Coaching for expats. How it can help you find out who you are.
August • 10th, 2020
by Peter Schwarzer
Life as an Expat — Your Chance to Tackle the Big Questions
The expat experience life cycle
There is a life cycle to every expat experience which you can roughly break out into four phases: the honeymoon phase, the reality shock, equilibrium and lastly, do it all over again. These phases don’t always come in the same order and no expat experience is the same because we all carry baggage with us (literally and figuratively). In addition, not every posting is considered to be desirable. However, in the context of the expat experience, you, your partner and/or children have a unique opportunity: find out who you are and grapple with some bigger questions. As a coach, I’d say: Grab that opportunity!
Phase 1: The Honeymoon
You move to a new country and everything is new. The first three to six months can be exhilarating and even the local quirks are interesting, possibly even amusing. Every turn you take you see a new sight. It’s a new job and you meet new colleagues. Your partner may possibly go through the same experience — and often the kids are the ones to adapt the fastest.
Phase 2: Reality Check
The next phase is often characterized by less positive emotions. It hits you that you have given up a lot for this career move: your home, friends, familiar surroundings and the little things. The challenges of the new job sink in as well as expectations people have of your performance. Your local colleagues do things differently and you hit a wall. Your partner may experience the same emotions as he/she may not be able to work and realizes that you cannot fill your day marveling about the new place. What used to be amusing local idiosyncrasies by now is just annoying.
Phase 3: Equilibrium
The third phase is coming to terms with the differences. You find what you like. You know what you don’t like, and you have settled. Having made some local friends often helps. Ideally the entire family has had the same journey. While not really home, your new country has become a true place of residence. What used to be strange has become normal.
Phase 4: Do it All Again
Postings come to an end. Your company may ask you to move to another international job or you return to your own country. Either way, you’ll do it all over again — even when you return home. The longer you’ve stayed abroad the bigger the potential reverse culture shock can be. The country has changed. You have changed. Things you never considered quirky about your own countrymen turn out to be just that when compared to how you have lived your life for the past years. You may even find some friendships were not as deep as you had imagined. Some people may think you have become odd. You may find that you cannot pick up your old life where you left it before you moved away.
Not knowing what is important to you as individual will make maneuvering your expat life and your life as a couple and family harder. So, grab that opportunity — and dare ask who am I and what do I want?
What phase are you in? And what’s next?
I am sure you will find yourself in one of these phases. Personally, I have experienced them all. Having lived outside my country of birth for 20 years, I picked up a second passport, my children were all born in different countries and have moved to yet more countries. I met my best friends abroad and lost some at home. And home is not what I thought it would be.
Questions to ask
Each one of us experiences these phases differently. Perhaps the honeymoon phase comes after the reality check. Perhaps you never quite settle down. It all depends on individual circumstances. The best-case scenario is you moved willingly because of career advancement, you like the country you have been posted to and your partner and children are supportive. However, what if you have been sent against your will into a culture you find too alien? What if you hate the heat and you end up in SE Asia? What if you love sunshine and you end up in a country where it is often grey and rainy?
As a coach, I wonder did you even know how important sunshine is to you? Or what kind of discussions did you have with your partner about life abroad? Equally important how do you handle the challenges you face in your identity? For instance, what does it say about your identity as a working male when you suddenly find yourself as the accompanying at home spouse/partner because you are not allowed to work in the country your partner has been posted to?
The Road map
If you never thought about such things, you might have a hard time. However, just because you never considered these questions does not mean it’s too late. First of all, you are not alone. Second, the rough life cycle I described above is also a common experience. What you do with this awareness can make a huge difference. The crucial thing is to create something like a road map. This is particularly important for dual career couples.
Such road map is not meant to be set in stone. It simply serves as orientation and is it is perfectly fine to redefine and renegotiate. However, not knowing what is important to you as individual and to you in your role as a spouse/partner will make maneuvering your expat life and your life as a couple and family harder. So, grab that opportunity — and dare ask who am I and what do I want?
How can I help you?
I accompany managers, expats, dual career couples and students aiming for a point where they hit reset. I want to provide a space where they can discover their strengths, unlock their capabilities and develop vision.
My coaching style is based on the Person-Role-Organization (PRO) systemic approach as taught by INSEAD et al.
During the coaching sessions, we review how each of these components influence the individual in his formal and informal role in his / her organization.
One key element of my approach includes working with hypotheses which will be developed by the coachees themselves and me. Working with a hypothesis is non-threatening and non-judgmental and provides direction. They are simply a way to introduce and explore ideas because they are temporary and not permanent.
As both, coach and coachee, develop hypotheses, the playing field between the two is leveled. A hypothesis is a powerful tool to unlock doors on the journey I take with my coachees during the partnership.
The initial in-take session is free of charge. The main goal of the first talk is to identify why clients are looking at coaching. We will further discuss how to contract, e.g. what are mutually acceptable boundaries, what can coaches expect from me and what do I expect from clients. Least but not last, we need to establish whether there is chemistry!
Peter is an INSEAD trained coach and the founder of LEOS Consulting. He has lived and worked in five countries on three continents and has coached clients in both a formal and informal role. As coach, he focuses on accompanying managers, expats and dual career couples through transitions.