There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the movie, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. Indy is on the brink of what looks like a bottomless chasm. He has to get to the other side where a small passage in the rock leads to the cave of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is the object of his quest, not just for the personal fame and fortune, he needs it to save the life of his father who lies dying in the cave behind him, shot by the evil Nazis.
He looks around. The chasm is far too wide to jump. He has no rope to make a bridge. He cannot go back. He cannot go forward. What does he do? He acts. He has faith. He takes a step into the void, trusting that there is something to support him. He has come so far, there must be something. And there is. His foot steps straight onto a stone bridge which has been invisible up to now because he has been looking straight at it. As the camera pans around to the right, we see the bridge, it had blended into the rocks perfectly before and was invisible to us and to our intrepid hero. He breathes a big sigh of relief, throws some pebbles onto the bridge to mark it out for later and goes across to meet his destiny. Melodrama? Maybe. But it is a great metaphor for transition. We cannot talk about change without dealing with transition.
Coaches help their clients change in the way they want. They often support people in significant life changes. ‘Change’ is very vague word. To have a change, you need a starting point and a different finishing point. When you go from one to the other, this is a change. What we often forget is the journey between the two. Change may seem happen in an instant, but this means there was a period of preparation that the person was not conscious of. Most of the time, we have to embark on a journey that takes time. Yes, we want to change, we may greatly desire to reach the destination of our journey, but we still have to take action, we have to take the first step. Once we have set out, there comes a time when we cannot go back, we have burned our bridges. Yet, we have not yet reached our destination. We are in transition.
Transition is one of the most difficult times to manage when you are making a change, or helping others to make one. A client wants to change, and this has to be at three levels – intellectual, emotional and volitional.
Intellectual – They need good reason to change in their belief system. They have to be convinced that the change will be better than present circumstances. Conscious reason is the least reliable guide to change. An important part of coaching is making sure the change is ecological – good for self and others, while keeping what is good about the present situation.
Emotional – They need the emotion to change. Emotions are more powerful than reason, Reason is in the service of emotion and can find a reason to justify anything. The second important part of coaching for change is engaging the client’s emotions, by harnessing the client’s values. The change has to be important to them; this gives the energy needed to cross the chasm. Another way the coach can help is by getting them to experience the feelings of the desired change through mental imagery.
Volitional – They need the will to change. What holds people back from change is the inertia of habit. The habits may not be bad ones, but they anchor the client to the status quo. Each one like a tiny rope tying the client to the present moment. Each one is weak, but the combined effect is like the ropes that tied Gulliver down in Swift’s allegorical tale, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Shipwrecked on a strange shore, Gulliver goes to sleep on the besach and awakes to find he cannot move, he had been tied down by hundreds of small ropes. He could break any one rope easily, but all of them together kept him tied down. The third part of a coach’s work is to help the client re evaluate their habits and change the ones they need to change as well as building new habits they need for the change.
A complete successful cycle of coaching for change follows a pattern we call the Transition model. In the first stage, the client feels stuck and dissatisfied. They want the change, but they may not know how to make it. They may be afraid. Without help, they can cycle around in this vicious circle for a long time, becoming more and more dissatisfied and frustrated. They may not make the change, or they may become so frustrated that this motivates them to launch out into the unknown.
A coach can help them take the step into the next phase and break the fear cycle. The essence of coaching is to get the client to act. The coach supports the client to actually take a step forward away from their present situation towards the future they want, but is not yet assured. Once they have made the first step, they are in transition. The coach will support and encourage them while they walk forward, helping them to clarify the path as they go and not get lost or sidetracked.
Transition usually feels uncomfortable, clients often feel they are wrong and lose confidence. Everything seems new and it is hard to make good decisions. This is when they most rely on the coach. The coach helps by believing in the client, even (or especially) if the client loses faith in themselves. The coach champions the client, believing that the client has all the resources they need, or can acquire them.
The coach can also help the client by making the distinction between wrong and unfamiliar. Many confuse the two. As an example, I remember when I took lessons in the Alexander technique a few years ago. The Alexander Technique is a technique of bodywork that helps balance the body. In one of my first lessons, my teacher asked me to stand up straight without leaning to either side. I stood up and did so easily (at least I thought I did). She then put a full-length mirror beside me and told me to look at myself. To my surprise, I saw that I was leaning to the right, even though I felt as if I was standing straight. Feedback from my vision and my kinaesthetic feeling were at odds. I then stood straight only paying attention to the visual feedback. I saw I was standing straight in the mirror, but it felt wrong. I felt I was leaning to the left. I had a long standing habit of leaning slightly to my right. I was so used to this that I mistook it for standing straight, when I changed the old habit, I felt wrong. This is the power of habit – we confuse what is familiar with what is right.
Transition will feel unfamiliar and maybe frightening. But the fear is different to the fear the client had before. The fear that stops change is unreal – it is based on a fantasy of what might happen. Fear in transition is tinged with excitement. The client feels they are on a journey, they are taking charge of their own life. The new responsibility is exhilarating.
As clients go through Transition, they will start to change their habits and maybe some of their beliefs about themselves and others. The client often needs to reframe their belief about loss. One important reason clients feel afraid of change is that they fear they will lose something valuable. The coach can help them make arrangements so they keep the most important things, but sometimes there will be things that have to be left behind. And this is the key – The client leaves these things, they do not lose them. This may seem a semantic trick, but there is tremendous power in that linguistic change. Most people experience losing as painful; they cannot get something back again – they do not know where it is. Leaving implies choice. No one wants to lose anything, but we leave things of our own accord all the time. This way of thinking helped me a great deal when I moved to living in Brazil after living in England for all my life.
You will see from the diagram that the end of transition brings the client back to a new challenge. They have moved on. This paper is two-dimensional, so I cannot show it in the diagram, but the transition cycle is really a spiral upwards. The client leaves behind the old challenge and engages with a new one. There is always a dream beyond the dream that we are pursuing right now.
Indiana Jones demonstrates all the crucial points of transition in the chasm scene. Resources come from a change in perspective. When you look at something in the way you have always done, you will see what you have always seen. The step was very important to him, his father’s life depended on it, a value was a stake. He trusted in something greater than himself, and he took action – he took the step, even though he was afraid to do so.
Now throw some pebbles on your bridge. Explore the transition model a little by thinking of a change you made successfully in the past.
What change did you want to make?
Was there a fear that stopped you initially?
What habits did you change?
What support did you find to help you?
What did you learn?
How can you apply what you learned to help others embrace change?
When we give back what we learned to others, the cycle is complete.
©Joseph O’Connor 2004
Joseph O’Connor is an author, executive coach, trainer and consultant. He lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, works internationally and has given coaching and NLP trainings in twenty-five countries. He is co founder of the International Coaching Community and author of sixteen books on NLP, systemic thinking and coaching that have been published in twenty-four languages.
The transition model was originally developed by Andrea Lages and is fully described in ‘Coaching With NLP – How to be a Master Coach’ by Joseph O’Connor and Andrea Lages, published by Thorsons in April 2004.
Contact Joseph at firstname.lastname@example.org