A friend once remembered her geography teacher describing three different types of rock: metamorphic (the product of dramatic changes), sedimentary (a build-up of invisible layers) and igneous (solid and enduring). Within each type, there are many sub-types. The teacher then added that people could be understood in that way, too.
There are various ways of categorising individuals (some more helpful than others). We are all, of course, more complex than any model. But models can help both me and a client perceive more clearly their natural preferences, the trajectory of their life. It’s for them to decide what fits, what doesn’t – and what seems not to, but might be worth bearing in mind.
‘Rock types’ may not be a recognised approach in the field of psychology, but in my client work I’ve often been reminded of my friend’s story, and mused thus:
‘Metamorphic’ clients are those who naturally pass through distinct phases in their working life: re-inventing themselves with ease as they move between apparently diverse areas, and sometimes feeling so squeezed by the pressures of a role that they jump into something entirely different. They bring great energy to a new project or role, and leave it with equal decisiveness. They appear to leap from one thing to another but there is often a core skillset, or thread of values, running through what they do for a living, and why they do it.
The ‘sedimentary’ client typically has a career that builds slowly over the years. They may change jobs, but each layer draws on, and is infused by, layers that have gone before – allowing them to develop deeply textured skills and wisdom that can reach out sideways. This depth can be invisible to those only witnessing the current stage: the sometimes fragile sedimentary types are not likely to speak much about their achievements, but can surprise others by drawing on their reserves when the situation evokes their contribution.
An igneous rock is more of a ‘career for life’ type. They can appear cool or even hard, but once they have chosen their work, they do it with solid passion. I don’t see many in my consulting room, as people who come to me are usually seeking some kind of transition. Any major career changes that happen for an igneous are usually forced by something like redundancy. I used to meet more igneous types in my work with organisations, and they’re characterised by thorough knowledge, and steadfastness.
I don’t rush to mentally assign a rock type (and when I do, I do it lightly). An apparent metamorph might finally find the work they’ve been longing to build up in layers. Someone else might have an apparently igneous career for years until the still, small voice that has been urging then to reinvent themselves begins to shout.
Human beings being what they are, each type of rock usually looks askance at the others, whether in judgment or sheer bewilderment.
To the others, an igneous rock can seem inflexible and unimaginative, sedimentaries reclusive and flaky, and metamorphs unstable or even chaotic. For anyone growing up in a family (or culture) predominantly of a different type, there is often a message, whether or not consciously delivered/received, that different = wrong.
Sometimes the task with a client is to help them to recognise and celebrate their own rock type (even if we don’t use that language), and to live and work in a way that honours their true preference. This can be immensely liberating: an out-of-type career path drags us down. A metamorph naturally struggles to stay long in any type of role; working at depth may not come easily to an igneous, and a sedimentary’s worst nightmare could be something new smashing their carefully built layers. It’s fine to be the rock you are.
But for others, the point of our work is to lean out of their comfort zone for a while. I can ask catalytic questions, and offer insights and feedback, but only they can decide whether the possible rewards are worth the risk of deliberately working out of type. If so, then my job is to help them find the courage to make a decision, identify the strategies to implement it, and develop the resilience to see it through.
Each client is unique, and so each piece of work is unique, and never predefined. Together, the client and I co-create: exploring, experimenting, learning each other as we go. In that way, we uncover the pace and the direction our sessions need to take.
It’s how I like to work. I wonder what the geography teacher would have said about that…