How To Tell Your Friends And Family About Your Career Change

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Newly Updated

Image: Kane Reinholdtsen

There's no escaping it – at some point, you're going to have to 'come out' as a career changer to your friends and family. And what they think and say (or don't think and don't say) can have a huge impact on the way you feel about your shift. So how do you do it? Natasha shares the seven things you need to know when you break the news.

“Hell is other people.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Finding fulfilling work can feel like an incredibly lonely journey.

What are you going to do next? What will make you happy? How are you going to get there? Where should you look? You have to figure all this out, and it's up to you to make it happen.

But inevitably, it's not all about you. At some point, your shift has to be shared.

And telling your friends and family that you're making a major, potentially risky change to a fundamental aspect of your life can be scary.

What will they think? What will they say?

Once you've said it out loud, there's no going back.

You don't want to be judged, and you don't want to be seen to fail.

A supportive community is absolutely fundamental to a successful shift. But you can't always be sure of how the people in your life will react.

Here's what you need to know before you break the news.

1. Cherry-pick your cheerleaders

At some point, you're going to share your shift with everyone in your life.

But who you tell, and when, can be crucial.

An ill-timed derisive sneer or upset outburst from someone you care about can derail your entire shift.

On the other hand, a small, hand-picked, supportive community can be the difference between giving up and making it to the finish line.

“Initially, I told friends and family I wanted to do something different, but didn't yet know what. Bad move! It opened up the floodgates to unsolicited suggestions (which made me even more confused), and people asking me every time I saw them if I knew what I wanted to do yet (super-frustrating).

“Most of the people around me were quite conservative and risk-averse, meaning that their mindset was 'make a plan, do the logical route, know what you're doing before taking action, don't take a risk'. In the meantime, I was feeling pulled to make a wild leap and make things up as I went along.

“Eventually I told people: 'I've decided to stay where I am for the moment and might think about changing later', purely to get them off my back and give myself some headspace, while quietly working away on my shift in the background.

“In the end, I didn't actually tell people about my change until I'd made it. Our coach Sonia has a great phrase: 'Sometimes it's best to only let them know once the horse has bolted'. That worked for me in my case.”
– Sab, Careershifters

Start with one person who you know will be supportive, and who can be objective about the conversation. Although your partner or spouse might be your default go-to-guy / girl for everything that flickers through your mind, they also have a lot invested in this decision – they're not always the best person to tell first.

Then, be choosy about who you share your journey with.

Just because someone's in your life doesn't mean they need to know everything about what you're up to.

Hand-pick the most supportive people you know, and then choose to share the rest of your journey on a need-to-know basis.

There will, of course, be people who aren't so positive about your shift but who you have to tell – maybe your parents are particularly risk-averse, for example.

Leave this group out of the news until you're clear about where things are going.

As your plans clarify and solidify, you'll have more confidence in your decision and be able to navigate the trickier conversations with greater ease.

“Most people were glad, even jealous (in a good way) to hear I'm making an active change, but that's also because I chose to tell people whom I knew would be supportive, or generally have an optimistic disposition. I'd say keep the doubters and small-minded ones until you are pretty certain and confident, when you can take their unhelpful comments on the chin and shake them off.” – Anna, Career Change Launch Pad participant

Not only will you be doing yourself a favour, making sure you have the greatest chance of a supportive community around you at every step, you'll also be saving the other people in your life a lot of discomfort.

2. Know your 'why'

Why are you telling the person you're telling what you're telling them?

Is it just to notify them of a change in your life?

Is there something you want them to do?

What would be the ideal outcome of the conversation?

Sometimes we go into conversations with expectations that are hidden, even to ourselves. And then when we don't get what we want, we become disappointed or accusatory.

Knowing what you want or need from someone will have an impact on when and how you tell them about your career change.

Letting them know why you're having this conversation with them will also help them to give you what you need.

“When I told my best friend about my career change, I ended up getting really angry. In fact, I went home early from our night out because I didn't want to snap at him. It put a bit of a dent in our friendship for a good few months.

“I was trying to ask for his support, for him just to be there for me and listen to how I was feeling. But he kept trying to coach me and solve my problems, and I really didn't want him to 'fix' me. If it was easy to fix, I'd have done it myself. It made me feel stupid and useless, and like he wasn't really listening.

“Looking back, I realise he really was just trying to be the best possible friend to me. I just hadn't told him what I actually needed.”
– Aimee, subtitler and digital nomad

3. Listen first, talk later

When you share something as personal and ground-shaking as a career change, particularly if you've been thinking about it quietly for a long time, it's tempting to open the floodgates and let everything come out.

But a high-speed freight train of emotions, expectations and fears is unlikely to form the foundation of a calm and productive conversation, particularly if you're coming out to someone who has a vested interest in your shift (whether it's practical or emotional).

You've had a while to process your decision, but for them, it's a brand-new idea. If this feels scary to you, it probably feels just as scary for the people who love you.

And for many people, the news that you're choosing to change your life in such a big way can bring up a whole host of uncomfortable emotions of their own. Your bravery might remind them of their own fears. Your decision may force them to examine their own decisions. And some of those thoughts might not feel so great.

Give them time and space to express themselves before you unload too much. Come from a place of deep curiosity. Ask them questions. Dig into their reactions to better understand them.

It's not always easy, but try to listen for what they're not saying as much as what they are.

“You're crazy!” can also mean “I’m terrified for you.”

“How could you throw all those years of hard work away?” can also mean “I wish I understood what you're doing but I just don't get it yet.”

The first step to being able to help someone understand what you're doing is understanding where they're at first, calmly and lovingly.

Use questions and statements like:

“Tell me more about that…”
“You're right. It could be risky. What scares you most about it?”
“I can get why you feel that way.”
“What else do you want me to know?”
“I worry about that too.”
“Can you explain that a bit further for me?”

The more you can focus on understanding their world (rather than trying to convince them or defend yourself), the less likely you are to fall into knee-jerk emotional reactions and arguments.

4. Don't pre-play

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in any potentially difficult conversation is to rehearse it in your head and bring those presumptions and fears with you.

If you start a dialogue certain that your wife is going to be upset, you'll subconsciously turn the conversation in that direction.

If you sit down with your friend knowing that they're going to tell you you're nuts, you'll have your defences up before you've even begun.

Karen was a coaching client of mine who made this very mistake:

“I took my dad out to dinner to tell him about my decision to leave the law. I told him as the main courses arrived and we were finishing dessert when he said to me: 'Karen, I don't have a problem with you wanting to make a career change. I think it's actually a very good idea, as long as we find a way to do it responsibly. Can you just calm down a minute?'

“When I looked at his face I realised he was quite hurt by the way I was acting.

“I'd been basically ranting at him for about 20 minutes, because I'd spent the previous two weeks gearing up for a fight.

“But the fight never arrived, and I was already too angry to notice.”

Show up curious, humble, and open to being surprised.

5. Give them a role to play

Parents are often the most difficult people to tell about making a career change.

No matter how grown-up you are, their thoughts and opinions still carry weight. Maybe they invested in your career financially – paid for you to go to university, or supported you as you climbed the ladder. And not only are they deeply interested in your well-being and happiness, they're also from an older generation, who had a very different attitude to work and careers.

It's unsurprising that many of them panic at the news that their child is thinking about throwing in the towel on a career and making a big shift. Their job has always been to protect and support you, and here you are, talking about taking a flying leap into something they can't see, because of a feeling they don't fully understand. Scary stuff.

Partners can also have a hard time hearing that the person they love is seeking a major change. After all, they want you to be happy. It's their job to help you to be happy. You're telling them you're not happy. And this… they can't fix this.

The thing is, concern and fear often get mangled somewhere in people's brain-pipes, and come out as anger, dismay or disbelief.

If you're not listening closely, you then go into defensive mode and end up driving home muttering to yourself about how you must have been adopted and people are just unbelievable, really.

But if you are listening closely, you should be able to pick up on these badly expressed feelings of helplessness.

And the best way to help the people you love feel less helpless? Give them a way to help you.

“I completely understand that this sounds risky to you. It feels risky to me, too. And that’s why I’d love your help with something.…”

Whether it's drawing up a financial plan, tapping into useful networks or having a weekly get-together for you to voice your most madcap ideas, there will be something that the biggest worriers in your life can do to support you.

You might even need to give them a job that doesn't need doing, just so they can feel they're contributing.

“I asked my sister to keep an eye on the job boards at the university where she worked. I only had a floating interest in working in higher education, but she's my big sister. She's always looked out for me, so she needed to feel like she had a part to play in a big decision like this. And the more she got into her 'job' for me, the more supportive she became. My success became her success, so she got on my side.” – Adam, Launch Pad participant

6. Show them that you're serious

A lot of people are unhappy at work.

A lot of people flirt with the idea of making a career change.

Others (you might be one of them) spend months or even years talking about how much they hate their career.

For friends and family, it can be hard to trust that now, things have changed. You're actually making a shift.

Perhaps they don't mean to seem unsupportive, but they've heard this before. How can they be sure this isn't just another bad day?

Find a way to make it clear that you're committed to the process, and help calm the concerns in their minds by offering evidence that you're taking care of potential problems.

If you're reading blogs or books, tell them about that. If you're working with a coach or if you're joining a career-change course, tell them. If you've set yourself a timeline to hand in your notice, let them know.

(You may also have to actually take one of these actions in order to tell them about it, which is no bad thing!)

And more than anything, let your commitment keep you calm. The clearest way to let people know you're serious about a shift is not to get caught up in defensive dialogue or over-the-top reassurance. Just stay clear on what you're doing, and work through any concerns together with your nearest and dearest.

“I think the first time my family realised I was serious was when I showed them my website.

“I had no fear discussing it all with my husband, who knew from the beginning of my Careershifters journey that I wanted to make a change, but speaking to my dad about what I was doing was much harder. I knew he wanted 'more' for me, but by showing him I was committed to what I was doing and that it was paying off, I think he was satisfied.

“For anyone else looking to make a change and wondering how to communicate it to friends and family, I would say that it's important to remember that only you can choose the life you live, and you don't have to justify it to anyone.” – Chloe, Launch Pad participant

7. Speak from the heart

If you're prone to pre-playing, you may also be prone to trying to over-rationalise the explanation of your shift.

There are probably a thousand reasons you want to change career, and a thousand thoughts and ideas flying around your head.

But knowing the one, core, heartfelt reason behind it all will make a huge difference in the way you're able to communicate with your loved ones.

Logic, reasons and rationalisations can all be debated – but your deep-down gut feelings are immovable.

And ultimately, your friends and family want you to be happy.

When you're worried about how people are going to react to something, it's easy to forget to just be honest. But by finding a way to speak from the heart, you're finding a way to connect with them on a deeply human level.

“Most people I spoke to told me that if they were in my position, they would be more accommodating to what life had given them, happier with their lot.

“However, when I started telling them about my volunteering in the garden and the theatre, they were pleased.

“They could see my love of the theatre and my admiration of the historical ambience where the gardens are, and didn’t criticise it. When I tell them that I'm trying to change my life and find something I love doing, they all agree: in order to be productive and happy, you need to love what you do.” – Alex, Launch Pad participant

There are all kinds of ways of having productive conversations and getting 'what you want' out of an interaction. But ultimately, what's going to have the most power and authenticity is simply being honest about where you're at and what you need.

If your big 'why' is enough to move you through a career change, it's big enough to help other people understand.

What are your fears about sharing your career change plans with your friends and family? How could you apply these principles above? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.