The 3 Keys to Navigating Change and Landing on Your Feet (Part 1 of 3)

by Shana Montesol Johnson

“You are the most change-averse change management consultant I’ve ever met,” my friend teased me as I bemoaned the shifts in my work and personal life.  Touché.  It’s true, I don’t exactly embrace change with arms open wide.  Yet I’ve spent part of my career advising clients on how to lead big organizational changes.  In a way, my aversion to change makes me perfect for this work: I understand how uncomfortable, confusing, and yucky change can be.

Yet it’s not so much the change itself that is uncomfortable, but the process of transition.  Change has to do with circumstances.  Transition is the internal shift that we make in response to that change, as we let go of how things used to be and adjust ourselves to the way things are now.

One thing that has helped me navigate change – both my own and that of my clients – is understanding the 3 phases of transition, as identified by noted author and expert William Bridges.  These are: Endings, the Neutral Zone, and Beginnings.

In this three-part blog series, we’ll take a look at each of the three phases, and what we can do in each one to navigate change well and land on our feet.  Let’s start with Endings.

Part 1: Let Go

In order for something new to begin, something else must end. While our instinct may be to just jump into the new situation, we are better off first acknowledging what has ended – particularly anything that has to do with a change in our identity.  Dealing with the losses will help us get closure on the past and learn from it  – which can make our transition more smooth and productive.


Identify the Losses

Often, changes are good.  Yet even when we welcome a change, endings can be difficult, because there are losses associated with them.  For example, if you are promoted to manager at work, you may be excited about greater levels of responsibility, higher pay, and new challenges.  However, you must also let go of things like:

  • the camaraderie of your former teammates (who now report to you),
  • the content of the work you used to do (which you were pretty good at and enjoyed),
  • the habit of working certain hours (which may be greatly expanded with the new managerial role), and
  • the feeling of competence you got from doing your former work (which was familiar and satisfying).

Focusing solely on your new role as manager without first acknowledging that you are giving something up in this transition may create problems for you later on.

In fact, after thirty years of studying change and transition, William Bridges points out that the failure to identify and get ready for endings and losses is the largest difficulty for people in transition.

In my own life, moving from Washington, DC to Manila, Philippines was a huge change.  I was excited for a new adventure – both personally and professionally – but there were also losses.  I had to let go of things like my close-knit and supportive group of friends, knowing my way around town, and feeling “at home” in the culture.  Not unexpectedly, I missed the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from the job I had left behind.  More surprisingly, though, I found that I missed the identity that had accompanied that job – being seen by those around me as competent and accomplished.

Help Yourself to End Well

When you find yourself grappling with an “ending,” William Bridges suggests some helpful questions to ask yourself:

  • Now that this change has occurred, what old ways of doing things must I give up?
  • What have I lost?
  • What needs do I have that will no longer be met?
  • How can I meet those needs in other ways?
  • Because of this change, what parts of myself and the way I see myself are now out of date?
  • How can I grieve these losses?
  • What can I do to symbolically say good-bye?

Acknowledging the losses, and creating a way to symbolically or ritually let go of them, can help us to end well and move on to the next phase of transition: the Neutral Zone.

Have you experienced an ending before a new beginning?  What have you let go of?  What are you still struggling to let go of?

Next time: The 3 Keys to Navigating Change and Landing on Your Feet, Part 2: Let Be

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