Active Relocation is the oldest pure destination service company in Switzerland, serving companies and families since 1989. The Manager and Owner, Sabine Baerlocher, began her position in 2000. I joined Active Relocation as a Relocation Advisor in 2006. Since 2009, I am a Senior Relocation Advisor and help clients settle in the Geneva and Vaud Cantons as well as in neighboring France. Active Relocation has been through many changes in the past decade. We have handled group move projects and long term clients with services as broad as Global Mobility Advice, Immigration Assistance, Destination Services, Intercultural Coaching and Training.
The Lake Geneva landscape, with its unique history and its diversity of nationalities, adds complexity and depth to the job of any relocation professional. Be they interns, senior leaders, accompanying partners or mid-career professionals, our clients come with their own stories and add to this tapestry. Because such a variety of people come to the region to work in every sector, coaching, training, and support have been vital to our relocation efforts. The industry has shifted here from simple real estate and school searches to a more holistic and multi-faceted approach to customer service, including agility and preparedness to handle specific client needs surrounding personal, medical and even emotional support. Over the years of my professional development, during traditional activities like housing and school visits, I was confronted with issues as wide ranging as autistic children, mentally ill young adults, professionally qualified accompanying partners without the right to work in Switzerland or neighboring France, to potential depression in the family threatening the retention of the relocated employee.
The purpose of this case study is to explore the use of positive focus and strategic questioning in communications with clients and accompanying partners during the relocation process in order to support and encourage a more successful family transition. Based on research about positive focus and inquiry, I suggest that making use of contact with clients and their families on housing and school visits to integrate coaching questions into relocation-related conversations can create positive feelings, anchor motivation to transition successfully, and launch a successful integration process for clients and their families, potentially leading to higher retention rates.
Managing client expectations has never been more complex. As relocation involves changes to lifestyle, family life and typically involves some degree of culture shock, relocation advisors can play a critical role in guiding transferees and families through transition. They can help their clients feel more empowered over the change process. Traditionally, relocation professionals use welcoming behaviors, friendliness, and information-sharing. In the information age, we all need to increase our soft skills and ability to interact on the human side. Details and local knowledge in context will remain important; however, clients have ever expanding access to factual information through web channels and social media alike. Relocation advisors can benefit from training in positivity and strategic questioning in order to keep pace with changes in technology. This concept of creating positive emotion in ourselves and others can be learned and easily blended into current relocation practices. As a step towards stronger soft skills for relocation agents, basic coaching tools can be used without major retraining.
An understanding of why coaching questions can be so helpful has its roots in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. The second half of the last century saw a major move away from Freudian thinking. Illustrating that thoughts drive feelings, rather than feelings causing thoughts, American psychiatrist Aaron Beck modeled a new kind of therapy -- Cognitive Therapy. This focus on the examination of internal dialogue and correction of distorted thinking offered hope to patients of depression (Berridge, 2011). Moving in yet another direction, Martin Seligman, in 1998, took on the study of human strengths and the notion of looking at what is going right became the basis of a new field - Positive Psychology (Fowler, Seligman, & Koocher, 1999). Since Seligman first prescribed positive interventions for helping people “flourish,” researchers have studied the impact of thoughts on well-being. A number have established scientific proof of the link between well-being and improved mental and physical health, creativity and work performance (Berridge, 2011).
Barbara Frederickson’s landmark research on the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests that creating positive reality leads to new, expansive or exploratory behavior, and that, over time, these actions lead to meaningful, long-term resources like knowledge and social relationships – all key elements of a successful transition for a globally mobile person. She further links positive emotions to biological and cellular health. (Kok et al., 2013).
Relocation advisors would do well to add some coaching competences to their skill sets.
Cognitive behavioral coaching uses techniques such as evaluating cognitive distortions, considering thoughts as hypothesis rather than facts, and using “how” and “what”-based questions. These and other coaching competencies such as reflecting and reframing a client’s statement help clients focus on future possibilities, manage emotions, and change self-limiting beliefs (Neenan 2008). There is strong evidence that coaching works (Grant, 2010), even on a short-term basis (Grant, 2009).
A coach helps her client achieve greater well-being through self-discovery. “Powerful, wise and skillful question asking is the heart and soul of coaching,” writes coaching expert Marilee Adams in her blog (Adams, 2016). She even entitled a book chapter: “With Our Questions We Make the World”. For her, the power of questions is expressed not only in how we speak, but also in how we think and listen. Our self-talk or internal dialogue drives how we think, behave, and relate.
Adam’s Learner-Judger Mindset Model, which she calls “Question Thinking”, involves teaching skills of personal effectiveness. Learning to distinguish between our Learner questions and Judger questions empowers us to choose questions that may produce better results. By asking “what”-oriented questions we open ourselves to learning about the current situation and have the opportunity to choose how it will impact us. Learner questions include, “What happened? What can I learn? What assumptions am I making? How else can I think about this situation? What is the other person thinking, feeling, needing, and wanting? What is possible? What am I responsible for? What are my choices?” Conversely, Judger questions reduce our options and get us stuck: “Who’s to blame? What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with me? (Adams, 2004)
By switching our questions we can quickly switch our own mood; in fact, as soon as we ask ourselves a question, we begin to create change (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008). This approach affects our questions of others as well. By using Learner questions, we guard against forming premature judgments and we are able to create more opportunities (Berridge, 2011). Frederickson also makes a strong case for positive thinking and its impact on people’s skills. Positive emotions broaden our sense of possibility and open our mind up to more options. (Clear, 2013)
When the stress of relocation triggers a “fight or flight” response, with “catastrophizing” thoughts, a relocation advisor can use positive psychology interventions to calm the client. A “positivity bias” develops that will help her or him become more resilient and successful (Goleman, 2005). Empathetic and mindful listening involves first posing the right questions. Positive “focus” doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of events; we accept the reality and choose to focus on the positive aspects (Zimmerman, 2013).
Research shows that accurate expectations about the host country strongly improve cross-cultural adjustment. Conversely, failure of a global assignment is directly linked to mal-adaptation. When an expatriate has an accurate picture of what is in store, the chances are much improved that he or she will benefit from the experience. Indeed, expectations created prior to an expatriate going on assignment drives this adjustment more than the experience itself (Caligiuri et al., 2001). Hence relocation advisers play a crucial role in aiding their clients to create accurate expectations. Questions help clients access their curiosity and create a discovery mindset. This guides and facilitates open thinking patterns as opposed to unrealistic or assumptive ones. Questions also allow space for clients and their partners to assert themselves, to openly dialogue regarding their respective wishes and to construct and articulate their own positive vision of the upcoming experience.
The world is clearly changing, and the relocation industry is at risk (Hippler, 2009). As the growing number of dual career couples and the changing political landscape make some employees reluctant to take global assignments, multinational companies are facing new challenges in welcoming those who do. While access to information and technology increases, the relocation industry is evolving. Traditionally soft skills such as mindful listening and empathy have been valued in relocation; yet, now we need to ramp this up even more as a quality service offer and value-add in order to compete in today’s global economy.
Many service industries are evaluating so-called high-touch and low-touch approaches. Automatic check in at the airport, with no human interaction, is high-tech and low-touch. Both low-touch and high-touch experiences are also reflecting changes in the relocation industry. In order to succeed, relocation agents need to improve their communication and people-building skills.
Expatriates today benefit from an avalanche of data and advice about their destination. Though sifting through the sheer amount of accessible internet content might be overwhelming, a transferee has more power than ever to “see” what is out there in terms of schooling, housing and lifestyle. They can send us Excel sheets of rental properties already scoped, pre-select schools with more precision, and even register for hot-water yoga classes before landing for the first time.
As companies have cut back on “look and see” and orientation visits, many employees’ first impressions are indeed from virtual visits. In this era of cost-cutting, limited mandates and lump sum packages, relocation professionals have an even more critical role in needs assessment. Questions can make a real difference, helping people discover their own strategies for resolving challenges. During the first telephone call and then in person during school tours and housing visits, relocation advisors can use coaching-based questions that allow for wide-ranging information on family, career, social connection, and culture shock; thus providing a higher level of personalized service (see Annex II).
Today’s expatriate is likely to be a part of a dual-career couple. Accompanying partners may be arriving with their telecommuting job, planning on taking time off, or hoping to find a job once settled. Either partner may have learning goals to accomplish while abroad. Though the family group may be more varied in make-up and circumstance, the core human needs stay the same: people are looking for ways to be happy. It is in companies’ best interest to keep relocated employees and their partners on a positive path – if they are interested in keeping costs down and retention high.
Some of the easiest ways to improve human interactions are to increase positive focus, to use positively framed inquiry, and to apply skills from the world of personal and professional coaching. One of the most important tools for any coach is the skill of asking energizing questions (Tkaczyk, 2016). Encouraging people, asking questions, and listening to responses makes people feel good, valued, and acknowledged.
Reflections, even after a short interaction during a few housing visits, can create a lasting positive impact. Through re-conceptualizing the role of a relocation advisor, we can remain flexible and agile and allow our industry to change with changing technology, and changing economies. We can learn and provide more high-touch service to clients when we are spending time with them, and counteract the isolation so many modern expats feel due to increased time spent behind screens (Bilton, 2013).
Social change activist Fran Peavey explains how to shape “strategic questions” – questions that create movement, lead to multiple options and dig deep. He likens a question to a lever that you use to pry open a stuck lid. Long levered questions can “stir up all the creative solutions.” Strategic questioning is the skill of asking the right question that helps people discover their own strategies and ideas for change. An example: “What would it take for you to change on this issue?” This lets the other person create the path for change (Peavey, 1997).
As Hippler’s study makes clear, motives for taking an overseas job are varied. Why employees seek or accept expatriate assignments is much more complex than career advancement or financial compensation (Hippler, 2009). One way to discover what motivates clients to relocate is to simply ask them. This feedback can be used in the relocation process to help clients focus on their personal reasons for the move and potential positive outcomes. It is important to help people who are experiencing change to focus on what is not being lost, what can be maintained or continued. This creates stability during a difficult process (Bridges, 2016).
In a relocation context, questions such as “How might this affect your family?” might lead to information about hobbies and interests but also about concerns such as a valued relationship with a doctor, therapist or religious leader. There is a need for sensitivity to the situation of accompanying partners, which varies for each individual case. Poor communication with HR is seen as a top problem by expatriate partners (Reiche, 2013).
Empowering questions often begin with “how” and “what”. As Tony Robbins, a leading expert on both personal and professional success, puts it in his blog, “quality questions create a quality life”. They direct our mental focus and therefore determine how we think and feel (Robbins, 2013).
Even well-adjusted clients harbor some fear, resentment and self-doubt about aspects of change. Sometimes they are aware but simply choose not to let others know, and sometimes they aren’t self-aware. In both cases coaching, with its “self-directed learning”, enables clients to make their own discovery (Wilson, 2009). It is interesting to note that people largely underestimate how difficult it is to move to a new city even within the same country. In fact, we are very poor at guessing how happy we will be and yet we base important life decisions on these flawed predictions (Gilbert, 2006).
Empathizing allows us to understand without agreeing. Empathy from a relocation advisor can model self-compassion and emotional intelligence within the transitioning family at what is a vulnerable time in their lives. Relocation advisors who show curiosity and care for their clients through coaching questions elicit responses to resonate with – they literally create situations in which they can demonstrate empathy. Such a supportive experience facilitates positive focus among clients and their partners.
Research continues to show a strong connection between positivity and employee performance. Pessimists are twice as likely as optimists to leave their company during the first year of employment (Bradberry, 2013).
Though some client needs are not specifically articulated in mandates, I and my colleagues face them nonetheless and could be better equipped to handle these cases. Integrating coaching questions into relocation-related conversations will improve the delivery of our relocation services and bolster and support the success of the relocation industry.
By involving our transferees in constructing their positive experience from a personal perspective, by asking them coaching questions, we lead them to join in the creation of a positive experience. Relocation clients want their investment to result in happily placed and productive employees, with partners who also share a positive outlook on their relocation experience. Positive psychology expert Shawn Achor urges us to rewire the brain to scan for the positive because happiness is the key to productivity (Achor, 2010).
Using techniques supported by research on how questions are worded, listening actively to clients, and reflecting back positive elements of their discourse all serve to strengthen the foundation of an international relocation.
The latest happiness research shows that pursuit of meaning – not happiness – is what makes life worthwhile (Rath, 2015). The expatriate, and/or accompanying partner, needs to focus on maintaining meaning and finding new meaning – which must go beyond choosing a rental property or signing up for language lessons. As communication skills and emotional intelligence become more valuable in a world of high-tech, low human interaction experiences, we can use coaching questions to make a positive impact through meaningful, caring, personal and interactive relocation advising. Relocation advisors will need to incorporate even more high-touch practices in order to serve tech-savvy clients well.
Annex I: Suggested Coaching Questions for Use by Relocation Agents
Always keep in mind the culture or cultures of origin of our clients, respecting cultural boundaries and the role of high versus low-context communications. Some personal questions can even be introduced as “things to ponder or think about that don’t need to be answered.” This allows for conversation and positive inquiry without obliging clients to share personal information they may not feel comfortable sharing. The door is open for deeper conversation but the purpose is purely for the client; these are not always information gathering questions.
What did you love to study in school? Besides learning your host country’s language, what do you hope to learn while living here like?
What sports or hobbies would you like to continue or is there a new interest that you are hoping to try now that you are moving here?
What was your favorite activity when you were a child? E.g, do you still paint? What are your favorite activities now?
Do you hope to do volunteer work? Are you interested in volunteering for a cause while living here?
What subjects are you most passionate about?
What are you most grateful for in this relocation?
What do you like best about your profession?
What do you like best about being a parent?
What are you happy to leave behind in this move?
How have you best let go of the “old” in the past?
What are your healthiest coping strategies during change or stress?
If your relocation move were canceled, what would be your biggest regret?
If you could move anywhere in the world where would it be?
What do you feel is most exciting about this change?
How might this move allow you to re-invent yourself in any way?
When you have free time in your life here what do you imagine you’ll do?
Annex II: Scenarios from work as a Relocation Advisor
A few years ago I was helping John, a 30-year-old trader from the UK whose wife was to remain in the UK until after delivering their first child. The deal breaker for him was linked to finding a small apartment close to the airport. Initially, I didn’t ask him why he had added this remark to his questionnaire; I just assumed it was because he wanted the possibility to fly back to his family easily and often. Luckily, during my first contact with him by telephone prior to his housing visits trip, I used coaching questions about his personal interests that led me to learn that his real passion was flying, that he was a reserve Royal Airforce pilot on the weekends and there was nothing he loved more than the sounds and sights of being near the airport. He ultimately chose a small apartment facing the Tamoil jet fuel yard – I would have never shown him that apartment had I not taken time to go beyond the traditional role of a relocation advisor – in fact, I would never have sourced a lodging so close to the airport!
Gail, a prickly 45-year-old American accountant for a multinational company, was moving from several years in Asia with her husband and three school-age children. A veteran expatriate, she didn’t invest much time for the initial telephone interview and her husband wasn’t available to join the conversation. She told me that she had already sorted schools and only needed us to help in finding a house near the school she had already selected. While standing in the playroom of one house, I asked what she liked best about “being a Mom” – I had meant to say “about her job” but this question came out instead – perhaps because I was knee-deep in toys. She broke down in tears and started telling me how much she was worried about coping without having the house help that her family and she were accustomed to in their current posting. Her husband was recovering from depression and she feared that he might have a relapse during this stressful time. Thanks to my coaching question approach, and to her ability to feel safe with me and to open up, we were able to work on concrete solutions such as a local father’s group that would provide support for her husband in their new location. I made sure the family had a list of English-speaking counselors. This experience directly led me to the topic for this Case Study. I believe that Relocation Agents who have some skills to handle client situations with emotional intelligence can help steer clients to an emotionally secure and positive experience as they transition from one country to another.
I am always careful to refrain from the “what do you do” question so as not to accord too much importance to current professional status. Unemployment, leaving a job in the home country, or choosing to spend years raising children are all common but not always easy to talk about. Most people who relocate internationally do, however, have some professional experience and often some ambitions as well. Susie, a mother of two children in university, was a friendly accompanying spouse relocating to Switzerland – the couple’s first international move. When she mentioned her kids, I asked her “What did you study?” I wanted to honor her as a person and not just as the mother or spouse of a globally mobile husband. Instead of telling me about her studies when she was younger, she explained to me that she had recently become a real estate agent. She admitted being concerned about being at home or not working again – she had spent two years getting her license and had only recently been promoted after a successful first year at her job. Through that question she was able to tell me about her recent professional conversion to real estate. It was then easy for me to highlight, as a coach might, her ability to change tracks and be flexible through the course of life, just as she had by learning real estate in her home country. We talked about how she might either look into real estate options here in Switzerland or even learn something new. I used the question to shift focus away from what she was giving up to a more positive concept of her as a person – she’s a lifelong learner and someone who can adapt to a new situation.
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