How coaching can help doctors with professional and personal decisions

Kathleen Sullivan, a professional coach, NLP practitioner and trainer, sets out the benefits that coaching can offer to doctors.

Q: In your coaching you work with doctors specifically. Do you find they seek professional coaching at any particular stages in their lives/careers?

A: The doctors I work with are all at different stages in their careers and have all manner of things going on in their personal lives! The one thing I would say they have in common is that they’ve arrived at a certain crossroads. They’re usually looking to find clarity so that they can move forward, whether it’s helping them get out of a rut or to get closer to some goal they’re aiming for.

I’ve worked with clients who are trying to decide on a specialty, and with locum GPs wanting to get a salaried post. Consultants often come to coaching because they’re struggling to get the right kind of balance in their lives, working excessively long hours and neglecting relationships and home life, or feeling that things have become too one-sided – living to work, rather than working to live. Their coaching journey may start with a particular work challenge or goal, and then once that has been worked through and they’re moving in the right direction again, they may turn their focus to other areas of their life (or vice versa).

Q: I believe you use a technique called goal mapping. Can you explain a bit more about what this involves?

A: We all have dreams, visions, and goals that spur us on to keep learning, working, and taking action. With goal mapping, the first step is to identify what your individual drivers are – your core values that give your goals meaning, and give you a sense of purpose in whatever it is you’re doing in your career or your life. Once you’ve elicited your values it makes it easier to clarify what your big goals in life are, as well as the sub-goals that you need to achieve in order to reach your destination.

If you want to achieve something, or have a desire to live your life in a different way, but you don’t know where to start, it’s usually easier to break the goal down into bite-sized chunks. When the sub-goals are clarified, the steps you need to take start to come into focus and you suddenly have a lot more clarity about what the next steps are. The people who could support you in realizing your ambitions also become more obvious when you explore your goals with a goal map. There are many different types of goal mapping tools, and I like the right-brain and left-brain maps that were developed by Brian Mayne as they tap into the creative parts of our subconscious mind which can really help to bring ideas and dreams to life.

Q:  What types of situations do doctors bring to a coaching session, and how is coaching different from counselling or mentoring, say?

A: Sometimes they want to look at behavioural issues like communication skills, confidence and assertiveness. Others are facing problems or challenges in their careers and really value taking the time out to reflect on their choices and focus in on what they truly want. Difficult professional relationships are a common theme, as well as personal relationships with family and partners. We might also spend some time working on very practical things like preparation for interviews and presentations so they get the results they want.

I would describe the differences between coaching, mentoring and counselling as follows:  You would engage a mentor if you were looking for specific advice from someone in your field who has more experience or is further ahead in their career.

A counsellor or therapist would be the best person to work with if you need to spend time unravelling the past with the aim of healing some very deep, psychological and emotional wounds that you think are stopping you moving forward in your life or inhibiting your true potential.

With coaching, I am committed to supporting you to take positive steps to move aspects of your life forward and in the direction you choose. Typically, a very small proportion of the coaching session is spent exploring your past. Although we would address obstacles that are blocking your way (limiting beliefs, unhelpful patterns of behaviour, conflicting values), this would be done in an affirmative way and based on a cognitive approach.

Q:  What do you find are the different factors that might drive a doctors career?

A: Most of us go about our working life and career planning with little or no awareness of why we make the decisions we make. It’s often not until we find ourselves unfulfilled, stressed, or lacking purpose and motivation that we start to make the connection that our career is out of sync with our values. If the work you do on a daily basis doesn’t honour your core values, it’s highly unlikely that you will feel motivated, enthusiastic, satisfied, fulfilled and in the right job. Drivers are personal and not specific to an entire profession. For instance, some doctors might be driven by the need for recognition and status. Others value financial security. Still others might look for adventure and risk in their work, and there are those who are driven by the need for fun and a sense of belonging.

Q:  What might the implications be, for instance in a doctor’s choice of specialty?

A: There aren’t any convenient generalisations that can be made here. It’s not simply a matter of saying that if power and authority are high on your list of values, then you might be drawn to a top position in a busy teaching hospital A&E department. Or with a doctor who values financial security, it would be unlikely for them to interrupt their career to spend time on an overseas assignment with MSF or VSO. In choosing a specialty, if a doctor has clarity about the kind of life they want for themselves (and this includes their aspirations for work, home, relationships, etc.), then the right speciality will begin to emerge. With coaching, it’s about lining up the various influencing factors to make decisions with greater ease and greater long-term satisfaction.

Q:  What are some of the first things doctors can do to increase their chances of achieving their career goals?

A: A good starting point is to raise your awareness of what you really want in life and be brutally honest with yourself. Ask yourself some challenging questions like “Is this job really working for me?” or “What would it take for me to be fulfilled in my career?” You could also reflect on questions around change, such as “If I could only change one thing about my career, what would it be?”

Once you’ve taken your awareness to a higher level, the next step is to sharpen your focus and get some clarity around your goals by exploring the various options you have. You then need to make a commitment to yourself to move your life/career in the direction that you choose. At this point, the obstacles and blocks usually kick in, and these come in lots of different forms: limiting beliefs, negative thoughts and attitudes, unhelpful self-talk and other destructive patterns of behaviour. When awareness, clarity and commitment are all in place, and you’ve processed the blocks and cleared the way forward, then it’s time to act!

Q:  What else can they do?

A: There are so many resources out there that can facilitate this process, and it just depends on the particular learning style of the individual. Some prefer to read around the subject of personal development, or reflect on their career choices through a series of linked assignments in a workbook. For others it’s about accountability, and working with someone like a coach whom they can report back to and who will hold them to account on their progress. Group workshops are another option. Mentors are a great choice if you have a preference for working with someone who knows about your profession from the inside, and you can decide whether a traditional mentor, peer mentor or co-mentor is best for you.

Q:  Could you give any examples of how the approaches you’ve used have helped doctors you’ve coached – either in their personal or professional lives?

A: A GP client, Dr F, was in her early thirties when we started working together. She was working as a locum and wanted a permanent salaried post. She also wanted to improve her communication skills with patients and colleagues, as she felt she wasn’t confident and assertive enough and this was impacting on her job satisfaction. In her personal life, she was in a relationship that didn’t have the right level of commitment: she wanted to move in with him, get married and start a family. With coaching, she was able to consider her options from different angles and get some clarity around what her ideal career would look like. We worked through the blocks that had been stopping her from making decisions and taking bold steps to get her career moving in the right direction. She picked up some practical tools that she started using both at work and at home to improve the way she communicated. Within the space of a few months she had four job offers. After six months she was living with her partner. They now have a baby and are due to get married next year.

Kathleen Sullivan is a professional coach, NLP practitioner and trainer, and a member of the Association for Coaching.