Coping With Change
How to Make the Best of a Stressful Situation
Chances are that, at some point, a change in your life has been so profound that you've wondered how you're going to cope.
Change can be positive (such as business growth), painful (losing your job), out of your control (manager replaced), or a choice you've made (relocating). And your reaction to that change might vary from excitement to fear, resentment or a confusing mixture of emotions.
In all cases, your attitude to change will likely determine how you experience it. So, in this article, we'll explore the different ways in which people tend to approach change, the reactions that you might have to change, and how you can best cope with it.
Types of Coping With Change
Studies have shown that people cope with change, of whatever kind, in two ways: "escape coping" or "control coping."
Escape coping is based on avoidance. You take specific actions to help you to avoid the difficulties of change. For instance, you might deliberately miss training for a new working process, or show up too late to attend a meeting about an upcoming restructure.
You'll likely trash letters from your HR department about layoffs, or ignore calls from a co-worker who's just got the promotion you wanted. Some people even take refuge from change in alcohol or drug misuse.
Control coping, on the other hand, is positive and proactive. You refuse to behave like a "victim" of change. Instead, you manage your feelings, get support, and then do whatever you can to be part of the change.
In reality, most of us respond to major change with a mixture of escape and control coping. But control coping is generally the better option to choose, as it is impossible to avoid the reality of change for long without becoming exhausted or damaging your reputation.
Stages of Reacting to Change
Change can be difficult because it can challenge how we think, how we work, the quality of our relationships, and even our physical security or sense of identity. We usually react to this challenge in four stages:
- Shock and disorientation.
- Anger and other emotional responses.
- Coming to terms with the new situation.
- Acceptance and moving forward.
But our progression through these stages is rarely simple or linear. We might get stuck in one stage, or advance quickly and then slip back. And there is often no clear-cut, decisive move from one stage to another. Shock can shade gradually into anger, for example, with no obvious break between the two.
Let's look at the four stages in detail.
Stage 1: Shock and Disorientation
Experiencing sudden or big change can feel like a physical blow. For example, a company restructure may sweep away roles and relationships that have existed for years, while a bereavement or health issue can change your fundamental outlook on life.
So, in the initial stage of coping, you'll likely feel confused and uncertain. Your first priority should be to seek reliable information and to make sense of the situation.
Ask for updates from your manager and HR department, research other people's similar experiences, and talk through your concerns with family and friends. If available, contact your union, an ERG or other relevant support group. Be sure to distance yourself, though, from gossip and rumors – they are often baseless and negative, and will likely cause you more pain, not less.
Carrying out a SWOT analysis could help you to examine objectively the level of threat you're facing. Are there potential benefits that you'd overlooked? Might an enforced change of role allow you to learn a valuable new skill, or to work with an inspiring manager, for example?
You'll likely not reach any firm conclusions at this stage, but try to remain as positive as you can.
Stage 2: Anger and Other Emotional Responses
Initial disorientation at the prospect of change usually gives way to a wave of strong emotions. You might be angry about a downgrade of your specialist role, or fearful about the impact that a layoff will have on your family.
Even if the change in your circumstances is something that you've instigated yourself, you may find yourself swinging between optimism and pessimism. This is quite natural, and it's a normal step on the way to resolving your situation.
It's important to avoid suppressing your emotions, but it's equally key to manage them. So, acknowledge the way that you feel, but be sure to assess what you can express openly (such as general comments about a project's progress) and what you should probably keep to yourself (opinions about a colleague's performance, for example).
In time, Lazarus and Folkman's Transactional Model could help you to build a dispassionate picture of your situation and how to proceed. Meanwhile, don't be too surprised or embarrassed if you find yourself in tears at work.
It's never too late to improve your ability to bounce back from difficulties, so read our article on How to Stay Calm in a Crisis, and follow the advice in our self-assessment quiz How Resilient Are You?
Stage 3: Coming to Terms With the New Situation
During this stage, your focus will likely start to shift away from what you've lost and toward what's new. This process may be slow, and you might be reluctant to acknowledge it, but it's an essential part of coping with change. The key here is to make a commitment to move on.
Start to explore more deeply what the change means. Your instinct may be to behave resentfully and not to cooperate, but this will likely do yourself and others harm. So, search for and emphasize the positive aspects of your developing situation. At the same time, be patient, as coming to terms with change is a gradual process.
It's vital that you avoid pretending that everything's OK if it's not. So, if you find yourself regressing to Stage 2, give yourself time to recover. Use affirmations to raise your confidence, and ask for help from friends or a mentor.
Stage 4: Acceptance and Moving Forward
This is the stage in which you come to fully accept your changed circumstances.
Acceptance doesn't mean giving up entirely on your former situation. You'll have valuable memories, skills and relationships to carry forward, but the point is that you are moving on, whether in your career or in your wider life.
Draw up a personal mission statement and a legacy statement to stay on track. Then set yourself goals and create an action plan to make the most of your new situation.
Dealing With Change in Your Team
If you're a manager, our article The Change Curve can help you to implement change successfully by supporting your people appropriately through these four stages.
Change comes in many forms, but leaving behind what we know and are used to is almost always stressful, even if we choose the change ourselves.
Coping strategies generally fall into two categories: "escape" and "control." Most people use a mixture of both at various points in their response to change, but control strategies are the ones with the greatest long-term benefits.
We tend to react to change in four main stages: shock, emotional responses, coming to terms, and acceptance.
People are more likely to progress through these stages successfully if they acknowledge their feelings, explore the facts, aim to remain positive, and draw on support networks, while always giving themselves time to adapt.
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