Previously, we reviewed the Genogram Exercise for executive coaches and today we extend our exercise series with insight on the LifeLine Reflection Exercise. The exercise gives participants the opportunity to look back on their own life stories and glean insight from their past that can be applied to their future. In this article, we review the data, the why, and the how behind this exercise and apply it to executive coaching today.
Navigating the world and knowing your “why”
Psychologists refer to the LifeLine Exercise and those like it as a “narrative identity” or “an individual's internalized, evolving, and integrative story of the self” (McAdams, 2008). Researcher McAdams states that “the stories people fashion to make meaning out of their lives serve to situate them within the complex social ecology of modern adulthood” (2008). In other words, when business leaders specifically know their own story, they can better navigate the complex world around them. Furthermore, McAdams, Josselson, & Lieblich state that “people give meaning to their lives by constructing and internalizing self-defining stories” (2006). Simon Sinek would refer to this increased sense of meaning as “finding your why.” This research and others confirm that knowing your life story, or narrative identity, can help you navigate the world around you and find the “why” behind the things you do.
Knowing your story and well-being
Researchers Bauer, McAdams, & Pals believe that knowing your story or “narrative identity” is “closely tied” to viewing “oneself as happy.” They explain that those with high levels of well-being “tend to emphasize personal growth in their life stories,” “frame difficult life experiences as transformative experiences,” and identify a move from “suffering to an enhanced status or state” (2008). From this research, we can deduce that participants of the lifeline exercise can increase their sense of well-being by further establishing their “narrative identity.”
This increased sense of well-being can have several positive benefits on business leaders and executive coaches. According to the CDC, “Well-being is associated with numerous health, job, family, and economically related benefits.” They elaborate and state that “higher levels of well-being are associated with decreased risk of disease, illness, and injury; better immune functioning; speaker recovery; and increased longevity.” They also state that “individuals with high levels of well-being are more productive at work and are more likely to contribute to their communities.” For CEOs specifically, research shows that a “5-to-7 day period of hospitalization resulted in a 7% decrease in profit for that organization’s year” (Sorensen, 2021, Gaskell, 2020 & Bennedsen et a., 2020). This data reveals a cascading effect of participating in the LifeLine Exercise which begins with a developed narrative identity, which lends itself to increased well-being, ultimately reducing the likelihood of illness which can protect business profits.
Understanding of own perspective to combat prejudice and bias
According to the Practice Supervisor Development Programme, which is Funded by the Department of Education in the UK, LifeLine exercises can help business leaders and others “understand the particular lenses” or way that they view the world around them. They also state that this includes “any prejudices or biases… that might influence your responses” (Sturt, 2019). By examining past experiences and learnings through the LifeLine Exercise, business leaders can address potential biases and prejudices they may have. This ultimately helps them be better leaders in today’s diverse workforce. For additional information on the importance of diversity, we encourage you to visit Arete Coach’s Diversity Resource Guide and the following insights articles: “Confronting Pattern Recognition and Embracing Diversity” and “How International Diversity Increases Innovation.”
The why: Benefits of the LifeLine Exercise
By participating in a LifeLine exercise, business leaders can further develop their “narrative identity” and explore their story, their history, and the potential sources of their perspective, bias, and behaviors. The research discussed above also indicates that by doing a LifeLine Exercise, participants can better navigate the world around them, establish their “why,” increase their wellbeing, and better understand their own prejudices and biases. All of these benefits can positively impact leadership, businesses, and personal life as well.
The how: How to do the LifeLine Exercise
There are a variety of ways to host and lead a LifeLine Exercise. However, from a variety of sources, we have outlined the following steps and procedures. We encourage those leading a LifeLine exercise to adjust and customize their approach and procedures as needed, to best suit their audience.
Step 1: Gather your supplies
Participants will need writing materials and paper (or a premade LifeLine Diagram). Having markers and pens in a variety of colors can also help participants highlight and organize their LifeLine throughout the exercise (Commitment, 2021).
Step 2: Prepare your LifeLine diagram
If not using a premade LifeLine diagram, the second step is preparing your LifeLine diagram. When doing this, participants are instructed to “draw a horizontal line across” the center of the page in landscape orientation. Then draw a vertical line on the far left side of the page labeling the top “happy, satisfied, [or] fulfilled” and labeling the bottom “unhappy, satisfied, [or] unfulfilled.” Along the horizontal line create a timeline ranging from birth to the participant's current age (Commitment, 2021).
Step 3: Questions of reflection
Before instructing participants to begin outlining their LifeLine, it can be helpful to ask a variety of questions that facilitate “thinking about what have been [the] most influential experiences over the course of [their] life so far” (Sturt, 2019). These questions can be passed around the room on a questionnaire or discussed amongst participants depending on how in-depth the questions are. The Practice Supervisor Development Programme provides the following questions as an example:
What did you learn or see in your family about power? Who held it, how it was exercised, how guidance was given/received?
How would you describe your family of origin? How would you describe your family now?
What values or culturally-based assumptions were you aware of in your childhood? How have these influenced you?
Who have been significant role models for you and how did they influence you?
What does community mean to you?
What do you think influenced you to get into your field of work? (Sturt, 2019)
Other questions that can be asked include:
What experiences have I had in my life/career to date?
How have these experiences influenced my development?
Are there any themes/patterns which emerge?
What values have been important for me along the way?
What skills/knowledge/attitudes/behavior have I developed along the way? Where have been the turning points?
Which have been the happiest times? Which have been the saddest times?
When have I learned the most? How can this understanding help me with regard to my future development?
What would I pick out as milestones/significant achievements?
Which individuals have been most important in my life/career to date? (Commitment, 2021)
What were the dominant cultural values and norms of your family and work settings?
What has been your experience of learning? What important lessons do you recall? (University of Manchester, n.d.)
Step 4: Start drawing your LifeLine
After reflecting on these questions, participants can then be directed to start drawing their LifeLine from birth to current age, highlighting what they identify as key points in their life. First participants can mark a dot or circle for key moments in their life corresponding to their age (horizontal axis) and happiness (vertical axis). After marking these key moments, participants can draw a line connecting the dots.
Step 5: Examine, reflect, and apply
After completing the LifeLine exercise, participants can then be encouraged to reflect on their LifeLine diagram. In doing this, participants can be either encouraged to share their insights with peer groups, answer questions individually or as a group, or quietly reflect on their own findings. Some questions for reflection include:
Can you identify any connections or thoughts in relation to your professional life which explain things that give you satisfaction / frustrate you / the responses you have in your personal life?
What has had the greatest impact on you from doing these activities?
How have these activities developed your understanding of how you engage with others and aspects of your role? (Sturt, 2019)
Do you notice any patterns emerging?
Can you see something that sometimes has blocked your thinking, behavior, and feelings?
If someone else were describing this to you how would you feel about it? What’s still unfinished or your next challenge? (Commitment, 2021)
What resources helped you get through difficult seasons?
What do your [low points] have in common? (Neill, 2010)
How can I be even better tomorrow?
What’s the single biggest thing you can imagine that will help you grow or to change your life?
What perceptions, habits or beliefs do you need to build, change, or reinforce to reach your goal? (USA Today, 2013)
After discussing these questions or taking a moment of reflection, it is important to examine how participants will apply their new learnings or insights to their lives. From here, executive coaches can work with their clients to identify areas that need growth and support them on their journey to apply new learnings and strategies in their lives.
For the executive coach: looking backwards with a forward focus
It is important for executive coaches to remember their role as a partner “with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (ICF, n.d.). According to the ICF Core Competencies, skillful executive coaches refer clients “to another support professional as needed, knowing when this is needed and the available resources” (ICF, n.d.). This is important to remember as past traumas and mental health challenges can arise while doing these exercises. Executive coaches are not trained in addressing trauma or mental health challenges from past or present experiences. In these cases, executive coaches should make the proper referrals to mental health professionals or other resources.
For more insight on when to make referrals, tune into Episode #1027 of the Arete Coach Podcast. Executive coaches can, however, use this LifeLine exercise to encourage clients to look backward in their life and history to gain greater insight into themselves and their future. Doing this can reveal to clients areas of their lives that need growth and areas of success that need celebrating. From this point, executive coaches can work with their clients making full use of the lessons and learnings from the LifeLine exercise.
The main takeaway
The LifeLine exercise is a powerful way for executives and business leaders to look back on their life and gain greater insight into their behavior, goals, and needs for their future. The LifeLine exercise is associated with what psychologists call a “narrative identity” or a life story. Research has shown that building a “narrative identity” is greatly beneficial to well-being, understanding how to best navigate the world, finding your why, and combatting biases and prejudices. By using the LifeLine exercise in peer groups or coaching settings, executive coaches can help their clients look to their history for greater insight and guidance for their future.
Bauer, J.J., McAdams, D.P. & Pals, J.L. Narrative identity and eudaimonic well-being. J Happiness Stud 9, 81–104 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-006-9021-6.
Bennedsen, M., Pérez‐González, F., & Wolfenzon, D. (2020). Do CEOs Matter? Evidence from Hospitalization Events. The Journal of Finance, 75(4), 1877-1911. doi:10.1111/jofi.12897.
Commitment. (2021, June 3). The Lifeline Exercise: an exercise to think about yourself. https://commitment.uk.com/news/the-lifeline-exercise-an-exercise-to-think-about-yourself-commitment/#:%7E:text=Take%20time%20to%20note%20the,the%20dots%20with%20a%20line.
Gaskell, A. (2020, April 07). What Impact Does It Have When Leaders Become Sick? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2020/04/07/what-impact-does-it-have-when-leaders-become-sick/?sh=253a8b9f1bc6.
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McAdams, D. P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2006). Identity and story: Creating self in narrative. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11414-000.
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