Coping with Transitions in Life

Change is a certainty in everyone’s life. The manner in which people deal with change also changes. Through learning and life experience, individuals develop varied levels of flexibility towards transition, and these levels commonly dictate the person’s ability to productively cope with life’s challenges. Thus, readiness and ability to change are popular topics in therapeutic contexts such as counselling, life coaching and mentoring.

Essentially, change takes center stage in the counselling relationship – a governing factor by which all effort is contingent upon. What dictates a clients’ readiness to change, and how does that affect the process of goal achievement in counselling? How to evoke change in someone’s life, and at the same time, make sure the process is self-directed and not imposed? What are the strategies and techniques which enable counsellors to motivate their clients towards change?

In this article we attempt to answer these, and many other questions, which hopefully will bring about positive change in your life, and the lives of others.

Changing with a Purpose

Fundamentally, change is simply shifting from one state to another. But change per se is not the objective of most individuals, and neither is it the objective of counselling. Positive change, or optimization, is the outcome we’re after.

Any process of optimization requires goals, motivation and a touch of discipline. Individuals who are willing to change their lives will have a reason for such, whether it is to impress others, to feel better about themselves or to make things simpler or more complicated. There is always a reason, thus a motive.

Furthermore, positive and meaningful changes in life require careful planning and execution. It is much like running a business: things do not happen overnight, there must be progressive development and constant verification of goals and objectives.

Benefits of Positive Change

Most people, despite culture or orientation, are reserved about changing their habits. Old habits can be challenges to proposed ones, and getting out of the comfort zone may not be a pleasant activity. But change can have its bright side.

Positive aspects may be overlooked as a result of negative thinking patterns, but they are the primary motivators for the individual, who can take advantage of any opportunity to visualise his/her own goals. Life is a dynamic, cyclical balance of negatives and positives, and focusing on the positives is a necessary task for optimization. So what are some of the major benefits of change?

Novel opportunities: without change survival would be impossible. Culture, agriculture, education, business would all fail. You don’t have to like all aspects of change (there may be some disadvantages or even teething problems with some changes) but there may be useful or interesting benefits as well. Studies of some communities that have denied change of any sort and prevented the flow of people and information, and development of any new ideas, have been found to be totally unsustainable and have survived no more than a few generations before breaking up.

Maintaining flexibility: avoiding getting set in ways and trying to be open to new ideas and ways of working and living is a major competitive advantage in the road to success. New approaches may not always work, but there is usually a lesson to be taken from each attempt.

Building self-confidence: change, personal growth and development have been well established in research findings. Being in one’s own comfort zone can lead to some contentment for a while, but as time goes on you lose confidence and don’t acquire new abilities or skills. You become out of touch. This can lead to social isolation and feelings of marginalization or alienation.

Education: the most obvious area is learning from research and how this can lead, for example, to exciting and important new scientific and medical advances, or lead to understanding healthier ways of living. In the extremely globalized world we live, learning new things supports communication skills and adaptability.

Counsellor Outlook: Evoking Change in a Client

There are several therapeutic approaches which are useful to improve clients’ readiness to change. It is important, however, to realize that all these strategies are based on the same suggestion: motivation to change is elicited from the client and not imposed from without.

Using coercion, persuasion or constructive confrontation will achieve little if the client is simply “unready” to change. It is the client’s task to articulate and resolve his/her own ambivalence in relation to change.

Stages of Change

Prochaska & DiClemente (1983) proposed a framework which comprised various stages of change. Putting such stages into the counselling perspective may help the counsellor understand the challenges within the process of change. Six stages were proposed, along with particular characteristics and techniques to support the client in moving forward:

Pre-contemplation: the client is not yet considering the option of changing his/her life. Useful techniques in this stage include: validating lack of readiness; encouraging re-evaluation of current behavioural patterns; encouraging self-exploration and progressive thinking; understanding the risks and limitations involved in the process of change.

Contemplation: the client is undecided about changing. Immediate change is unlikely to occur, however, it could occur within a month or so. Useful techniques in this stage include: clarifying to the client that the decision is his or hers; encouraging evaluation of benefits and disadvantages; promoting accountability; visualising positive outcomes.

Preparation: change begins to develop, and the client is testing the environment in order to ‘get a feel’ of the whole process. Useful techniques in this stage include: assisting problem-solving and identification of obstacles; developing supportive networks through family, friends and others (particularly if the process of change is radical); verifying the client’s skills towards change; encouraging self-reward and gradual development.

Action: this is the critical phase in which the client will change or return to his/her old habits. It usually lasts between 3-6 months. Useful techniques in this stage include: assisting the client in become more effective in the changing process and in conducting the behaviour; assisting the client overcome feelings of loss and nostalgia, whilst underlining the long-term benefits of the process.

Maintenance: this stage refers to the continued commitment to sustaining the new behaviour. It is the classic period where new habits develop into routinely tasks. Useful techniques in this stage include: follow-up and motivational support; overview of values and benefits derived from new behaviours; discussing coping with relapse.

Relapse: in this stage, old habits and behaviours resume which may affect the client’s self-confidence and beliefs. This usually involves a trigger, such as meeting an old friend from the period prior to change, or doing an activity which is perceived to have been part of the ‘old lifestyle’. Useful techniques in this stage include: evaluating with the client was triggered the relapse; reassessing motivation and establishing further goals and motivational sources; planning more effective coping strategies.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a recent technique which aims to improve the client’s motivational levels, with an explicit focus on encouraging accountability and action from the client. This technique’s desired outcome is to make the client proactive and decisive towards change.

Five general principles of motivational interviewing include: expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, avoiding argument, rolling with resistance and supporting self-efficacy. By using these principles, the counsellor aims to develop the client’s self-confidence and ability to cope with the process of change. This is done both through the development of micro skills (similar to the coaching process) which are aimed to create efficient and effective behaviours, and the development of emotional awareness which well support the client in overcoming challenges as a result of change.

A crucial aspect of this technique is keeping constant focus on the positive side of things. Once this becomes a routine task, it is easier for the client to develop a positive mindset in order to achieve pre-set goals. Motivational interviewing strategies are particularly useful when integrated with the stages of change model.

Client-Centered Approach

Developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s, this approach has proven useful for effective and constructive communication. It focuses on the client’s capacity for growth and change, using unconditional acceptance as a motivator (which encourages the client to also develop unconditional positive regard).

“The primary technique of client-centered counselling is to actively listen and reflect the client’s statements in a non-directive, nonjudgmental manner, thereby providing a safe environment for the client’s self-exploration. Client-centered counseling hinges on the development of a counselor-client relationship based on unconditional regard, often over multiple hour-long sessions. This relationship enables the counselor to clarify the client’s feelings without imposing external assessments or values.” (Sheon, 2004)

One of the aspects of this kind of counselling relationship is the perspective that the client and the counsellor are partners, moving together towards a common goal. This perspective of a partnership in the therapeutic process is a popular approach in life coaching and it has direct benefits to the client’s motivation and the relationship’s rapport building.

Client Outlook: Invoking Change from Within

To invoke change is to recognise that positive change in itself is, undoubtedly, possible. The majority of individuals who aim for improvement are held back by negative thinking patterns, which often result in inaction and an awful amount of excuses. If one wishes to improve oneself, one must first and foremostly recognise that all change stems from within. The ability to modify thoughts and behaviours is within everyone, but change can only be determined at the individual’s personal rate of evolution (or readiness for change).

Think for a moment of the people you hold in high regard. They may have certain enviable behaviours, or have attained an admirable state of being. The vast majority of those people have developed their behaviours through awareness and cognitive determination. They recognised who they wanted to be or what they wanted to achieve and willingly aligned their thoughts with their objectives. High level performance in individuals rarely transpires as an occurrence of chance.

People cannot keep doing the same things and expect a different result. It all begins with a positive mindset which results into effective action and the central component of this entire process is a very familiar one: it’s YOU. So if change is inevitable, try use it to your advantage and you may be amazed with the results.