Research Paper By Monica Kremer
(Transformational Coach, SWITZERLAND)
There is a time for departure, even when there’s no certain place to go. Tennessee Williams
They can be scary, but completely necessary. They can turn your life into chaos, and then they can give your life incredible progress and growth. These are life transitions – they are no easy feat, and often come when we least expect them, even if we all know that change is inevitable. All of our lives are filled with movement from one stage to another, one opportunity to another, one job to another. But when we’re gearing up for a new career, a new move, or a new anything, we may be frightened by these big changes. In the words of Brian Buffini, “People actually like change. They just don’t like transition.”We often like what change eventually produces. We just don’t like having to go through it.
When I work with clients who are navigating transition – some with great success and some with significant struggle along the way, some people move toward change with excitement and others want to put the brakes on and not even consider how change might benefit them personally and professionally. That’s where I love to come in as a coach.
This paper focuses on the benefits of professional coaching to facilitate change in times of transition, using William Bridges’ transition model, which is by far the most complete approach I have found so far for transition coaching.
To illustrate my findings, I will be using three examples of fictive coachees, experiencing different, yet significant changes:
- Adam, who has been promoted to Associate Director
- Julia, who is moving with her husband to Singapore
- Mark, who has lost his wife
Change vs Transition
People tend to use the terms “change” and “transition” interchangeably. In truth, they have very separate and different meanings. William Bridges, in his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes makes a clear distinction between the two.
People typically focus on the outcome that the change produces. Change refers to a specific external event, such as a new job, becoming a parent, losing a loved one, etc. Change is a one-time occurrence: we change jobs, change clothes, change living arrangements. Change is a shift from one person, place, or thing to another. Change can be self-imposed or imposed upon us.
Transition is the ongoing process of dealing with a change, the experience of change, the emotional phases that people need to go through to arrive at that change. It’s the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about: thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions we have or do in response to a change event. These will include also accepting that the change is needed, letting go of the past so that they can move forward, learning new ways of doing things, and so on. To quote Bridges: “Transition is psychological; Change is situational. It is not events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through to incorporate any of those changes into your life.”
Fast/Can be accelerated
A clear start and end/One-time occurrence
Continous but predictable
For their chance to be successful, individuals must go through the necessary process of transition. Transition is the more difficult piece but essential to successful change. Whether at the professional or personal level, we often lose sight of the critical importance of the transition process, focusing on the change itself.
Sometimes transitions are not created by change (or at least not by chance we can identify), but, by an internal shift in our being: a shift that tells us something is different in the way we feel about certain people, places, or things. The transition can thus sometimes precede change.
Let’s take the example of Adam, who got promoted: originally, he had decided to look for a new job. But he didn’t just wake up one morning and decided to make this change. Instead, this was an idea that had been formulating for some time in his mind, a transition happening in his mind. He had been unhappy in his job for a long time, wanting more responsibility, a higher salary, a new boss. He was ready to make a change. And this came under the opportunity of a promotion, within his own company.
It is essential to dig deeper and examine just how change impacts our true, innermost self, otherwise, its effects remain superficial and we won’t move forward. As Bridges puts it, “Without a transition, change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.”
Bridges explain further on that regardless of the type or importance of the change, successful transitions require people to undergo three separate phases:
- The Ending
- The Neutral Zone
- The New Beginning
As a coach working with clients undergoing transitions, it has been essential for me to understand these three critical phases and their impact on the outcome of successful change. They are not necessarily linear, but for successful change to occur, individuals must begin with the end.
Phase 1: the Ending
Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The first transition stage identified by Bridges is called the Ending. As he explains, change can’t happen without something coming to an end. This seems obvious when the change is unwanted or represents a loss, such as the death of a loved one or losing a job. But it’s equally as true for changes we want, and even those plan for. The starting point for dealing with transition is thus not the outcome but the endings that people have in leaving the old situation behind. If you consider what happens in nature, the birth of a butterfly means the death of the caterpillar.
Whether the source is an external change or your inner development, any transition thus always starts with an ending, when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. Getting married is the end of being single. Becoming a parent is the end of the freedom inherent in a life without children. Starting a business is the end of being accountable to an organization. We must allow an older version of ourselves to cease its existence so that the new version of ourselves can be born.
The default perception of any individual experiencing a transition is first to look at events in his life through the lens of resistance. The purpose of this stage thus involves dealing with the pain and loss that accompany the change. Depending on the individual situation, this can be extremely painful. Some people hang on to the past because it gives them a false sense of comfort and control. However, it is important to identify what is being lost, grieve those losses, and let them go.
When change occurs, we may rush past this first stage to skip to the last stage – the new beginning. The difficulties come not from the new changes but from the “fear” or at least resistance of letting go of the person you used to be and finding the new person you need to become.
The coachee needs to be clear about what is over and being left behind, and what he/she will keep (relationships, processes, locations, beliefs, etc). Successful transition begins with grieving losses and letting go of the old situation. It’s not typically the change that we object to. It’s the giving up of the current, having to let go of something familiar and comfortable. Coachees often feel shocked, denial, anger, anxiety, sadness, frustration, or distraction and may want to negotiate to keep things the same.
When working with clients during all kinds of transition phases across different moments in their lives including marriage, career change, divorce, health issues, loss of a loved one, moving, children, etc., they are usually desperate to hang on to their current status, the identity they have built. Clients often remain frozen by loss, stuck and uncertain about moving forward. Though the circumstances may vary, the response is usually the same: the client is physically in the present, but emotionally still attached to his previous life.
Let’s take the example of my coachee Adam, who was excited about his new role but uncertain about the unfamiliar territory that he found himself. When Adam received his promotion, he had to lead a team formed by former peers. That anxiety was increased by the fact he was leaving his comfort zone by adding additional responsibilities. He needed to address the endings associated with his promotion. After some targeted coaching sessions, Adam realized that before he could fully launch into his new role, he had to address what he was leaving behind.
Learning to let go of the way things were in the transition. Until we are comfortable with the new and willing to let go of the old we are in transition. To do so, “We must learn to recognize that the ability to change is built on the ability to question, to challenge and to live outside a comfort zone.”, as writes Richard Gerver in his book Change: learn to love it, learn to lead it.
Bridges shares a few solutions:
- Identify the losses you’re feeling as a result of the change. Be specific.
- Acknowledge the losses openly. Often, it is when we don’t talk about the loss that we are confronted with (emotional) challenges.
- Define what is over and what is not. One of the most important steps in managing change is that of putting into words what it is time to leave behind. Be specific about what goes and what stays. And don’t forget to celebrate those elements of the past that are worth honoring.
Phase 2: the Neutral Zone
It’s not so much that we are afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes. Marilyn Ferguson
Once people have grieved their losses and let them go, they are ready to enter the second phase –what Bridges call the Neutral Zone.
This in-between time, where neither the old way nor the new way is fully in place, can be chaotic. As reality sets in, the individual internalizes the change and what it means personally. Resistance sometimes starts to emerge. There likely will be strong feelings of frustration, anger, fear, the disillusionment that the task is overwhelming and not worth it, concerns about the impact this may have on others, and self-doubt about being able to make a change, leading to hostility. Resistance is the toughest phase, and where coaching is needed most.
Resistance is not bad though. Everyone experiences resistance at some point—it only becomes unhealthy when it blocks forward progress. It not only is a reliable barometer to measure the impacts of change, but it also serves as a valuable protective device against hasty or dangerous decisions. People don’t resist change; they resist the losses that often come with spending time in transition.
Transitioning through resistance, the individual moves into exploration. Here the individual wants to make change work on their terms but with no clear answers; they start to become hopeful with a sense of making progress; possible solutions arise—perhaps a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
The purpose of exploration is to face this reality, and creatively explore and discover new ways of doing things. This can be a time for new ideas to blossom; it is the very core of the transition process. It is necessary to understand that this time between the endings and beginnings is required for reorientation and redefinition. This is the time between the old reality and the sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what the new roles will be, but it’s not fixed and doesn’t feel comfortable yet. It requires time, reflection, and experimentation. Clients must be realistic in planning the time needed, tolerate temporary setbacks, and be patient when immediate results are not achieved.
During the neutral zone phase, when uncertainty folds in, clients often find themselves coming back in new ways to old activities. It makes sense then to seek out people, objects, or activities that feel familiar. When working with clients that are experiencing a change event, the coach can ask them about how they spend their time. This helps the coach identify where they’re at in the transition process, how their energy is coming through in their lives, and sometimes, it gives the coach an indication of what they value most.
When coach Julia found out that the family needed to move to Singapore to follow her husband’s new job, to a foreign country where she didn’t know a single person, she felt alone, lonely, and disconnected, struggling to find her identity in an unfamiliar place. She was definitely in the second stage of the transition process – the neutral zone. She felt unanchored and desperately needed structure in her life.
The first coaching session revealed that Julia was someone who values the connection. It was decided that she should explore ways to make new connections, if possible, in an environment that holds some type of familiarity with her. Julia decided to volunteer in a school helping elderly people to use a computer and social media, as she used to work on a help desk back in her hometown. Not only was IT familiar, but it made her feel strong and accomplished.
Bridges’ tips and tools for the Neutral Zone:
- Normalize the neutral zone by acknowledging it as an uncomfortable time that can be turned to everyone’s advantage.
- Set short-range goals and checkpoints to get through this time
- Don’t push too hard for certainty and closure. Instead, allow time for newness and creativity. Work to transform the losses into opportunities to try doing things a new way.
- Shift attention from problem to opportunity, from present to future, from what is done to what you can do (visualization). Move to think about what’s possible with the change vs. what can’t be accomplished.
Phase 3: New Beginnings
Since change is a wall and transition the gate in that wall, it’s there for you to go through. The transition represents a path to the next phase of your life. William Bridges
Finally, the individual begins to move towards commitment, hopefully, focused on and excited about the future, and working to accomplish the change vision. Self-confidence increases, accentuated by acceptance, a new vision of the future, and the excitement of moving forward toward a new beginning.
This involves new understandings, new values, new attitudes, all of these being an expression of a fresh identity. Energy is starting to move in a new direction. Individuals experience a mixture of anxiety, hope, enthusiasm, and impatience. They may physically start to do things the new way, but until they understand what they’re doing, have a positive attitude about it, and are confidently doing it, the new beginning hasn’t taken place.
Below are a few of Bridge’s suggestions for Phase 3:
- Be open to shifts and corrections in your plan as events and experiences occur that require modification.
- Focus your early efforts in achieving small achievements, and use these to build your confidence in further steps.
- Convert the possibilities that you discovered in the neutral zone into objectives and then lay out a plan to get to wherever they lie.
- Be certain you know how you have to be different now, both internally and behaviorally.
- Articulate your new identity and communicate it to others. Find ways to symbolize and celebrate it.
Give time to time
Change is a process that takes time. Clients need to work on their emotional side before behavioral change ensues.
When the coaches mark lost his wife, he went through a long period of grief. Not only did he not choose the path he was on, but also he wasn’t even sure if he could see a path. He was confused, frightened, and sometimes felt powerless to accept the change that had fallen upon him.
Despite a strong network of friends who encouraged him to go out and start having fun again, he felt that he needed to spend some time alone, let go of the life he dreamt to have with his wife, letting go of some of their common projects, and selling their house, before being able to consider spending time again with his friends or meet new ones. We can’t move because we are unable to let go of the past and can’t see what might be ahead. As we learn to accept that the old is no more and that we must embrace the new, we are in transition.
As a coach, I found that practicing mindfulness can also sometimes help in a transition phase, especially with deep emotional consequences. Mindfulness helps us letting go and breaking away from any attachments. The judging experiences, which sometimes trap us in the past or the future, don’t become a lens through which we determine our objectives. In mindfulness practice, we let our experience be what it is. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are”.
How coaching helps
Change does not occur by trying to be what one isn’t but by dully embracing what one is. Jon Kabat-Zinn
Any attempt to implement a change comes with roadblocks. This is where coaches can help, as a catalyst to support the client in accelerating the transition process.
What could be some of the obstacles a client can encounter? And how can a coach help?
- Invoke the client's imagination by visualizing an image of the future state. What do they see? How do they feel? What are the benefits of the change? Help them mentally leap over the bridge between what is and what could be.
- When clients don’t see the need to change, help them become aware of how the reality looks like with no change as opposed to how it could be.
- When clients resist change, ask your client "Is there any aspect of your new life that is consistent with your beliefs? What is the cost of maintaining the status quo? How can they trust themselves more? How might they see this change in a more positive light?"
- When clients procrastinate: make the client accountable to someone, and set action triggers. Make them start with small steps: "What is a small step you take towards your goal?"
- When clients have negative projections, help them find the positive side.
- When clients' motivation declines, help them building habits, and remind them how much they have already achieved.
- When clients feel overwhelmed, let your clients know that progress doesn't always come easily and that they will encounter some failures along the way. This is normal.
- Help your client identify depleting activities that might take time and energy during this transition, and find an accountability partner, asking for support of friends, colleagues, or family.
- The client needs to have a plan but should expect surprises—some pleasant, others not so much. It’s all part of the process. How can they increase their capacity to handle ambiguity?
- Encourage the client to celebrate the steps along the way, not just the final outcome.
To further help people move through the transition effectively, the coach needs to understand critical elements such as the individual’s perception of the past, present, and future, their experience of change and how it impacted them, how they coped, and what they may lose as part of the change and what will they gain.
Coaching is about change but the specific focus is to help an individual change a mindset, develop a skill set, and/or apply it. On an individual level, coaching supports this change process by raising his client’s self-awareness through the power of mindful listening and powerful questions such as the one hereafter:
- What significant changes are you presently facing?
- What is the vision/future state? What am I striving for?
- How will these changes impact you and the world around you?
- What will you need to let go of to make these changes happen? What is over? What is ending for me and/or others?
- Did you let go of everything?
- What is the price of making this change in and are you willing to pay it?
- What will you potentially lose or gain?
- What needs would have to get met in other ways?
- What specific emotions are you experiencing as a result of the changes?
- Is it your initiative that brings things to term or do events just happen to you? ("I had no choice", " The situation was beyond my control")
- How has your behavior changed?
- What will actually be different because of the change?
- What are the actions that we need to take to fulfill the vision?
As coaches, we also know that to create lasting change in a client’s life, we must learn to coach the client, not their current circumstance or the content. We must learn how to coach the “who” not the “what” if we want to facilitate sustainable change. We must ask the client to look at their beliefs, attitudes, and values as these all inform their way of being. We must help the client identify the gap between who she/he is being now versus who she/he wants to be in the future. The gap is where the opportunity for transformational change lies. Asking, “Who do you have to be to create that? How does that person think and behave? What does that person do?” helps focus the client on the “who.”
As Zig Ziglar, a world-renowned motivational speaker, judiciously said, “The bottom line is that you’ve got to ‘be’ before you can ‘do’, and ‘do’ before you can ‘have’. It is about being the person you want to be and then doing what that person would do to have what they would have. To create the outcome and results you desire, you must perform the actions and exhibit the behaviors that lead to it and hold the mindset and awareness that support it.”
While some individuals may deal with change better than others, in all cases the assistance of a professional coach makes the transition more assured and even helps prepare the individual for future transitions.
Change can only be successful if it happens with transition
We all are consistent in the way we react to change. According to Bridges, “what you bring with you to a transitional situation is the style you have developed for dealing with endings.” Regardless of how we respond, our current reaction to a change event is shaped by how we responded previously.
In short, managing change is learned behavior. Which means that if it’s not serving us, we can modify it!
Our lives are in a continuous stage of transition. It is thus important to develop the skills to live in transition, and coaching can help. Transition periods can be the most productive periods of our lives if we understand that letting go is not dismissing what has happened. Transition is, instead, the period in which we accept what has happened and we search for the path to follow forward. That search can lead us to new and creative ways to live our lives.
As a coach, we can help a client to become aware and manage the natural and thus inevitable phases of transitions in his/her life in a smooth way. The client will discover by himself that if he resists change, he will only create more pain. We can resist change to a certain degree, but that perpetuates suffering internally for ourselves. You might get away with that for a few months, maybe even a few years, maybe even a decade or two, but the underlying, unaddressed imbalance is still at play. The objective here is to help the client understand that it’s not the situation that needs to change, but the relationship that he has to the situation. Progressively, the client will see new possibilities emerging from this new mindset.
Ultimately, there is no authorized universal reference manual with standardized diagnoses and transition coaching solutions neatly defined. Coaching is inherently dynamic; that is one of the fundamental qualities of coaching and a reason for its power as a medium for change. Coaching is personal. It creates a unique, empowered relationship for a change.
A Gestalt perspective of coaching: a case for being more yourself, Marie-Anne Chidiac
Au Coeur de la tourmente, la pleine conscience, Jon Kabat-Zinn
Becoming a professional life coach: lessons from the Institute for Life Coach Training, Patrick Williams, Diane S. Menendez
Change: learn to love it, learn to lead it, Richard Gerver
Developmental Coaching – Life Transitions and Generational Perspectives, Edited by Stephen Palmer and Sheila Panchal
Essential Career Transition Coaching Skills, Caroline Talbott
The Pragmatics of Magic – The Work of Gestalt Coaching, Dorothy E. Siminovitch, and Ann M. Van Eron
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges
Now what? Know who you are, get