The nature of change

Selected highlights from my research into the nature of change as part of a PGCert in Business and Personal Coaching.

I am in the process of completing the academic element of my coaching qualification. Over the past few months I’ve been working on an essay for a module called Coaching to Enable Change. This reflective essay looks at the role of the coach in facilitating lasting change. As well as drawing on experiences from my coaching practice, it’s grounded in theory. Before I addressed the factors affecting change (ie what holds us back and what moves us forward), I wanted to explore the nature of change. Here are some selected highlights from my research.

Change and transition

The distinction that William Bridges makes between change and transition is a good place to start.

Change is situational, it’s a new job, moving home, starting a new relationship etc.

Transition is psychological, it’s the emotional experience we go through as a result of those situational changes in our lives.

These two terms are often used interchangeably but I fear that means we’re not necessarily considering both aspects when we think about how we approach and manage change.

To give an example, when I changed careers I focused on the situational aspects; I reduced my hours at work, enrolled on a course, and set up a business. All the practical stuff was sorted, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wrangling involved with the shift in identity from employee to self-employed.

Stubborn change

Roz Munro uses the term stubborn change to describe the things we’ve tried on multiple occasions to change but have not yet succeeded. I find this useful to help shift my thinking from change as a linear process to a cycle. It’s a cycle that we may go through again and again before the change sticks. Each time we learn something new and iterate, gradually inching our way towards our goal.

First- and second-order change

The concept of first- and second-order change, taken from community psychology, puts change on a continuum. At one end are relatively minor (first-order) changes where the focus is on adapting within the existing system. At the other end are more significant (second-order) changes where the focus is on addressing the cause of the problem and rethinking the whole system.

It seems pretty obvious that first-order change is easier to achieve, but it only addresses the symptoms of a problem and could therefore be seen as more fragile or prone to breaking. While it may be a necessary step towards more significant change, unless we go deeper and challenge the root cause, it’s unlikely we’ll make any lasting change.

Conclusion

What’s become ever more clear to me in the course of writing this essay is just how complex the process of change (and I use this term ubiquitously to encompass both the situational and psychological aspects) is. This short post only scratches the surface of it but I hope it gives you something to think about the next time you try to understand why you’re finding it difficult to make a change in your life.

I’ll return to the topic of change in future articles where we’ll start to think about how to overcome some of these challenges.

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