By: Susan Mahoney
I consider myself an agent of change.
I’ve spent most of my career as a consultant, helping organizations improve sales results via some kind of change in training, coaching, technology, or leadership. For these interventions to deliver results, the people involved also need to change their beliefs, practices, and behaviors. However, most people don’t like change, even if it might result in a better reality.
Systems only change if the people on the ground believe, support, and actively engage in the change effort. It comes down to each individual deciding if they are willing to put the effort in toward a new way.
The Greeks have a word for this change process: metanoia. It is the fundamental shift of a person’s whole inner nature, mental, emotional, and moral state. Some have translated it to be a spiritual conversion.
Almost everyone resists change
In my coaching practice, I am passionate about supporting people on their transformation journeys: whether it’s a challenge in their current work environment, the desire for a new role, a brand-new job, starting a business, or even taking a sabbatical of sorts.
Sometimes, people proactively seek a change: “I want to grow and try something new.” Other times, they did not choose the change: “I was demoted or fired.” Either way, the individual must understand and work through the change at a deep level to come out whole on the other side.
Along the way, the people I coach begin to examine other parts of their lives: relationships, lifestyle, longings, communication patterns, physical and mental health practices. At a foundational level, emotions surface that can cause resistance, such as fear, anger, and remorse.
Even coaches are not immune to these feelings. As I completed my masters in organizational leadership and earned a coaching certification from the Hudson Institute of Coaching, I experienced resistance to change even while proactively seeking it. My opposition included fear, doubt, listening to old stories and hanging on to ego wins that were not going to serve me.
Our resistance to change can be insidious. It shows itself in sneaky ways, such as arguing with a spouse or friend to create conflict and then blaming them for preventing our growth. Really!
How to overcome resistance
Coaching can’t be effective unless the coachee is willing:
Willing to learn – and unlearn.
Willing to go deep to understand.
Willing to try new things.
Willing to risk.
And, most importantly, willing to work on their inherent resistance that is guaranteed to surface along the way.
There’s a thought-provoking word for resistance—homeostasis, which comes from the Greek words for “same” and “steady.” It refers to any process living things use to actively maintain relatively stable conditions necessary for survival, according to Scientific American. Homeostasis is the natural tendency to keep things just as they are. It can exist within each person and a system. In the middle of our change effort, when the old way is undone and the new way not yet embedded, there is a strong pull back to the familiar, the known, even if it doesn’t get us the results we want. Change requires energy, and we tend to backslide when it feels difficult or scary.
The key to understanding homeostasis is to be prepared for it. Then, if it begins to happen, it is not seen as a failure, but our natural reactions to the unknown.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist and teacher, developed the “change cycle” based on six stages of grief. Initially designed for people receiving and reacting to catastrophic news, individuals going through change have also successfully applied this model. In what stage of change are we stuck? Anger? Depression? When we get stuck, it is often a sign of resistance. Once we can identify it, we can begin the process to work through it.
Understand your habits, understand your identity, change your life
One of my favorite books during my change process was “Transitions: Making Sense Of Life’s Changes,” by William Bridges. He proposes three phases of transition: Endings, Neutral Zone, Beginnings. It’s challenging to embrace a new beginning if we haven’t defined and completed our endings and spent enough time in the neutral zone. The neutral zone is where we explore, take risks, persevere in the face of difficulties, commit time and energy, go beyond our comfort zones, and step into the unknown. Many of us skip this step, seeking a solution to reduce the discomfort of the unknown. This is another form of resistance. Then, we wake up a few years later and start the change process all over again because we only put a band-aid on our desire for a new direction.
As we move through the change process, we become more aware of our habits. Our habits comprise our personality and our way of being in the world. However, they can restrict our way of seeing, interpreting, and acting. Habits can also create our internal stories, our identities, and the self-conceptions that we hold to be true about ourselves. Building new habits and unlearning old and unhelpful habits is necessary for sustainable change. As we change our habits, our identity begins to shift. For example, if a new leader has a habit of being too reactive—and is committed to changing this habit—his identity begins to shift to embrace this new way of being.
Embracing change, rather than resisting it
Ultimately, overcoming internal resistance and truly embracing change requires letting go of old habits and old identities that no longer serve us. Is it worth it? That depends. Our lives are finite. How much of your life are you willing to feel stuck, unsatisfied, or ignoring the longings that won’t go away.
There is no easy way through change, so knowing this can help us generate the energy to do the vital work.
My personal experience with change has grounded my belief in the power of effective coaching. A coach’s guidance can make the process less painful and more successful.
The question is not if change will happen—change is inevitable. The question is how you can approach change and overcome resistance to reinvent yourself.