Whenever we’re in a situation that’s changing, no matter what it is, the most common initial reaction is — you guessed it — denial, followed by anger. Almost immediately many of us respond to unwanted change with a knee-jerk refusal to accept what’s happening, or we rail against having to confront it, uttering (verbally or mentally) refrains like:
- “It’s not my responsibility.”
- “I don’t have the energy.”
- “I don’t have the time.”
- “This isn’t fair.”
- “I shouldn’t have to. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Sound familiar? Underneath all those messages is a plaintive cry: I don’t know how to adapt and I’m upset that I have to! These thoughts and the emotions underneath are natural, but counterproductive. They trip us up and keep us stuck.
Really, the best first thing we can do rather than stick our heads in the sand is get clear on what is actually happening so we can get down to the business of dealing with it. The acceptance phase is usually the hardest one. But it’s also the most important one, because if we don’t accept the reality of what’s happening and deal effectively with our feelings, we simply can’t respond in the most productive manner.
That’s why this part includes a number of insights to help you gather the facts. My goal is for you to end this part with a more relaxed, less panicked awareness of the situation and a greater ability to respond to it from a centered and clear- minded place.
Gather the Facts Like a Newspaper Reporter
Acceptance is not submission; it is acknowledgment of the facts of a situation.
Then deciding what you’re going to do about it. — Kathleen Casey Theisen
I’ve had a fascinating experience over the past eight years. I’ve been the thinking partner to several people on the same team at the same time. One consequence is that I have come to truly see that we’re all making up our own reality all the time. One person tells me the meeting was great; another, that it was a disaster. “He’s undermining everyone,” says one. “He’s doing a great job of supporting people,” says another. Sometimes I want to ask, “Do you even exist on the same planet?”
What I’ve come to understand is that we each exist on our own planet with its own rules, assumptions, and conclusions, most of which we created so long ago that we’re not even consciously aware of them. We’re not seeing life as it is, but as we conclude it to be.
This can be very dangerous, particularly in times of change, when being in touch with current reality is very important. How can you ride the wave of change if you don’t even have an accurate picture of what direction it’s coming from or at what speed? That’s why, as soon as you become aware of a change you need to respond to, the very first thing you need to do is get the facts. This may seem obvious, but actually it is not as straightforward as it may seem. First, the situation may be very complex, and it may not be clear what the facts are.
The Facts & Beliefs in The Layers of the Brain
But there’s a deeper reason that the fact-finding proposition is so important and challenging. It has to do with how the brain works. To avoid information overload, our brain filters out a great deal of data in any situation and pays attention only to some of it. Then, quicker than you are consciously aware, it takes that data and makes meaning of it. Organizational theorist Chris Argyris calls this process the Ladder of Inference: at the bottom of the ladder is all the observable data; one rung up, the data I select; then stories I add; my assumptions based on my stories; my conclusions; my beliefs based on my conclusions; and actions I take based on my beliefs. The higher up the ladder you are, the more rigid is your thinking — and the more unsafe you are because you are farthest away from the facts.
Interestingly, although Argyris developed this model decades ago, it seems to fit with a theory by Jeff Hawkins, author of On Intelligence. He believes there are layers — the ones closest to the brain stem take in information and are constantly being changed by incoming data, the ones farthest away have created beliefs about reality based on past experience and kick out all facts that don’t fit the frame they’ve already created, and the ones in the middle try to mediate between the never changing and the always changing.
What’s important about this regarding change is to understand that our minds instantly jump to stories, assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs, which can be dangerous if we get caught up in our interpretation of the situation and lose touch with the facts themselves.
What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?
You can begin to become aware of your mind doing this by noticing what habitual stories you tell yourself in times of change. Here’s mine: Let’s say a client cancels a day-long training due to budget tightening. Instantly my mind leaps to, “I’m going to end up a bag lady on the street,” which, not surprisingly, sends me into panic. Welcome to the contents of my mind.
Your mind may do similarly unhelpful things — perhaps something like, “I knew this would happen because he’s a manager and managers can’t be trusted.” Or, “It’s all my fault because I am worthless.” Or, “This shouldn’t be happening because I deserve better.”
As soon as our minds do their jumping up the ladder, we start reacting from our assumptions rather than the facts. In my case, I am now in a panic, a most unhelpful and in this case unnecessary state of mind, since the facts are that it’s only one day that’s been canceled and I have other business.
That’s why, as soon as you become aware that a wave of change is coming your way, the first thing to do is get down to the bottom of the ladder. It’s more stable there. That means getting all the facts you can about the situation and resisting the impulse to jump to assumptions or conclusions.
Take a tip from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Often the facts aren’t as bad as our stories about them. And even if they are, once we know the truth of the situation, we can more effectively respond to it.
Ask and Ye Shall Find
Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Work, has developed a great set of questions for gathering the facts of current reality which I’ve adapted here. I suggest that you sit quietly and write down your answers (or ask someone to quiz you), acting as if you were a newspaper reporter — just the facts without any conclusions.
You don’t necessarily have to answer all the questions. Depending on your situation, some will be more relevant and helpful than others. The point is to gather as much factual information as you can.
- What’s happening? (I’m spending more than I’m making. I’ve been using my home equity line of credit to make up short falls between my income and expenses.)
- What do you and don’t you understand about the situation? (I haven’t looked at what the gap number is and where my money is actually going.)
- Do you need more information before taking action? (I need the facts before I make a plan.)
- What have you been trying to control here? (I’ve been trying to control the situation by not eating out,but that’s not making a big enough difference.)
- What is beyond your control? (The fact that I can’t tap my equity line of credit anymore.)
- What could you control right now that would make a difference in how you’re feeling and/or your situation? (I can get the numbers and brainstorm ways to tighten my belt. I can work out so I feel at my best.)
For added help in getting clear about where you are, also consider these bonus questions from author Mark Nepo:
- What keeps coming up, though you keep putting it down? (I keep thinking I should sell the motor home, even though I don’t want to.)
- What are you needing to attend [to] but don’t know how? (I need to talk to my children about what’s going on in a way that doesn’t scare them. I saw a good article on that.)
Now that you’ve done your investigation, you should have a clearer understanding of the facts of your situation and perhaps an idea of how to begin to move forward. Acknowledging the plain truth is the first step in acceptance. It doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happening, simply that you acknowledge reality. And, as spiritual teacher Byron Katie likes to say, it’s no use arguing with reality because it wins every time.
How Have You Contributed to the Situation?
“When Bud lost his job, he immediately couched it — for everyone else and for himself — as ‘I got laid off,’” explains his wife, Mary. “But the truth is, he got fired. Yes, his firm did eventually lose some key contracts and downsize, but the reason he was the first to be let go was because he’d been told again and again that he wasn’t working fast enough. He’s very methodical and meticulous, which works brilliantly in certain industries, but not in the sports business, which is very fast paced.
"He was stubborn, refusing to even consider finding ways to move things along more expeditiously. I always wonder if he would have recovered quicker if he’d been able to actually admit what happened, rather than getting stuck in victimhood for nearly five years.”
Don’t pull a Bud. How have you contributed to the situation? What about feedback you've had from others -- is there a grain of truth there?
You're strong enough to face the fact and learn for the future. The truth can set you free.
©2009, 2014. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
How to Survive Change...You Didn't Ask For: Bounce Back, Find Calm in Chaos, and Reinvent Yourself
by M.J. Ryan.
M.J. Ryan provides strategies to retrain your brain and optimize your response to change, step-by-step: by first accepting the new reality, then expanding your options, and finally, taking effective action. She offers cutting-edge tools for becoming calmer, less fearful, and more flexible, creative, and resourceful in your thinking.
About the Author
M.J. Ryan is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness and the author of The Happiness Makeover, and Attitudes of Gratitude, among other titles. Altogether, there are 1.75 million copies of her titles in print. She is part of Professional Thinking Partners (PTP), an asset-focused consultancy whose expertise is in maximizing thinking and learning individually and in groups. She specializes in coaching high performance executives, entrepreneurs, and leadership teams around the world. A member of the International Coaching Federation, she is a contributing editor to Health.com and Good Housekeeping and has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, and hundreds of radio programs. Visit the author at www.mj-ryan.com
Watch a video: An Introduction to Change Expert, M.J. Ryan