Advice from an Expert: ‘Responding to change’

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Our conpher expert contributor this week is Natalie James, a professional development coach, higher education consultant and founding Director of Research Coach Ltd.

Responding to Change

As I write this piece, our world is in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, which has seen us having to rapidly respond to one of the most major global changes in generations. Whilst this change is unprecedented, the range of responses we are experiencing ourselves and witnessing in our colleagues, friends and family are natural human reactions to change.

As a cognitive species, we are often (consciously or subconsciously) resistant to change, wanting to do everything in our power to maintain stability, fearful of the uncertainty that accompanies change. Our own and others’ emotional responses to change can often be surprising to us. We might be overcome with feelings of anger, or anxiety; we may feel like hopeless victims of our situation. We might try to wrestle with our emotions, thinking that we should ‘just get on with it’ or we might externalise our feelings, looking for others to blame. We may even choose to deny the change altogether, opting to act as if nothing is altered while things change around us, or we might find ourselves feeling frustrated with others getting ‘worked up’ about the situation and wonder why they can’t see the amazing opportunities before them in this new scenario.   

Do you recognise any of the responses above? Well, congratulations – you officially qualify as a human being!     

Figure 1: The stages of change (adapted from the ‘Change Curve’ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross)

Stage 1: The initial shock of change may cause feelings such as fear, distress, numbness, confusion. This might be followed by denial that the change is happening, preferring to focus on the past, the status quo, feeling that change is unnecessary.

Stage 2: The initial shock wears off as reality of the change becomes apparent. You may feel angry and look for someone to blame for the situation or be frustrated with responses of others. You might experience a loss of morale, low mood or anxiety about what the future holds.

Stage 3: You gradually accept and adapt to the new situation. You might experiment with new approaches at first to build confidence in the new scenario. You might start to support others who are struggling to adapt and start demonstrating commitment to new ways of working/being. Eventually the change becomes normalised.

change is difficult

The fact is, change is difficult, and it elicits a wide range of responses and emotions. Whilst we might not all experience the full range of emotions when confronted with change – in reality most of us will move through some or all of the following phased responses to change, all of which are completely normal, temporary phases on the route to becoming adapted to the new situation.  

The rate we move through each of these stages and whether we experience some or all of them is very individual. Likewise, the thoughts, feelings and behaviours accompanying each stage vary significantly between people, depending on a whole host of variables that make up each person’s specific identity, personality, context and circumstances. Consequently our experiences of change are as unique to us as our own fingerprints – even if, at the macro-level, the same change is happening to everyone.

At no time has this been more apparent to me than in the current COVID-19 crisis, reflecting on my own responses and those of my friends, family and coaching clients. Despite us all adjusting to the same lockdown conditions, and faced with the health threat of the same virus, every one of us is experiencing this situation differently and exhibiting a whole spectrum of responses. Some have rapidly accepted the change, adjusting to and enjoying the new ways of life and work; others (including myself) are struggling with the realities of juggling multiple work, health and family responsibilities and feeling very anxious about the implications for productivity; some are feeling anger and frustration at the responses of our government or are facing severe financial or work-related anxiety due to threats to their employment and others are preferring to try to maintain previous ways of life at all costs.

our experiences of change are so unique

The fact that our experiences of change are so unique, means that, although we all naturally do it, it is not generally helpful to make comparisons between ourselves and others during times of change. Because there are so many complex variables at play in defining how an individual responds to change, it is (a) highly unlikely that you will be making a fair comparison when considering how you are managing compared to someone else, and (b) highly likely that you will place harsher judgements and expectations on yourself than you would place onto others, again biasing any comparison you are trying to make.

Instead of comparing yourself to others when responding to change, it is far more helpful to reflect and acknowledge where you are in the change process and consider things you might do to make progress through the different phases of change (see some ideas below). Another important point is that although some of these phases of change might be distressing or uncomfortable, it is vital to make space for them, acknowledge them as part of the change process and, if helpful, get appropriate support for managing the accompanying thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Doing so will enable you to effectively process the associated emotions and proactively move forward. Denying your thoughts and feelings, whilst potentially reducing discomfort in the short-term, may have significant detrimental longer-term effects for your wellbeing and ability to move forwards and will likely substantially extend the timeframe that it takes to adapt to the new situation.

tips to help you navigate change

So what can you do to effectively respond and adapt to change? Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers to this complex issue and if enacting change was easy I’d be out of a job! However, below are a few tips that I hope you’ll find helpful as you navigate your way through changes in your life and/or as you support others who are experiencing change:

  1. Practice acceptance: Try to be accepting of your own and others’ feelings and behaviours during times of change, even if they are confusing or frustrating. Remember that we each have our own unique way of responding to change, and it is normal to experience a wide variety of emotions.
  2. Fact check: During times of change, rumours and speculation are abound. Take time to seek out the facts from appropriate trusted sources before making assumptions or taking action. 
  3. Avoid making comparisons: Everyone will have their own unique set of circumstances that will govern how they respond to change. Instead of making comparisons with others, concentrate on things that might help you and others move through the change process.
  4. Seek support: Change can bring uncomfortable and sometimes distressing feelings and responses. Whilst this is normal, it is not always straightforward to deal with on your own. It is often useful to seek support from trusted people or organisations that can help you as you adapt to the new situation.
  5. Concentrate on what is within your control: To counter feelings of powerlessness, try to identify small, practical, achievable steps to make progress and/or to improve your situation (or that of others). The more energy you put into the things you have influence over, the stronger you will start to feel in the face of the larger scale issues.  
  6. Reflect on and learn from experiences:  Change is inevitable part of life and is a valuable learning experience. Take regular opportunities to reflect upon your own and others’ responses and develop new awareness and understanding to implement when the next change comes along, or indeed, when you are pioneering future change.

“Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference”

– Taken from ‘The Serenity Prayer’ – Reinhold Niebuhr

About Natalie James

Natalie James is a professional development coach, higher education consultant and founding Director of Research Coach Ltd. Working exclusively within the higher education sector, Natalie supports the professional development of a large cohort of academic researchers (PhD to Professor) through her one-to-one coaching, team coaching and group training workshops. With over 15 years experience of research and higher education environments, her clients appreciate the balance of ‘insider knowledge’ with the supportive coaching spaces she creates for them to explore their professional challenges and goals. For more information about services visit ResearchCoach.


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