Although change can have different effects on people, plenty of evidence shows that everyone goes through the same process when dealing with change. In some cases, however, the stages of change may take longer or shorter than others.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross designed a ‘Change Curve’ model in the 1960s. This model derives from her work in which she analyzed terminally ill patients and their grieving process. Five stages identified the personal transition that people typically experience when dealing with change: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I remember going through these five stages of personal transition while dealing with change at over 5,700 meters above sea level in the Andes in the middle of the night.
I was climbing my way up through chimneys of ice and snow and over deep crevasses. I felt strong, placing my feet in the same rhythm for hours, breathing heavily but controlled. The freezing wind of -25°C, which covered my clothing and gear with icy crystals, did not bother me. I had mitigated the risks and was willing to accept those out of my control.
I was going to make it to the summit at the crack of dawn. Or so I thought. My climbing partner had started to have symptoms of altitude sickness the previous evening, and it had gotten worse throughout the ascent that night.
Reflecting on that situation, I went through the five stages of dealing with a change.
At first, I was in denial. I thought, by shouting through the wind the rhythm of our steps, my climbing partner would be able to at least continue by following my steps.
For a while, it worked, but we were going slower and slower. “If we continue like this,” I thought, “the conditions on the upper ice wall will be changing, making the risk of unstable ice bigger.”
Going into the next stage, I was getting agitated, not so much angry, but a sense of “I must continue now while I’m in such good shape still.” It became clear that it would be too risky to let my climbing partner continue. We stood still for a moment on a snowy ledge while another team of mountaineers passed us by in their trance of rhythm.
Next, I started to go into bargaining. Still a little worked up from the fresh coca tea and the effect of less oxygen on the brain, I proposed different ideas — all with the same goal in mind: for me to continue.
But with just the two of us and no other teams in sight anymore, my bargaining was bound to fail. There was no other alternative than to go back down.
A strong feeling of defeat and disappointment, which hung over me like a cloud, followed the bargaining stage. Halfway down, we took a moment to watch the sunrise over the Andes. Our morning snack was hard as a rock, and it took a long time before it melted in our dry mouths.
After 11 hours on the mountain, we were back in the city. I felt detached from the world around me. And I could only think of going back up there.
It took a long night’s rest and the following day talking with my climbing partner about what had happened to accept the whole situation finally.
We learned we had not thought of all the possible changes which could occur. And how to deal with those changes in the best way at that very moment. We understood that we were not fully aware of how we would react to change, especially in such harsh conditions.
The Change Curve has proven to be a trusted and robust model that can help predict how individuals will respond to change.
Later studies showed precisely what we had experienced: people react in similar ways to deprivation as they would in a grieving process.
Understanding the process of accepting change is an essential aspect of managing individual or team change. When you know at which stage a person is in the Change Curve, you can decide when to communicate information and what kind of support that person requires.