Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Proper way of coaching the young and anxious

I’m sure that like me you have been hearing about the increasing number of young people who feel anxious and depressed, even suicidal. And this is not just the poor and the unqualified. It includes many of the brightest and the best, the most educated and affluent.

In a BBC programme the other day there was a feature on the increasing number of suicides in Kenya, and later an interview with a life coach who talked about helping her clients to stop indulging in “negative self-talk”. Then I read an article on the BBC website about “insecure over-achievers”, and another on why young Germans are pessimistic.

What a gloomy collection.

I related all too closely to each of these items, as in the last few weeks I have been coaching several young graduates, all extremely bright and multi-talented, all with extraordinary academic as well as non-academic achievements behind them… yet all so anxious about themselves and their futures.

In addition to excelling in their studies they had experienced success in sports and the arts, they’d been chosen for leadership positions, and had contributed as volunteers in their communities.

Despite all their talents and achievements though, despite possessing the needed energy, confidence and boldness to have performed as they did, they felt deeply unsure about themselves. They spoke of lofty aspirations to make the world a better place, yet lacked a sense of where and how to proceed. “I feel quite lost,” one of these super-achievers admitted to me.

So what does a coach like me do? What, as someone who is currently training to become a coach asked me recently, is my “coaching model”? First, I ask my clients to tell me about themselves – which most find it surprisingly awkward to do. When I asked one to tell me which of her many achievements she was proudest of she fumbled, confessing she had never considered the question.

As I have observed such awkwardness over the years I have deduced that a common cause is not wishing to “brag”. Some of my clients worried they would come across as “impostors”, indeed saw themselves as such, leading them to lose their self-assuredness when talking about themselves.

So accepting this is how they feel, the next step is to have them talk about their achievements as if they were a disengaged outsider straightforwardly examining the evidence, with neither hype nor understatement – as stated in their CVs, yet embarrassing to articulate.

I press gently, knowing it will be hard for them, helping them to shed unwanted baggage accumulated over the years.

I express my admiration for them, urging them to relax and share my enthusiasm, to accept, enjoy… celebrate.

I also help them create the missing link between their achievements and the strengths that explain them with the self-esteem to which they have earned the right. It should be easy and obvious, but it is not, neither for them nor for countless other over-achievers. I adopt a light touch, teasing them with their refusal to link how wonderful they are with how they see themselves.

They begin to relax and shed their self-inflicted burdens, allowing us to explore how what they have shown they offer to the world, what they enjoy doing and are good at, can be matched with what the world is looking for. Now they are ready work on a much higher impact version of their CVs – their sales brochure, and then launch a confident sales campaign to promote a product of which they are proud.

Before I close, let me say how pleased I am that the Ministry of Education has at last decided that all universities must have offices for careers services. Forty years ago, through AIESEC and Rotaract, I began running self-exploration workshops at universities to prepare students for the workplace.

Then and now, at both secondary and tertiary levels, such support is virtually absent. No wonder therefore that so many of our most talented graduates feel confused and directionless. There is much work to be done. But it goes way beyond outlining career options. The process must start by going deep within the individual psyche.