Mid-lifers are no strangers to big questions. But answering them can still be challenging.
Developmental psychologists have long argued that mid-life is a natural time for questioning and transition. For example, Levinson’s eight life-stages theory includes a ‘mid-life transition’ stage from age 40 to 45 and a ‘questioning and modification’ stage from age 50 to 55 (Levinson 1978). Whilst this work is forty years old and life expectancy has increased (by almost eight years in the UK for example), the pattern still rings true.
But what are these big questioning really about?
My own research into mid-life career reinvention coaching found those wanting a significant change in mid-life are ‘journeying to be more of themselves’. As a result the questioning is primarily about discovering as opposed to just exploring or deciding. Discovering who they are, what they really want, when they are at their best, how they can be their best selves and so on. Discovering the treasure within.
This finding is contrary to much of the careers guidance literature where the dominant assumption is that guidance is about supporting decision making. In mid-life, deciding is not the most important feature and both coaches and clients warn against focusing on one decision or solution too soon. Decisions between options can be needed later but are not the main focus.
In this context, coaching questions are in service of this ‘dis-covering’ by helping and stimulating clients to think holistically and differently about themselves, supporting fresh insights or perspectives and helping them go beyond their immediate symptoms. Discovering, by its nature, involves uncovering things that were previously not seen or understood, present but may not be presenting. It is important to remember that there might be good reasons (conscious or unconscious) as to why things were covered so coaches and those posing challenging questions need to tread carefully, be mindful of your capability, and alert to potential risks.
Questions can be powerful and the intent behind the question matters – whether we are asking them of ourselves or other. Not all questions lead to change, nor should they, but they can provide useful insight, understanding and potential.