Image: Cynthia Magana
When you're making a career change, it can feel uncomfortable (and difficult) to answer questions about it – whether that's from friends, family, or people who have the power to help you. But is there a way to take back control of the conversation? Writing from the trenches of her own shift, Katie Rigg believes so.
As career changers, we’re often advised to make use of our network:
“Go out there and talk to people! Have coffee chats, message old connections, send energy out…”
But from my own experience, this can be a massive struggle.
I’m currently making a career shift (from fundraising to running a creative business). I want to succeed. But please don’t make me talk to people about what I’m doing.
If I talk about my ideas, they might be judged too early. My plans are delicate – they could fall apart under a few probing questions. Better to keep quiet. Work things out discreetly. Fail and learn privately… it’s all too messy to share.
I just want to dig a secret tunnel between what I used to do, and what I want to do next. Then pop out the other side, dust my hands off, whistle, and walk on as though nothing has happened… (is this just me?)
Sadly, reality doesn’t work that way. People ask about my shift – whether I want them to or not.
So how do we have productive, empowered conversations about our career change?
Especially when things feel vague and messy.
Can we just avoid talking about it?
Just do it. Don’t talk about it. Stop worrying and get on with it…
But avoiding the topic just creates problems.
Every time I dodge a conversation, I know I’m missing out on connections or advice. I’m also skipping practice for more important conversations, like job interviews.
When I ‘chicken out of’ talking about my new career, I question whether I really believe in what I’m doing. Maybe I’m just not the type of person who can make this work…
As a result, I fall into conversations that drain the energy away from my career change.
Do these sound familiar?
“Nothing is happening here…”
With colleagues, I’ll keep my career shift under the radar. It’s easier to reach for the comfortable jacket of how they know me, than reveal something different.
They might have useful leads… But I need to keep their current image of me intact. In case my shift idea ‘fails’ and I need to go back to my old career.
“It’s all going great”
If friends ask how my shift is going, I’ll put a positive gloss on it. Anything not quite working yet is a “useful learning experience”. Then I’ll swiftly move the conversation on.
But friends view my career change as a problem to solve, rather than a process. So, they look out for jobs that might suit me in their own sectors. “You’d be great at this,” they text me, with the job advert. I’m grateful for their help and I don’t want to disappoint them. But I don’t want that job. I want to follow my own sense of direction.
“It’s a complete disaster”
Only a couple of people have access to the ups and downs of my career change.
They are supportive and – importantly – calm enough to cope with “What am I doing with my life?!” sobbed at them on a regular basis. But this isn’t a rational or productive conversation. It’s just me dumping my uncertainty on them.
These conversations aren’t helping us progress. We need better tactics. But before we can improve our conversations with others, we need to address how we talk to ourselves.
Firstly, improve how you talk to yourself
If you’re like me, something is holding you back from talking about your career change.
Perhaps it’s something like:
“I don’t have a clear plan yet so people will think I’m flaky.”
“I don’t want to burn bridges with my old life, by chasing after some half-baked idea. I’d destroy my relationships with people who could have been useful in the future.”
But the rational bit of your brain knows the truth. This is an overreaction.
Your career change isn’t going to blow the world apart. If your ideas don’t quite work, you’ll adapt them and find a new route. As for everyone else’s opinion? Most people are busy with their own problems. Polite interest, and a bit of help, are the most likely reactions.
So why is it so hard to talk about?
Professor Steve Peters provides a model for this struggle in The Chimp Paradox. The ‘Chimp Model’ is a basic way of pulling out thoughts and questioning where they come from:
Is it coming from your Chimp (the primal, emotional part of our brain)?
Or the Human (the objective, rational part)?
It’s useful to keep this simple approach in mind. Because when we talk about career changing, all our “There’s a threat in the jungle!” sensors start pinging.
There’s already a conversation going on in your head:
Your Chimp sees this change as threatening its needs (safety, food, membership of a tribe).
So, your rational (Human) part of the brain is constantly trying to soothe the Chimp (I know what I’m doing, I'm exploring options, I have a plan, I'm taking careful steps).
Meanwhile, that inner Chimp is firing back (It’s all going to fail, everyone will laugh at you, you’re being reckless, etc.)
This uses up a lot of mental energy. So, is it surprising it’s hard to talk to other people about it?
When we do, we might even find a Chimp on the other side of the conversation. No matter how supportive a friend, family member or colleague may normally be, we all have primal instincts.
It could be:
Protectiveness (come back on the safe path – there’s danger out there)
Self-preservation (if you do this, you’re risking our wellbeing)
Apathy (who cares, where’s the food?)
Or defensiveness (I’m going to belittle your problem, so my own career uncertainty isn’t exposed).
No wonder conversations feel tricky – our fight or flight is ready to engage.
Separate fear from fact
If we can spot the Chimp, we can prevent it from hijacking the conversation when we talk about our career change ideas.
A quick way to spot a Chimp thought (“They will reject me!”) is to ask: do I want to be feeling this way? Do I feel in control here? If not, the emotion is probably coming from your Chimp.
We then have to make a very deliberate choice to replace these Chimp responses with rational Human thoughts, which we can draw from past experience.
For example, is there really any factual evidence to support that “They will reject me” thought? Or can you replace it with more accurate evidence:
Have you got through tricky conversations in the past? What approach did you take then?
Has this person supported you before – when was that?
What is to be gained by having this conversation? For example, I’m curious about not-for-profit work and I will know more once I’ve spoken to this person…
Every time I talk about my new career ideas, I am reinforcing that this change is valid.
In this way, we can use our experiences and rationality to calm down the Chimp. Of course, retraining our thought patterns takes time. But it opens space for new possibilities.
If there was no fear, what conversations would I want to have about my new career?
Who would I enjoy talking to about my ideas?
This creates a much better mindset to talk with others.
How to talk to friends and family about making a career change
Calm the ‘threat!’ instinct
The Chimp model helps us calm our own fears when talking about our career change. But it also gives a way to feel in control when talking to friends and family. Especially if we’re worried that their opinions may differ from ours.
If we do meet a negative or unhelpful reaction, we can see it as ‘Chimp’ and create some breathing space. Those responses are neither right nor wrong – just instinctive emotions. It’s not an attack on you as a person. It’s the situation that has set their ‘threat!’ sensor going. Change is happening and change might be dangerous.
So how do we switch that sensor off? What evidence does their Human need, to calm and reassure their Chimp?
For example, I sent my parents my business plan.
I left my arts fundraising job to carve out a new career running an online art shop and writing freelance. Not exactly stable. My parents were supportive, but I could see their Chimps running around with worry. This is not a route they know (as a former teacher and civil servant) and the road is rocky.
I know they like to be educated and informed. I know they’re natural planners. So, I could offer my plan as reassurance. Here is evidence of what I’m doing, how this career can grow, and what steps I am taking to get there. They then put their own career experience to use in advising on the plan. This worked for us. What would work for you?
Of course, the Chimp model can’t solve every tricky conversation, or relationship dynamic. But I’ve found it a useful way to understand the ‘threat!’ emotions that come out in myself and others, and what I can do in response.
Focus on the doing, then talk about the outcomes
Many career changers find it easier to talk to friends and family about their new path after completing a shift project.
This is a specific task that will test an idea for your new career. If you're interested in shifting into a food career, this might be catering a friend’s party. But it could also be having a meeting with someone who retrained as a chef.
This project progresses our knowledge (even if it’s just to rule out a career option!). It’s part of the quest in our story. But it also provides us with a specific topic to talk about.
For example, Jade is shifting from product management to a career in the outdoor industry or events. She describes how focusing on results has made it easier to talk about her shift:
“I think others, particularly family members, want to be supportive, but they don't really know how to and haven't quite fully understood that I'm not just going to come to my senses and move into a different 'safe' job. I've not always been good at putting myself out there and I worry that they are reserving judgement until something concrete happens. I've taken to only sharing results or clear ideas with them. They're much more helpful with the practical side of things; I've just learnt not to share uncertain ideas / test out thoughts with them.
“When I’ve done an informational interview and found out some really helpful information – I shared what they told me and talked about.
“Another example is taking a short course in a subject that I’m exploring – I can talk about how the course went and what was interesting about it, what’s challenging about it.”
Have a think about your own career change exploration (so far). What shift project have you tried, or plan to try next? Are there specific outcomes that you can talk about?
By keeping our conversations in this area, we can focus on our progress. Rather than getting stuck in the bits that still feel vague.
Identify who you can talk to in-depth
Not all our friends and family need to know the details of our career change. Instead, it’s important to find a couple of people whom we can really talk to in-depth; whom we trust with our early-stage ideas and will help us move forward:
“I think only a couple of friends even know I'm working to change things, one in particular has been really supportive with giving me possible connections to follow up. I'm not sure why I chose them. Probably their calm, caring approach.” (Chris)
We all have our own criteria for whom we choose. Fellow members of the Careershifters community identified traits such as:
- Those who are supportive but have a laid-back attitude to our taking a ‘risk’.
- Those who appreciate that career shifting is a process, not a quick answer.
But it’s important to note this support can come from outside your family and friends.
Vic shifted from not-for-profit finance management to coaching and consultancy. Early in her career change, she identified work colleagues who could help her explore options:
“I mainly spoke to people at work and then just a few friends. The people I chose at work were the ones I'd built great open and supportive relationships with. They were the people I would talk to when I was having a rough day, and, more importantly, I was the person they would talk to if they'd had a rough day.
“They were people who had made a big change in their career recently: either they'd just got a big promotion, relocated, or transitioned into my sector from somewhere else. It meant that they got it; they knew what it was like to be making a considerable change and so I didn't need to explain that part of it to them.”
Is there anyone from a work environment that you’re discounting? Or from another area of your life that isn’t your immediate circle?
This in-depth support works both ways. We all have things that we’re working towards. We can therefore offer accountability and advice in return.
If we can select just one or two people carefully, we can relieve a lot of the pressure around talking about our career change. We don’t need to launch into our situation whenever anyone (and her mother) ask. Better to have meaningful, productive conversations with a chosen few.
How to talk to other people when you’re working out your shift
Even if we’re really targeted in whom we talk to, we still need to have strategies for talking about it more widely. We want to feel ready to excel in an interview, or a moment that matters.
So how do we talk honestly about our shift, even when we don’t have full confidence in it yet?
Build your story
If you’re moving from one career to another, you have an interesting story to tell.
We can use a story structure to summarise where we’ve come from and where we’re heading in a clear and engaging way. This provides a big safety net for the dreaded “What do you do?” question.
So, how do we build our story?
Firstly – switch off any judgement about it. If you feel your Chimp throwing rocks (“This is rubbish”, “This sounds so stupid, “It’s hopeless”) calmly acknowledge those thoughts aren’t facts. Then put them aside.
We can then create a story from the following blocks:
- Your origin: Where have you come from? What is your starting point for this shift?
- Your inciting incident: What sparked you to make this change?
- Your destination: Where do you want to end up? Or if this still feels uncertain, what do you want the results of your shift to feel like?
- Your quest: How are you getting to your destination? What answers do you need? What obstacles are you trying to overcome?
For example, my story goes like this:
After doing an English degree and going to drama school, I worked for arts charities for several years (origin).
I realised that I’d drifted into helping other people be creative – and I was neglecting that drive in myself! (inciting incident)
I want to make my living by writing, alongside running my own art and stationery business. I feel fulfilled when I craft things that help or bring joy to other people. (destination).
Right now, I’m taking on freelance writing clients. I’m growing my art sales online. I’m learning about search engine optimisation, and how to reach my ideal clients for these two areas of my work. I want to learn from people who have turned their creative drive into a stable business (quest).
Some of this story will change in time. But the structure gives me anchor points. This is where I’m heading, it’s a valid destination, and here’s what I’m doing to get there.
I can draw on this in casual conversations, a pitch, or a formal interview. For example, I used to hate the “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” question in interviews (does anyone have a crystal ball to hand?!). But after working on my story, I have a clearer idea of the destination I’m heading towards.
For more on the importance of a story in your career change, look at this article by Careershifters Head Coach, Natasha Stanley.
Have a holding line
Sometimes we just don’t want to talk about our career.
Yes, we might miss someone with a useful lead, or contact, or advice… But right now, we just need a bit of time off from that constant drumming in our own head.
In this situation, it’s useful to have a holding line. Think of it as an answerphone message. It’s friendly, but firmly protects our space.
How do we create this?
Vic constructed hers by spotting the questions she kept getting asked, and combining her answers into a clear sentence:
“I'm exploring my options right now, I'm not any closer to making a decision; I'll let you know when I do."
She explains that having this line provided an option when she didn’t want to go into her story.
“It just helped me to get past that part of the conversation without feeling like it was dragging everything up again. The [questions] you're fed up with answering are the ones to build your stock answer to. With the ones that you're really excited to answer, use them as an opportunity to practise different versions of your story until you find one that works for you.”
What questions are you sick of? Take a moment to form a single line reply. Like Vic’s, it should be simple to say, honest, and polite.
Instead of dreading the next time you’re asked, view it as an opportunity to test out your reply. If you feel your line crumbling, what do you need to tweak for next time? Once you’ve said your line, ask them a question about themselves to move the conversation on.
All these tactics have one thing in common: they put us back in the driving seat.
We control how we talk about our career change. To ourselves and others.
We choose whom we talk about it with.
We shape how we tell our story.
We decide the moments not to talk about it.
These tools are too valuable to give away. But frankly, it’s scary taking control of the conversation.
Are you used to taking ownership of what you want?
My career change is the first point where I’ve made a choice just for me. Based on my own instinct. Rather than what seemed ‘logical’, or impressive to others.
It’s the first time I’ve had to defend what I want. By habit, I’m one of those people who will say “I don’t mind” to keep others happy.
It’s the first time I’ve had to trust that I know what I’m doing. I have the plans and determination to make my route work. Even when it feels like I’m driving in the complete opposite direction to the standard signposts.
It’s a completely new way of living. Talking about it isn’t going to come naturally overnight. It’s just another thing I’m learning.
But if we practise talking about our career shift, we can boost our confidence, progress our ideas, and create new opportunities. So why not start now?
What conversation do you want to have about your career change? Share your biggest takeaways in the comments.