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Coaching through the Emotions of Change

December 10, 2014

“The heart is Half a Prophet” Jewish proverb

1326419454_88963cea81_zWe all experience upset, setbacks and what NLP developer Judith DeLozier used to call experiential “bumps in the road”. Perhaps you face a disappointment; things just didn’t turn out the way you though they would. Maybe a presentation didn’t go well, you lose a sale or fail to get that promotion. Rather ironically, as I was writing these thoughts, my lap top decided to shut down so I had to start writing all over again. Sometimes for these smaller setbacks, all it takes is to weather the storm, brush yourself down and get back on that horse.

At other times in life, you may experience a disruption that is more significant, the impact more profound. I’m thinking of life events that are not just about things not going according to plan, but were it seems life its self doesn’t seem to play by the rules. Perhaps it seems like something is taken from you unfairly, or perhaps you do everything right but the world turns out wrong. An unexpected bereavement, a business folding, redundancy or infidelity can feel as if your world and the way it works, are themselves at stake. It’s not just that you are on shaky ground, but the ground its self is not the way you though it was. When the basis of your reality comes into question everything else can come into question too.

A popular model of how people respond to unexpected change was first presented by researcher Kubla-Ross based on her work around bereavement, in the book On Death and Dying (1969). She proposed five stages of response; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are often represented on a graph showing ups and downs, reminiscent of a roller coaster ride. Her model teaches that strong emotions are an understandable response to change and transitory. Even today, this model is commonly taught on leadership programmes, to help leaders deal with organisational change. Executive coaches often use the Kubla-Ross model to work with clients to help them normalise their most uncomfortable feelings.

While a useful starting point, there are many more emotional responses to upset than the Kubla-Ross model describes and the variations are often way more nuanced than her suggestion of five stages. But the emphasis on developing a more accurate sense of reality is something I would wholeheartedly agree with. People facing change often respond in ways that are not helpful for them. They blame others, dismiss or ignore reality; they try to delay the inevitable or try to get back to how things used to be. But there are many more healthy alternatives.

Using your emotions as cues to help you understand and navigate change is a powerful and liberating way to develop yourself. For example, fear is a cue to consider issues of safety, a really useful way to take care of yourself. Feelings of disappointment can help you explore the standards you are applying and help you check that you are being realistic in the situation you now find yourself. Feelings of angst can be very subtle and disturbing. They are often about one’s personal need to develop meaningfully, to have a more satisfying life or career. Appreciating your emotions as natural signals can help you navigate the ups and downs of life and is an important life skill. Much more powerful and ecological than attempting to ignore, displace or dismiss them.

I worked for many years as a career coach. And one of the most challenging situations I saw clients struggle with was an unexpected redundancy. My clients would often feel at the mercy of forces beyond their control. I learned a lot about how clients would construct their identity through their job and how this would be radically challenged with the news that they were about to lose their employment.

One response to these ontological challenges, were the ground you stand on its self is in question, is to appreciate that you construct your sense of ground in the first place. You started as a child to build your sense of reality and at an early age you are not always as sophisticated as you could be, you make mistakes. As you learn through life, you do your best to get by but sometimes you simplify things and develop simple expectations. Facing a profound upset is an opportunity to review the way you have learned to make sense of things in the first place, to review the way you have modelled the world. You may find that many of your basic assumptions are highly reliable. They are very useful most of the time. At other times you might find that you have expectations that are limited in some way. You have the opportunity now to develop a more sophisticated appreciation of a dynamically changing and profoundly interesting world. You may not have chosen those hard lessons but they can leave you all the richer if you embrace the learning from them.

As an executive coach I try to model with care how my clients work when they are successful as well as when they limit themselves. I also try to work with, learn from and develop my own responses to life’s ups and downs. Here are some basics ideas to help deal with the emotions that can come up when we face a change.

1. Identify what you’re really feeling.

Feel your feelings instead of trying to ignore them. Try to be clear about what the feeling is and how it connects to your experience. Honor your feelings as a natural response and your best attempt at looking after yourself.

2. What other thinking and behaviour is going on?

Try to establish what thinking is connected to the feelings. Often we use unreasonable or out of date standards or measurements or apply a rule that limits us. What story do you tell your self? Maybe your logic needs checked.

3. Reality check.

Your feelings are a natural response to the way you are making sense of the world but maybe the way you have been making sense needs reviewed and updated. Are you being biased, ignoring details or not appreciating the whole story? What would you learn if you shifted your perspective to a more holistic view?

4. Appreciate your new direction

Having experienced a change you can now explore things that you can do to improve your situation. It’s also important to explore what new opportunities are available. What lessons and openings do you now have that wouldn’t have been possible had you not experienced the upset.

5. Appreciate continuity

While something significant has changed, much of your life remains the same. Take time to connect to the continuity of values, resources and abilities that will continue to contribute to your new direction. You have been changing your whole life and you still have your whole life to draw from.

I’ve learned a lot about change but it’s a lesson that just keeps on giving. Managing emotions doesn’t mean never feeling bad, it means learning what those difficult feelings are doing for you. In application I show clients how to cope with the immediate situation while at the same time teach them to appreciate that this could be the making of the next great chapter in their life, a new developmental path that would not have been possible without the unexpected change. I try to help them not just turn a page, but to participate in the writing of the whole story.

Please get in touch if you have feelings about this post, we’d love to hear your views, questions and feedback.

To learn more about working successfully with your emotions, consider  1-2-1 coaching.

For more professional and personal development skills consider our experiential training events.

Image courtesy of Tracy Rosen


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