Navigating the Change Curve

The only constant in life is change. It was Heraclitus who first shared this nugget of wisdom and it seems, in this respect at least, the world hasn’t changed so much since the era of the Ancient Greeks.

Despite centuries of constant flux, we have only just started talking about how to best manage change in the last 50 years. How to lead and adapt through change remains a debated topic in organisations, whilst individuals are continuing to battle through uncertainty. So why, if change is so normal, can it continue to feel anything but?

Understanding change

When we first experience change, we don’t experience the whole change. Instead we are hit hard with a single, often strong, emotion which we don’t always connect to the process that lies ahead. The process is one that can and often will end with us accepting the change and moving forward. To be able to better navigate change, we first need to understand and embrace the uncertainty before it overwhelms us.

Enter the change curve. You may be familiar with this model, especially if you have ever attended workplace training on management or change. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created the five stages of grief in the 1960s to explain how we deal with personal loss and it has evolved to become the acknowledged framework for predicting and managing change ever since.

Kübler-Ross used the curve to explain human reactions to major losses, adding that not everyone will go through all five stages and that the order is fluid. One person’s experience could move from right to left on the curve, or re-visit an emotion more than once, for example. What is important in navigating change, is that experiencing any or all of these emotions is expected. Here is what they might feel like:

Denial: this is when defenses kick in and we look for evidence to refute reality. We are least productive, out of touch and looking for any way to not accept the change.

Anger or Resistance: as the change begins to feel real, fear of what might happen can lead us to look for faults, find blame and seek out ways to hold on to what was before.

Depression: this is a dark and often hopeless state, when we can feel upset, demotivated and sad. We may push others away or act reclusive as we lose faith in a positive outcome.

Bargaining: as we move toward a more hopeful mindset, we explore ways for a positive outcome, starting to generate ideas, take risks and offer assistance.

Acceptance or Commitment: when we are ready to move forward with the change, we have moved on from comparisons with the past and as a consequence feel more in control.

The human brain likes equilibrium. It’s called homeostasis. So when we are thrown out of routine or what we deem as ‘normal’, we jump on board the emotions curve in response to the disruption our brain is experiencing. Non-homeostasis – survival mode – serves to protects us and bring us back to equilibrium.

Using the change curve

The purpose of understanding the change curve is not to avoid it, but instead to help us manage our own expectations and therefore navigate through any uncertainty we are experiencing. Some people never reach the right side of the curve, continuing to suffer change rather than to benefit from it. By acknowledging when you are going through a period of transition and recognising the impact it is having on you, you will be better placed to control how you react and navigate the change more smoothly.

Change is rarely easy, so be kind to yourself and don’t feel the need to force progress. Being open to the change and your emotions can help you to replace fears with opportunity. Take positive steps toward accepting change by first accepting your experience.

When change is positive

I have mainly focused on times when change feels challenging, but often change is welcomed. Have you noticed people who seem to be able to take on all that life throws at them? Whilst perceptions do not always reflect reality, it is likely that these people have learned to navigate change, often through their own experiences of adapting and learning.

We can turn around our experience of change (credit: Daniel Roe @ Unsplash)

When you are able to not automatically see change as a negative, you will be able to appreciate the opportunities as well as the learning experience.

Here are some ways to turn any negative thinking around when something is changing in your life:

  1. Believe that some good will come from this change, whatever happens
  2. Tell yourself that you can handle it. Say it out loud every day if you need to
  3. Accept that you will experience different emotions and this is normal – ride the change curve
  4. Involve others in your experience, whether that means talking about the change you are going through or the emotions you are experiencing

The effective navigator

There is no right or wrong way to experience change, but it is accepted that we can ride a rollercoaster of emotions. If you are finding it challenging to accept change in your life, allow yourself time and appreciate the emotions that you are going through. Distinguishing between the change itself and our experience of a change can be difficult, but to effectively navigate change it helps to acknowledge and validate the emotions we are likely to experience as we move toward a place of acceptance.

If you are experiencing significant change yourself, use the change curve and explanations to help identify your experience, then allow yourself to be kind and patient with yourself as you continue to grow and learn through this journey.

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