The Dreaded Cocktail Party Question

“What do you do?”  From my vantage point as a recruiter and executive coach, I’ve seen how much stress these four little words can cause. Even when delivered with a smile as a friendly ice breaker, for many people “What do you do?” is truly the dreaded cocktail party question.

I first started thinking about this after many of our clients and candidates were laid off in 2007-2009.  While wave after wave of corporate layoffs were taking place, I was receiving calls from people who just wanted to talk about what had happened and what they could be doing to find a new position. Sadly, many who had been so much in demand found themselves with few recruiters who were just willing to meet. Suddenly lacking a job, an office, a business card and a schedule, they lost what had formerly been a strong sense of self. Within weeks and sometimes days after losing their jobs, I saw many people begin a process of seemingly forgetting all that they had accomplished, and the skills and experience that made it happen.

While coaching executives in transition, I’ve had the opportunity to further consider why people assume a limiting, one-dimensional self-view.  For most of us, it’s not difficult to understand the difference between our “what” (vocation) and our “who” (everything outside of work that makes us who we are).  We all know highly successful people who are bored with or dislike their jobs and/or their employers. It appears to be relatively easy for us to say “I am not defined by a job I dislike,” Why is it so much more difficult to say “I am not defined by not having a job at this time?”

In transition coaching, I work with clients to make an important shift to what we call “living from the inside out.” The process begins with an assessment that measures attitudinal responses to different situations.  Then we use a values tool, an exercise that helps clients identify or become reacquainted with their core values, defined as those values that don’t change, and where they won’t compromise, no matter what is going on around them. After the core values have been established, we examine where in their lives, both in and out of work, they are honoring those values, and where they are not. Once we understand what we value most deeply and why, we can better evaluate our current work situation and potential opportunities by using core values as part of the assessment process. Additionally, living from the inside out requires recognizing and recalibrating the filters that are activated when listening to and reacting to others.

When we have shifted to living from the inside out and encounter the dreaded question, we respond by describing our passions, goals and genuine excitement about our personal and professional journey. We tend to focus more on how we work and live instead of the what we do to make a living. We recognize social situations and all encounters with new people as personal and often professional opportunities. The biggest shift takes place when we begin to enjoy the journey of self-discovery as we move purposefully to the next phase of our lives.

If you are in between jobs, how do you handle the dreaded question? I’d love to hear from you and learn and share. Please feel free to reach out to me to start a discussion.




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