6 stages of change

“Surely there is something in the unruffled calm of nature that overawes our little anxieties and doubts; the sight of the deep-blue sky and the clustering stars above seems to impart a quiet to the mind.” Jonathan Edwards

For many people the thought of change is something that pulls them back into the closet of darkness.  Not so much the thought of making a change but making change happen.   Change invokes fear, a kind of fear that increases stress to the point of creating anger, grief, sadness or even withdrawal.   Think about it, when was the last time you were asked to change how did it feel?

So, where does change start?  For some people change starts with someone else making a change.   That’s right someone else needs to change more than you need to change.   It sounds like “If that other person would change I would feel a lot better”, or “If they asked me first about the change I would tell them what should have been done”.     People in this early change phase are really acting like victims, unable to control themselves they desire to control others and blame others when things go wrong.   You might know some people who are constantly blaming others and circumstances for their feelings.     This phase of change is called precontemplation, a place of denial.   Why me?   “Look over there, look at that.”   Someone in precontemplation wants anything but to talk about change, especially personal change.

“I don’t know how”, or “Something is stopping me”, these people are in the stage known as contemplation and while they can acknowledge that they should change they are only thinking about change.    There is a restless energy about making a change, a feeling of unease and dissatisfaction, but not enough energy to actually start the change process.    It is almost like having packed for a trip with a planned destination but no ticket to get there.    Here they are standing at the curb, bags packed, ready and waiting to go.    Someday they will actually make the trip, it is anybody’s guess when that will happen.   Have you experienced this phase in your life?   Maybe you are there right now.

When people are ready to make a change they are putting more focus on the solution to their problem than the problem itself.   There is a marked energy increase but not enough to actually implement change.   These people are fence sitters, they are ready to jump but not quite.   This is a place where the thought of “what will happen to me” frequently enter the thought stream.   “What if it doesn’t work then what?”     People in the preparation phase may make small steps but not enough to make a real change.

Eventually the desire is greater than the pain of staying in place.   The action phase is where people make a commitment to changing their behavior.    So, in a burst of activity the individual starts taking steps and making progress towards change.    Great progress is being made and then, and then it stops.   The change has been going well but suddenly the lack of outside encouragement to push through the change is missing or disappears.   The action phase can cause burnout if there isn’t someone who can act as a cheerleader in the change process.    For those who maintain the energy to move forward change will happen.

For those who make the behavioral change and have passed that initial burst of energy required to make the change the next phase is the maintenance phase.  As important as the change is maintaining the new habit is important or it is possible that the change will reverse and the old habit will come back. You’ve probably seen this happen many times yourself.   People will go on a diet and lose a lot of weight and then before long that weight comes back.  Without a strong maintenance phase reversal is possible.

With effort and positive reinforcement people transition into the final phase or termination.  When people reach this phase the behavioral change is permanent and is the habit.

Organizations that are trying to create change need to be aware that people transition through the  phases at different rates.   It is easy for leaders who have contemplated and pushed for change to grow weary of the change effort and forget about reinforcing the change and helping people move through action to maintenance.    Organizations that fail to provide strong reinforcement programs that are positive and reassuring will end up falling back into the previous behaviors.

Too often organizations fail to realize how large some changes are and the impact change can have on its employees.   Businesses may assume that everyone is going to grab hold of the change initiative and move right into action.    Leaders or managers will be asked to ensure that the change happens quickly and if it doesn’t blame the individual contributors for not taking the change seriously.

People who are dealing with significant changes in their lives may have external events put before them that push them into the precontemplation stage.     Changes in career, life circumstances, major moves, death, illness or other high stress events push many people into the precontemplation phase.  Moving out of precontemplation requires shifting the energy towards the positive, lots of encouragement and plenty of success stories need to be used as an intrinsic motivator.

Each phase of change requires different incentives and rewards so that falling back into previous patterns can be avoided.  Again, organizations need to properly manage change as people will not all be in the same phase.  Mixing the incentives and messages to align with each stage a person is going through should be considered.

Where are you stuck?   What changes are you avoiding?   What is it costing you not to change?   What are the benefits of not changing?

The change process

1. Precontemplation

2. Contemplation

3. Preparation

4. Action

5. Maintenance

6. Termination

If change seems daunting to you, find someone who can work with you through the change.   Friends aren’t always the best people to support your change effort because of their emotional connection to you.   Try finding someone who isn’t going to judge you during the change and someone who can support you through the change.

What are you thinking about changing?   Write them down and identify each stage of change you are in.

 

For more information, read “Changing for Good”  Prochask, Norcross & Diclemente (1994)

Love is the biggest eraser there is. Love erases even the deepest imprinting because love goes deeper than anything. If your childhood imprinting was very strong, and you keep saying: “It’s their fault. I can’t change,” you stay stuck. Louise Hay

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