The Cycle of Change

[ed. note: I received the following from Karen* in November 2001. It's an interesting overview of how people might respond to your coming out, modeled in part on the "stages of grief" and Kevin Craine's Cycle of Change, but with advice for identifying and handling the way people might respond.

You move clockwise around the circle, starting at the comfort zone. The first attempt at making changes is usually met with resistance, which in time gives way to success. This puts you back in the comfort zone and ready to face another change in life. --AJ]

Coming out to people can be viewed from many different angles. One thing is certain, you are announcing a dramatic and fundamental change about how to view you. Your message has a fundamental impact on your and their lives. This text is an attempt to give some insight in typical reactions to changes and help you with this aspect of coming out.

Resistance to change

Most people resist change. Any change. Especially big changes and changes which they cannot understand or see the consequences of. Very few enjoy changes because of the change itself. Resistance to change in people's lives is as natural as is change to life itself (in order to improve). Most people experience a big change as being dragged away from a warm, familiar, comfortable and controllable environment and being thrown into a cold, unfamiliar, hostile one. The process people go through when changes happen is very similar to grieving for a loved one which has died. The changes you are about to undergo (or have undergone) and which you are about to announce (or have announced) are no exception to this rule. To some extent, your environment has to deal with the loss of someone and at the same time accept a new person in place.

As it is so much part of human nature, not much can be done to prevent these reactions from happening. However, knowing and understanding how this process affects others and also yourself makes you better prepared for what is coming. You can better help others and understand them, which is more than half the work in avoiding damaging conflicts.

The Comfort Zone

When no change is happening, people reside in the comfort zone. Depending on their situation, they might feel that they are in control of their lives, their environment and work. They are happy with the way things are and evolve. They feel confident in their skills and feel capable of handling situations. Of course, many others do not have the feeling of being so much in control of their lives and are not so happy with the way things are, but they know what to expect. They more less live with how things are and possibly are bored with it. Common to both situations is some form of routine in personal life and at work which is comforting.

The NO Zone

The NO zone is the zone people enter first when you bring your message. In very lucky situations, people can go through it so quickly that you hardly notice. In most cases, this zone is the zone of intense emotional reactions. Listening and showing comprehension for these emotions and supporting people is very important.

Shock

Traumatic experiences can induce a reaction of physical or psychological shock. This is a first defense reaction of the body and mind. The body no longer feels pain and stops bleeding while the mind starts ignoring parts of reality. Especially in life threatening situations, this increases the chance for survival. People in shock behave like in a trance, move and speak slowly and can have a staring expression. This reaction of shock can take a long time to subside. People in a physical shock are best helped by protecting them with a warm blanket. The best approach to a psychological shock is also to cover them with a "warm" emotional blanket. As part of their perception is blocked from their consciousness, it makes no sense to try to reason with them. Listen and try to understand what and where they feel pain. Do not try to negate or diminish it, but on the contrary, acknowledge it. Acknowledge that you understand. This will bring people back to reality and give way to further stages in the process.

Denial

When returning to reality, the next line of defense of the mind is to try to deny the situation it registers. It is trying to protect itself and keep away the pain by telling itself there are mistakes in the perception :

  • "I'm probably not really awake."
  • "I've not heard well."
  • "This is not happening to me."
  • "I'm having a bad dream."
  • "This will go away soon," etc.

At this stage, people will try to convince you that what you are telling them is not true. This triggers the typical reactions like

  • "You have been mislead or brainwashed by others."
  • "You are under some form of stress and it will go away."
  • "You will need to see a doctor who will cure of this." etc.

This behavior can be very strong, very insistent and can take the form of a ritual. Most often, people in this stage will look for support from others to convince themselves and you of their view. Although tiresome and difficult, this phase of denial is necessary because it gives people time to collect themselves and their thoughts.

Paralysis

Having accepted the changes as being real, the stress of not understanding or not knowing what to expect, very commonly causes a paralysis. People tend to continue what they are doing and do not seem to respond anymore to the situation at hand although they are quite aware of it. The danger of this stage is that you might conclude that someone has accepted the situation. Nothing is less true. The reality has been accepted, but it has in no way been digested yet. In fact, this process has yet to start!

Anger

Although it seems contradictory, anger is often the first step in learning to deal with a newly accepted reality. It is an instinctive reaction to deal with fear or pain. An angry reaction is meant to scare an aggressor and make the threat go away. Anger is a powerful emotion which can also suppress the pain by pushing it in the background. As long as there is anger, there is no pain. To deal with anger, you have to understand where the anger comes from, what produces it. Therefore, you have to step in the others person's shoes. Anger is difficult to deal with, as it will look for any object to focus on. Angry people can behave like a trapped animal and claw at anything in range, especially known vulnerable spots. Again, showing understanding is usually the most constructive approach.

Anger may manifest itself in many different forms, such as resentment, frustration or sabotage. These more secretive ways are probably the most difficult to deal with. At this stage, resistance to the changes you have announced has gone to its climax. For me, this is the most difficult emotion to deal with.

Hurt

When the initial responses to the changes have subsided, pain is what is felt next. The stages described until now are rarely completely distinct from each other., especially pain, which can turn rapidly into anger and back.

Reactions to pain are very individual. Some talk, some sleep, some drink, some retreat into silence, some relapse into depression. Many people feel they are sinking downwards and fear they won't pull out of the dive. However, they often find ways of coming to terms with the pain and enter the next stage.

Very often, people try to spare others by not talking about the pain the other experiences. Very often, however, this builds up a stress in the relationship about the "unspoken." Talking about each other's pain can help to relieve it. It requires some courage and is certainly not easy. Sharing pain can help to diminish it.

The GAP

People in the gap are on their way to healing. They are learning to deal with the news you have brought them. They know that there is probably no way back. Instead they are wondering what the impact is for them, how they fit in the picture. Of course, it's very important that this happens. It is important that you can give a clear picture of the future and have some answers to the questions they have. When in this gap, people are not necessarily resisting the idea you brought them any longer, but they are somehow waiting. On the other hand, they haven't accepted it either. Being very clear and confident at this stage is key to bringing people to acceptance. This is the stage where you have to talk a lot and start paying much more attentions to facts, while dealing more with emotions previously.

Bargaining

Bargaining is a typical behavior for people in the gap. In order to bargain, people must have accepted reality and know that it cannot be undone completely anymore. Some reactions could be :

  • "Must you really have an operation?"
  • "Why not do you not just dress yourself as a woman from time to time?"
  • "Can't just some hormones help ?"
  • "Can you not deal with your feelings in an another way?"
  • "Are there no alternatives ?"
  • "Do you really have to have this treatment now?"
  • "Can you not wait until such and such time?"

Bargaining is a way to postpone the inevitable. People will bargain for ways to get back to the comfort zone. Responding clearly and decisively to bargains is part of giving answers people are looking for.

Depression

Depression is also a typical symptom of being in the gap. It is delicate to deal with. Depending on the source of the depression, you should react very differently to it. Both types of depression can be present in the same person.

People can be depressed because of the worries they have, such as their place in the picture, the impact on their day to day life, etc. In that case, pointing to some positive aspect of the changes and trying to relate to it can be an adequate reaction. The purpose of your actions should be to cheer them up.

On the other hand, people can be grieving about what they will lose (or have lost). In this case, this an emotional step towards acceptance. Grieving for what has bee lost will help to accept the new much more easily. Your reaction should not be to try to cheer them up. This would deny the person the right to go through this emotional step. Acknowledgement of the grieving is far more appropriate in this case.

Anxiety

A third form of gap behavior is anxiety. Not knowing what the new situation will bring or how it will evolve, one becomes unsure. Part of them is accepting the new idea about you, while part is still clinging to the old one. Again, clarity, self-confidence, honest and open communication are the best approaches to deal with anxiety. You must have the courage to describe reality as closely as possible as you know what reality will be. Involvement in your evolution gives people insight and removes the dark corners where their fear resides.

The GO Zone

Acceptance

When someone has left behind the past and has accepted the idea about the new you, this person has entered the GO zone. From this moment on, everything goes more easily. Bringing people together and organizing a symbolic event, a ritual, to break with the past and celebrate the future can be very helpful (e.g. a rebirth party or something similar). This is up to your creativity.

Excitement, Clarity, New strength

Having reached this point of the cycle, people start to get new ideas, see new perspectives. Emerging from a negative period, the mind sometimes looks for deeper meanings. The healing is taking place, the body seems stronger, the mind is more determined. There can be a sense of relief. With this renewed strength and with these new perspectives, people start setting new goals for themselves and start to see new opportunities. A creative tension arises. People might start coming to you with ideas on how to do certain things and how to deal with certain situations. People start positively thinking with you.

Credits

There are many presentations possible of the same concept. The presentation given here is based on work by Kevin Craine about managing change within an organization. Various other ideas (including my own) have been added and made more specific to the subject at hand.

Editor's note: This model is indeed very flexible and works for all sorts of situations.

On January 17, 2002, Kevin Craine sent me a brief note: "Wow, what an unexpected thing. While your area of focus is significantly different than mine, I am pleased that this material has been of some benefit to you and your constituents. It verifies that the principles can be applied in a wide range of areas."

For more information on this and other useful concepts, I recommend visiting Kevin's site Designing a Document Strategy, including the original format for the Cycle of Change model. -AJ

* Karen is a pen name I've used to protect the author's privacy.