The Role of Coaching in the Discovery of Life Purpose
My friend, who I’ll call Bob, was nearing the end of life. Bob and I had worked together for years and had grown to be good friends. As he was coming to terms with the end of life, Bob ask me to stop by for a visit. We sat across the room from each other and reminisced about the adventures we had shared over the years. Bob’s smile slowly faded and he looked at the floor in silence. His eyes then met mine and he asked, “Brad, is this all there was to life?” The question took me by surprise. How does one respond to that question? In fact, I didn’t respond. Instead, I joined Bob in simply sitting with the question.
The Ageless Quest for Purpose
Bob’s question has stayed with me for years. Is this all there is to life? Throughout time, humans have asked similar questions, seeking clarity about the meaning and purpose in their own existence. Yet many never find it.
As important as life purpose is, several obstacles exist for many individuals who are seeking to discover and live it. The failure to fully understand how to discern one’s calling along with the cultural, organizational and societal barriers that often exist for individuals seeking to live their calling are often seen as overwhelming obstacles (Duffy et al., 2012). How can we effectively help our clients overcome these obstacles and find success in this important quest?
I recently completed my doctoral dissertation, focusing on the role of coaching in this discovery and discernment process. In my research, which consisted of interviewing coaches and clients who had been actively discerning their purpose, two strategies emerged which seemed to neutralize the reported obstacles and accelerate the client’s process of gaining clarity about their unique life purpose.
The first strategy for supporting clients in this process is what I call the practice of “looking inward.” Guiding our clients through a process of self-discovery, using assessments and other reflective techniques, creates new awareness about their unique strengths, interests and values. Coaches and clients alike reported value in specialized assessments (such as MBTI, StrengthsFinder, Strong Interest Inventory, and values assessments) coupled with exercises in which the client reflected on key events and insights gained in their life. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to all of these assessed constructs as “strengths.” The strategy of looking inward supports the client as they begin to discover who they are when they are at their best and how this unique set of strengths gives clues about what may bring meaning and purpose to their lives.
While the process of looking inward was seen as an enjoyable and insightful exercise, many of the research participants revealed that, when trying to use these insights to explore their life purpose, another obstacle often appeared: bridging the chasm between their strengths and the life purpose to which their strengths may point. One client stated, “I don’t think I knew what to do with all those [insights about my strengths]. There was further processing that was required that those instruments, themselves, didn’t give.”
In what ways can we help our clients process the insights to bring clarity and form to their quest for meaning and life purpose?
Strengths as a Lens
The most valuable discovery in my research was a strategy for helping the client use their new awareness of strengths to imagine the possibilities of their life purpose. That strategy is the practice of bringing the awareness of the client’s strengths out of their head and intentionally making it a lens through which they view the world and its needs around them. When we help our clients exercise this practice, suddenly new clarity and amazing possibilities of purpose begin to come into focus.
Several powerful yet practical ways of making this connection emerged in the research. A few examples include intentionally keeping their strengths in mind while noticing needs in the world, asking trusted friends what possibilities they see in them, reflecting and journaling about the connections they are noticing, and actively imagining living into their strengths.
Coaching the Process
The strategies of looking inward and actively imagining the possibilities can be transformative to how we support our clients’ life purpose discovery process. Coupled with your cultivation of trust and safety, your deep listening, and powerful questions, your client has the potential to transform the question from “is this all there is to life?” to “what’s next in this wonderful, purpose-filled adventure?”
Duffy, R., Bott, E., Allan, B., & Torrey, C. (2012). Perceiving a calling, living a calling, and job satisfaction: testing a moderated, multiple mediator model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59, 50–59. doi:10.1037/a0026129
Copyright 2022 Bradley Davidson