Managing change & transition

Jane Markesteyn, BA, MSW, RSW
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

“There is no progress without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything" – George Bernard Shaw

Why is it that just when we get adjusted to the latest changes, something else comes along? Is the pace of change picking up? Some would argue that it is. Take, for example, technology. In their 1994 book, Future Tense: The Business Realities of the Next Ten Years, Ian Morrison and Greg Schmidt wrote, “Today’s average consumers wear more computing power on their wrists than existed in the entire world before 1961.” That was 24 years ago – imagine what they would say today.

Sometimes we choose change and sometimes it is imposed upon us. Change, whether it is viewed as positive or negative, desired or imposed, always causes stress. This means that there is a demand (the change) on the system (that’s us) that requires some sort of adaptation. The challenge becomes identifying the tools available to us to adapt to the demand, and then using these tools to achieve a positive outcome. In other words, we can’t stop change from happening, but we can choose how we deal with it.

Change &Transition – What’s the Difference?

We often hear the words change and transition used interchangeably. However, they are different concepts. A change is visible, external and time limited. For example, moving homes, getting married, having a child, getting a new job, your health status changing. A transition is the unseeable psychological process we go through to come to terms with the change. Consider what happens when you move from one home to another in the same city. The actual move is usually on a certain date (the change), but the time it takes to figure out things like the location of the grocery store, meeting the neighbors and training your car to go to your new home takes quite a bit longer. It could be months before the new place feels like home. This part is called the transition.

William Bridges has written extensively about change and transition. Bridges identified that there are three phases to transition. In his view, a transition starts with an ending rather than a beginning. In the first phase, we must identify what is being lost;what we have to let go of. Resistance and emotional upheaval often mark this phase. The neutral zone is the second phase. It is that time when the old ways have been let go, but the new beginning is still not yet clear. It is a time to be creative and find new ways of doing things. This period can feel chaotic;communication is not always clear and a lot of our energy goes into psychologically coping with the transition. Finally, after wandering through the neutral zone for a period of time, we arrive at the third phase, the new beginning. This is when we are expected to pick up the pace and get on with things, but we must also realize that not everyone is going to arrive at the new beginning together.

Managing the stress of change &transition

Change and transition is more manageable if certain conditions exist. That is, if the change is voluntary, predictable, there aren’t too many other changes happening at the same time, it’s not too sudden, and if an individual has work/life balance and supportive relationships. It is also more manageable if choices and options are available within the change and, most importantly, if one has confidence in their ability to manage stress.

If we look back on our lives, we see that we have indeed found ways to deal with big and little changes. However, when we are under stress, our energy often goes towards managing the psychological work of transition.

The following strategies can help us maintain energy and resiliency during times of change:

  • Practice self-care activities: Physical activity, meditation, listening to music, reading, etc.
  • Spend time with people who listen, are positive and with whom you can laugh with. Humour melts stress and helps you maintain perspective.
  • Be aware of how you’re “thinking." This is important as negative-thinking patterns often creep in when we are under stress and rob us of the ability to be objective. Assuming that our negative thoughts reflect reality can cause us to react in ways that lead to negative outcomes. Stress increases the likelihood of jumping to conclusions before we have all the information. Make sure to check things out before reacting to avoid quick emotion-based decisions.
  • Manage resistance. Human beings are creatures of habit. Doing things differently takes us outside our comfort zone so the tendency is to want to keep things the same and therefore impede the change and transition process. Instead of resisting change, challenge yourself to lean into it. Adopt a mentality of openness and flexibility by using words like “opportunity,” “experiment,” “learn,” and “curious” to talk about the change and your response to it. Then put those words into action.
  • Develop the ability to be adaptable and “go with the flow." Be prepared to take some risks and tolerate for a while the foggy conditions found in the neutral zone. It takes less energy than resistance.
  • Communicate assertively by clearly stating needs. Don’t expect others to be mind readers.
  • View change objectively and then look for opportunities for personal growth within the change and transition process.

Change is an event;stress comes from how we view the event. Identifying what we can and cannot control during a change and transition process gives us a sense of mastery and prevents us from being like a gerbil on a wheel getting nowhere and feeling more and more frustrated or even angry. Learning about the process of change and transition, and understanding how we are personally impacted by this process helps us to remain resilient. It also helps us to understand how others around us may be experiencing change, even though it may be in a different manner.