No matter how hard we wish it otherwise, each of us comes face-to-face with difficult life crises. These life events—death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, devastating illness—are types of personal loss. They evoke a grieving response in those affected by them. This natural process allows us to let go of the old, deal with the difficult feelings associated with the life event, and recover a sense of stability and meaning as we embrace life again.
Virginia Satir, a pioneer in family therapy, postulated four stages when an individual is confronted with a new situation that requires a significant change in perspective. Although her model can be used in other contexts, it is certainly applicable to the process of resolving grief or loss.
Satir’s Four Stages of Change
Late Status Quo
Late Status Quo is a time of familiarity. Our life is moving along smoothly in a relatively expected pace, with manageable, unexpected ups and downs. We mostly feel secure with a sense of certainty about what to expect. Unfortunately, as necessary as they are, assumptions are not absolutely reliable. They are at least a little bit different from reality.
An unexpected Foreign Element then happens upending the current assumptions of one’s life, creating uncertainty and a psychological Chaos.
This stage of Chaos is a response to the Foreign Element. It is the psychological equivalent of the card game, “fifty-two card pickup.” One’s model of the world and assumptions about one’s place in it is thrown into question. You have one idea after another about what you can do. You may respond in ways that are not typical for you. Some of your ideas/actions work and some do not. The usual way we are able to cope with the world may not seem to work. Our usual behaviors do not seem to work and our feelings may ricochet from one feeling to another, from being stressed, confused, afraid, hurt, and uncomfortable to being elated, a strong sense of urgency, or some other strong emotion. We try behaviors that worked at some other time and place. We try things we have never done before, hoping that something, anything, will work. We search frantically for information, though we are uncertain about what information will help us. We yell, cry, shut down, or run away. We may try each of these things, one after another. Our behavior becomes very unpredictable. Others may not understand us and we may not understand other’s behaviors.
This chaotic time is also a time of creativity because our old assumptions have been invalidated. We are open to and look for new behaviors and new patterns and life models that make sense to us given our new circumstances. We may try new behaviors and new responses. Some may work temporarily or may not work at all, leaving us more stressed and confused. Our continued stress motivates us to find new ways to deal with this upending situation. Too much stress, anxiety or psychological pain can foster inertia, along with depression or complicated grief and loss. Often we will seek outside counsel to help us through this confusing transitional time.
Practice and Integration
Satir’s third stage of change eventually manifests itself as what she terms a “Transformational Idea.” To express this in a different way, the purpose of Chaos is to generate a Transforming Idea. The Transformational Idea can happen in many ways. It may occur as an “a-ha” moment, or as an idea that emerges slowly through persistent hit and miss explorations of new ways to cope. The only way to know it for sure is to try it out. It gives you a new understanding of what to do. You begin to see a way out of the Chaos into a paradigm shift. It can be a complete change in the course of one’s life.
New Status Quo
In the next stage, we begin to integrate this Transformational Idea through practice. We practice our new paradigm through behavioral change as well as attitudinal change. The purpose of this stage is to master our new skills and knowledge, and integrate them into our daily lives, to improve our effectiveness in light of the information we received as a Foreign Element. We practice, and we learn from the results. Our values and conditions of worth may even change as a consequence of our continued improvements in coping with our new life situation. We begin to feel the rightness of this new paradigm.
As our new reality becomes fully integrated, we again reach a new status quo. Eventually, your new skills become second nature, and your learnings become assumptions and expectations. With time, the newness fades, and the New Status Quo becomes a Late Status Quo. You turn your attention toward other important areas of your life, armed with new skills, knowledge and confidence.
And the change cycle begins again. Of course, Foreign Elements are not always courteous enough to wait until you are ready for them. A surprise may arrive while you are in the middle of Chaos, or while you are practicing the Transforming Idea from an earlier change.
Managing Yourself through Change
1. The first rule is to stay healthy physically.
2. Remember that this process will not last. Changes will come.
3. Appreciate yourself. Your assumptions and expectations are mostly working.
4. Institute moderate growth and developmental change throughout your life. Purposefully confront your assumptions about life.
5. Find something to gently push your comfort zone. Learn to ski. Take a photography class. Learn a foreign language.
6. Accept the reality of the Foreign Element and don’t try to run from the Chaos. Appreciate yourself for recognizing and accepting the Foreign Element, rather than trying to deny reality.
7. View the Foreign Element as a gift of information, and try to accept the information.
8. Acknowledge that you are in Chaos. Spend some time observing and learning from your internal reactions. Remember that Chaos is a natural part of the change process. Chaos is necessary.
9. Try to identify and clearly state the assumption that was violated by the Foreign Element. Clearly stating this assumption may help you to create a Transforming Idea.
10. While you are in Chaos coping with one change, try not to make irreversible, long-term decisions. Your judgment may not be at its best right now.
11. Get support from other people.
12. Stay grounded in the present.
13. Mistakes are not failures; they are feedback. Each mistake contains information for you. When you make a mistake, adjust what you are doing and try again. Mistakes are natural and necessary.
14. Practice one new thing at a time, so you can make sense of the results you get. If you change too many things at once, it is very difficult to know how each change affected the results.
15. Go for quantity before quality. Try your new skill in slightly different situations. Try slightly different behaviors. Find out what works and what does not. Find out where your new skill works and where it does not. Allow yourself lots of mistakes.
16. Try your new skill at least three times before deciding whether it works. Just because it worked once does not mean it will work again. Just because it failed once does not mean it will fail again.
17. Practice in a safe environment where mistakes are not too costly. One of the most important things to learn is the limits of your new skill, ideas, or behavior. The only way to find the limits is to try it where you are not sure it will work. This is a lot less palatable if mistakes are costly.
18. This is a pretty good time to make changes in other areas of your life. You have confidence because you have survived Chaos, and are feeling good about what you are learning. But don’t make too many changes during the Practice and Integration stage. Failure may knock you back into Chaos, and a number of failures may damage your confidence in navigating change. You need the satisfaction of completing a successful change now and then.
19. Appreciate yourself for taking risks and for learning.
Managing Yourself through a New Status Quo
2. Appreciate yourself for negotiating this stressful change and for your new level of performance. This is the most effective time to make changes in other areas of your life. You are feeling good. You have a realistic view of how change happens, and you know there will be discomfort and mistakes. Your confidence is high because you know you can successfully manage yourself through change. You are prepared to take on the next challenge. Remember: This will not last.
The Satir Change Model describes the stages we go through as we experience significant change. By understanding this model, and knowing what stage of change we are in, we can choose more effective responses and turn unexpected change into an opportunity to learn and improve our performance.
Rackham, Neil. SPIN Selling. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. ISBN: 0-07-051113-6. Dr. Paul Standal recommends this book for its ideas about learning. Chapter 8 includes “the four golden rules for learning skills,” which Dr. Standal has adapted in his guidelines for managing yourself through Practice and Integration.
Satir, Virginia, John Banmen, Jane Gerber and Maria Gomori. The Satir Model. Palo Alto, CA. Science and Behavior Books, 1991. ISBN: 0-8314-0078-1. This book describes the Satir Change Model in the context of individual and family therapy. It also includes many other powerful ideas about communication, relationships, personal effectiveness and team building. The Satir Model is written in plain English, and you will have no trouble relating its ideas to your work and personal life.
Weinberg, Gerald M. Quality Software Management Volume 4: Anticipating Change. New York: Dorset House Publishing, 1997. ISBN: 0-932633-32-3. This excellent book is about how to be an effective change.
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