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blogs / 04 JAN 2021

What Floats Your Boat? How to develop resilience while on international assignment

Diane Mullen

float your boat meaning

We will all look back on 2020 as the year COVID-19 emerged and brought all kinds of personal and professional challenges. As a coach and a counsellor, I have realised everyone has been affected in some way by these circumstances and has found themselves in need of support.

International assignees relocating during this time have had the added stress of COVID-19 in addition to the usual challenges of relocating—such as the loss of support network, kids attending new schools, establishing a new home and managing a new work environment.

This has certainly been true for Alan and Carrie, who I have been coaching in support of their recent relocation with their two children to London, UK, from Louisville, KY. Like many families, they have faced challenges and complications—including the loss of a beloved pet early in the assignment and a daughter back home attending university and struggling with anxiety due to the pandemic and family separation.

moving boxes

When coaching Alan and Carrie on resiliency during this challenging period, I found the Boat and Water Level metaphor—by Dr. Chris Johnstone in his book Seven Ways to Build Resilience—to be a valuable tool. The Boat and Water Level metaphor is the idea that maintaining a high water level enables you to row your boat without crashing against the rocks; however, certain risk factors can push the water level down, causing your boat to be in danger of crashing.

What has the potential to lower your water level? Factors like poor diet, lack of sleep or exercise, uncertainty, loss of freedom and isolation can all contribute. 

Counteracting these potential risk factors with our Strengths, Strategies, Resources and Insights is key to resiliency. These protective factors do more than improve mood—they raise the water level and prevent our boat from crashing against the rocks.

Utilising this tool as part of their personalised Cross-Cultural Coaching with Cartus, Alan and Carrie were able to focus on developing their own resiliency for assignment success. Here is how it was accomplished:

Strengths – Alan discovered his optimism to be a useful strength that helped his family stay positive. Carrie found her strength of creativity enabled their kids to be home schooled in fun and engaging ways while waiting to attend their new school.

Strategies – With COVID-19 placing restrictions on social activities, Alan and Carrie came up with ways to engage in new activities to increase their happiness. Alan practiced gourmet cooking, while Carrie enrolled in online classes. These activities filled their time during the lockdown when they could not socialise or develop social connections.

Resources – The couple discovered their most important resources were Wi-Fi and platforms for communicating with colleagues, friends and family. Extended family at home—a valuable support system to their daughter—has been reassuring. Also, the purchase of a car has allowed them to explore their beautiful new host country.

Insights – The insights Alan and Carrie gained through this experience has included their ability to deal with uncertainty and their ability to lean on one another for comfort and support when dealing with the loss of their family pet and their support network after relocating. Reflecting on their insights, they felt that they had gained something valuable during this difficult time.

boat illustration

Introducing the Boat and Water Level tool to Alan and Carrie helped them come up with new ideas and strategies and prevented them from becoming overwhelmed by their difficulties and challenges. By becoming more aware of their strengths, they were able to exercise these more effectively to support each other. By taking stock of the various challenges and difficulties that they were facing in the first months of their assignment, Alan and Carrie could see the risk factors pushing down the water level and were able to mitigate them with new ideas and strategies, as well as utilising resources available to prevent a “shipwreck” from taking place.

We are all dealing with so many factors that can put our “boat” at risk of “crashing against the rocks” and certainly, coaching at this time can equip you with helpful tools and resources to ensure that your “boat” stays afloat.

As you row, do not forget you are not alone. Do reach out regularly and stay connected (even if it is digitally) to those in other “boats” around you.

If you would like to find out more, take this free test to discover your top strengths at

If you are interested in learning more about Cartus’ Cross-Cultural Coaching, please contact your Cartus representative.

Our thanks to Cartus Intercultural Coach, Grace Doris, who wrote this blog in collaboration with Cartus’ Diane Mullen. Grace Doris is based in Scotland; she facilitates cross-cultural coaching and training for Cartus clients whose assignees are relocating in or out of the UK. Originally from Malaysia and married to an Australian, she has lived and worked in Australia, the UK, as well as spending four years on a ship facilitating education around the world (the MV Doulos) with an international staff and crew from 45 different nations.

Headshot of Blog Author Diane Mullen

Diane Mullen


About the author

Diane Mullen is Manager of the Intercultural Academy for Cartus. She delivers cross-cultural training programs to Cartus clients around the world. A fluent Spanish speaker, she has worked, lived, and studied abroad, spending a total of 15 years in the Netherlands, Chile, Spain, and Venezuela.