Collaborative Edge - Summer 2007
A newsletter of the Center for Collaborative Policy Laura Kaplan, Editor
Closing One Door as We Open a New Door
Authored by Jodie Monaghan
It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear… It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.
- Marilyn Ferguson, American feminist
As practitioners of collaborative problem-solving, we are facilitators of change. We are all likely familiar with one or more theories of change. But consider - most behavior change models assume that change is necessary, that change will happen, or that an individual wants to change. The endgame of all the models is the same - changed behavior. But what about the individual who is happy with the status quo and sees no need to change? How do we as practitioners deal with that attitude when outside forces such as legislation or changing social values make change inevitable?
Collaborative problem-solving assumes that stakeholders will come together and synergistically search for creative solutions that accommodate everyone’s needs. If we as practitioners do our jobs correctly, that will be the outcome. But we also need to be aware that stakeholders will be required to leave behind their status quo. To walk away from strongly held beliefs and the over-all sense of well-being that comes from feeing “right” is a sense of loss to some people, requiring a grieving period, if you will.
For example, imagine a person who has historically been one of the few with access to a precious public resource such as a pristine nature area, hidden beach, or supply of groundwater. How does this person deal with the fact that the world is expanding and others may also have legitimate claim to that resource? Even if they embrace the changing reality, how can they not help but mourn the passing of their status quo?
William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, suggests that change is as much emotional as it is a different set of circumstances. A new policy, a new administration, a new regulation – all are the results of a changing situation. New situations generally require a change in behavior. Changed behavior requires new attitudes and ways of thinking. Bridges calls the psychological process that an individual goes through to accommodate change “transition,” and recommends that we allow time for transition.
Bridges developed his Transitions Framework to explain the 3 phases he postulates that individuals go through in the process of change. They are:
- Neutral Zone
- New Beginning
The Ending phase is the letting go of old attitudes and beliefs (“But we’ve always done it that way…”) It is acknowledging that even though we have always felt strongly about a particular subject, our worldview may no longer be appropriate. For example, single occupant vehicles may be an expression of our individualism and a manifestation of our personal freedom, but greenhouse emissions and global warming may compel us as a society to consider other options such as mass transit.
The Neutral Zone is the in-between phase when there is awareness that change must occur, but we’re just not sure what that looks like. In collaborative problem solving, this is generally the education and brainstorming stage. It is an opportunity to look at the problem from different perspectives, explore the options, and try out new patterns of thought.
For practitioners of collaborative problem-solving, New Beginning is the negotiation phase when stakeholders engage in creative problem-solving. New attitudes and behaviors are established and there is a shift in the status quo to accommodate the new paradigm. A successful stakeholder effort will accommodate all the diverse interested parties such as environmental advocates, business interests, neighborhood groups, and other special interest groups.
The first phase of Bridges’ model, the Ending phase, may be the most important phase of all; it sets the stage for the future success of change. Change creates anxiety and stress, but change can’t happen without the human will and determination to make it happen. Often stakeholders need time to acknowledge the past and let go of old habits and thought patterns before they can be receptive to new and creative ideas.
So how do we help stakeholders move through the Ending phase? Before we begin exciting exercises such as visioning to look at future possibilities, it may be useful to openly acknowledge the discomfort and sense of loss that people may feel. We can help stakeholders validate the past, acknowledging that no one has been “wrong” to support a particular position. Instead, it can be useful to formally acknowledge that circumstances have changed and old attitudes may no longer be appropriate or functional in the new context. We can acknowledge what’s being lost and also celebrate the future.
Another vital tool is to make sure there is shared understanding of why change is needed. Is there a new policy or law? Are there social pressures that demand new solutions to old problems? What values are embraced by the old model? What values should be preserved when creating a new future? Through facilitated dialogue, we can help stakeholders develop shared values and explore possible futures that can meet their needs,
Ritualizing the Ending phase can be an effective means to acknowledge the emotional nature of change. One group asked people to write their old beliefs and attitudes on slips of paper, and then asked them to throw them in a fire to represent the ending of “the status quo.” The group then planted a tree to celebrate the vision of new beginnings. Symbolically closing one door while opening a new door can be a powerful tool to facilitate change.
The important lesson to remember when working with stakeholders is that change is emotional as well as situational. We help stakeholders accommodate new circumstances through mutual education and creative problem-solving. We also need to find ways to help stakeholders move through their sense of loss, even as we help them prepare to be receptive to exploring creative new solutions.
Jodie Monaghan is an Associate Mediator with the Center for Collaborative Policy.