) signifies change in several life domains (health, family, purpose, work) with complex transition support needs. The simple act of naming increases clarity for both practitioners and clients.
Moreover, Francisco’s clients have cited this tool as “extremely important” in making career decisions. In a non-threatening way, practitioners can help clients to take another step by offering focused writing prompts to explore, for example biggest challenges, information needed, or existing resources.
Letting go begins the transition. Writing both clarifies starting points and increases clients’ awareness of what they are letting go. For instance, clients can make a brief list of tangible and intangible things they will need to release. This might include the workplace, relationships, job title, and financial benefits. The practitioner can then help clients explore continuity by writing down what they carry into their next career chapter (e.g. values, some relationships, certain skills).
2. Tools for Moving In Between
Typically, in the middle stage of career transition, a client is exploring skills, work options and contacts. It is common for clients to feel ungrounded and overwhelmed between the old job and the new job. One way to accommodate this is through more structured writing.
Timed writing for even five minutes may be valuable. Useful questions include:
What am I feeling right now? (Over time, short writes uncover patterns previously hidden from client and practitioner.)
What supports would be most helpful? (This often reveals resources not previously considered.)
What wild ideas have I had recently? (The practitioner can explore creative possibilities and interests with the client.)
3. Tools for Accepting the New Way
Eventually, the client will make a decision. For clients ready to move forward, transition-writing functions to bring the future to life and implement chosen changes. For instance, clients can write the story of their imagined future one-year from today, reviewing accomplishments and experiences. Writing down goals, plans, and doable actions increases motivation and success.
The key to writing about transitions is to offer choice to the client rather than prescribe one technique. The use of transition writing offers career practitioners creative ways to strengthen working alliances through better understanding of clients’ unique experiences. Client benefits include increased awareness, self-efficacy, and new tools for future transitions.
Adams, K. (2013). The Journal Ladder. In K. Adams (Ed.), Expressive Writing: Foundations of Practice (pp. 43-51). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Francisco, L. (2015). Writing Through Transitions: A guide for transforming life changes. Kerrville, TX: Leia Francisco Associates.
Lassiter, P. (2012) The new job security: The five best strategies for taking control of your career. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2011). Expressive writing and its links to mental and physical health. In H. Friedman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology (pp.417-437). NY: Oxford.
Rainie, L., & Anderson, J. (2017, May 3). The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/05/03/the-future-of-jobs-and-jobs-training/
Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), 722-733.
Jennifer Bradley, Ph.D., is a Certified Career Coach, Registered Career Development Professional and Chartered Occupational Psychologist, with experience living and working in the US and UK. Initially intrigued by personal writing as a way of navigating her own work-life transitions, she qualified as a Certified Journaling Facilitator (Therapeutic Writing Institute, Denver) and now integrates writing into her career coaching practice. Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jenniferbradleyphd/ or by email firstname.lastname@example.org
Leia Francisco, M.A., is a CCE Board Certified Coach, special designation in careers. Her expertise is helping clients in the US and other countries navigate life and work transitions. She is a faculty member of the Therapeutic Writing Institute; training professionals in transition writing facilitation. The expanded version of her book, Writing Through Transitions: A Guide to Transforming Life Changes, was published in 2015. More information and to contact Leia visit her website: http://www.leiafrancisco.com/