Choosing to Change?
In many of the articles posted on PPND this month, the subject of personal change has been approached from the perspective of choice. Kathryn Britton’s “Choosing Change” for example, focuses on the critical subject of how to get the biggest bang for your buck, i.e. how to decide which of our many habits or behaviors to change. Dave Shearon’s article “Four Statements to Happier” sets out the prerequisite conditions for change, what it takes for people to choose to change rather than stick with the status quo. He highlights two crucial points about change:
- To be successful, people have to change themselves; you cannot make the change for them
- Expectations need to be managed – change doesn’t just happen at the drop of a hat. Change takes time, and effort.
In “Great Expectations of Change,” Derrick Carpenter points out that we can underestimate our emotional resilience, and that this inability to forecast correctly how we’ll feel in the future is frequently what prevents us from making important changes (e.g., finishing a relationship or ditching the dead-end job).
Benefits and Costs
In those areas where we do have a choice about whether or not to change, it is nevertheless useful to try to weigh up the pros and cons of different decisions as objectively as we can before taking the first step.
First, it’s worth realizing that there must be benefits to staying as we are; if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be clinging so steadfastly to the status quo. So it’s just as well to acknowledge what these benefits are, and work out whether those we expect to get as a result of changing will be greater.
Secondly, we have to work out whether we’re prepared to accept the costs of changing. Yes, it’s true, even positive change has costs, and we may as well try to anticipate those now.
Four key coaching questions which may help you to explore these costs and benefits of change (or no change), and hopefully avoid any nasty surprises, are:
1. What would happen if I did… (make the change)?
And what else?
2. What would happen if I didn’t…?
And what else?
3. What wouldn’t happen if I did…?
And what else?
4. What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t…?
And what else?
Repeat ‘and what else?’ until you stop coming up with anything new. Although you might think the answers will just be the reverse of each other, when I’ve used this set of questions in coaching it has been surprising what additional insights surface.
Having to Change?
So far then we’ve assumed that we have a choice over whether or not to make a change. What about when change is imposed on us? What does positive psychology say? Several of my close friends have lost their jobs recently, or are in consultation with their employers about being made redundant. Even though no-one can claim ignorance of the current global economic crisis and rising unemployment figures, that doesn’t stop it being a shock to the system when redundancy happens to you.
It appears that the primary reason that many people find change which is imposed on them difficult to deal with (notwithstanding the research referred to above on affective forecasting) is that it takes away their sense of control, and as we know from the work of Dr. Suzanne Thompson, and earlier from Dr. Ellen Langer and Dr. Judith Rodin (amongst others), a lack of control significantly decreases both physical and psychological well-being.
So when negative change happens, I often refer people to the so-called “Change Curve” (attributed to Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross). It’s a staple model of management consulting firms the world over, and it applies just as much to experiences of personal change as it does to organizational transitions. Change is a process; people go through a range of different emotions as change occurs.
Kübler-Ross isn’t typically associated with positive psychology (her original five-stage Grief Model came out of research into death and dying), and even though positive emotions are conspicuous by their absence in this model, it has much to offer in terms of understanding the process of change and the range of typical emotional responses we should expect, and thus points us to the types of activities and behaviors we need to encourage to accelerate our progress and emerge the other end stronger and more resilient. As the saying goes, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Stage of Change
|Stability – the status quo||
|Pretty positive||Everything’s OK, I’m in control, I can…|
Out of control
|Shocked, confused or disorientated||I don’t understand what’s happening here|
|Denial||Perhaps more positive but not in control||Change? What change?|
|Anger||Hostile, frustrated||This shouldn’t be happening to me / it’s your fault|
|Depression||Helpless, hopeless, disengaged||I can’t deal with this / there’s nothing I can do|
|More optimistic and regaining control||I might actually be able to make this work|
|Realistic||I can see myself in the future / I can see how this would work|
The Change Curve doesn’t specifically refer to pessimism or hopelessness either, but we can easily add these to the illustration. By understanding that these negative feelings will be the likely reactions to imposed change, we can prepare ourselves better, have more realistic expectations and avoid wasting precious physical and psychological resources at a time when conserving or even developing positive energy is crucial.
So the question for positive psychology must therefore be, can we do anything to reduce or offset the experience of negative emotions that result from changes we don’t want, and if so what?
Three Activities for Offsetting Possible Negative Effects of Change
The above conclusions point to three key areas of activity:
1) Concentrate on activities which boost your sense of control. There will be other important domains in your life which you can influence, such as hobbies. Set realistic goals and work towards them everyday. We talked a little bit about this in my October 08 article.
2) Make a real effort to keep up your social contacts, especially with those friends and family who you can rely on to support you and make you feel good. Keep doing things for other people – this helps to ensure that your focus is outwards.
3) Don’t be surprised by the depth of the negative emotions that you experience. This is perfectly normal. Take a meta-perspective of the situation. A colleague of mine once created his own Change Curve on paper and monitored where he was on it from week to week. He said it wasn’t pleasant knowing he was likely to be heading into a pessimistic phase, but on the other hand, he was prepared and knew that it was one step nearer the end of the process. He also knew to ask for help from friends and family during the difficult times.
As has been suggested by other PPND writers, such as Kathryn Britton in her article “Resilience in the Face of Adversity,” there are various things you can do to increase your resilience. But why wait for the worst to happen? You can create your own personal Resilience Bank, and you can do it now. This might contain photos that make you smile, letters, emails or Thank You cards from people expressing their appreciation for things you’ve done, or mementos and souvenirs of especially happy occasions or celebrations, in fact anything that lifts your spirits. Even just spending five minutes looking through your Resilience Bank can make the world of difference to your mental outlook.
There are various practical steps that we can take to increase our ability to manage negative change more effectively; I’m sure you can think of many others – please share them with us in your comments. To paraphrase Darwin, it isn’t the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
Langer, E. & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191-198.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1970; 1997). On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner.
Thompson, S. (2002). The role of personal control in adaptive functioning. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. (pp. 202-213). New York: Oxford University Press.
Images from flickr and reused under Creative Commons License.
Change image by B. Rosen
Cntl button by renatotarga
Blue flower with reflected clouds by aussiegall – labeled “Into the sun”