4 Steps to Making Change an Opportunity, Not a Threat

Change can be scary, but these four strategies can help you respond positively.

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In general, people don’t like change because we’re hard wired not to like change. In primitive times, anything different was perceived as a threat to survival, so we humans sought out familiarity and comfort.

Though we like to think that we have evolved far beyond our ancestors, we still react to change in the same way: we either fight or flee. Unfortunately, neither reaction usually bodes well for successful change or the mental and physical health of those involved in that change. For instance, you may want to commit to an exercise regimen, but the thought of walking into a health club full of super-fit people is intimidating and demoralizing, so you give up and flee before you even begin.

Your reaction to a desired change can improve if you can understand and prepare for what lies ahead and approach the change in a positive way. The more you can identify, understand, anticipate, and prepare for a coming change, whether marriage, divorce, a new child, a job transition, the better you will be able to benefit from the changes that lie ahead. In other words, the less likely you are to fight or flee from the changes.

Here are four proactive “from-to” strategies you can use to respond positively to change.

1. From “Something Different” to the “New Normal”

If possible, create a long runway between when you decide to make a change and when you take action on the change. As I just described, change is discomforting, but, with time, it can become more comfortable. Leave plenty of time for you to extend your comfort zone to envelop the changes. For example, if you are going to move to a new city for a job opportunity, give your organization a one-month notice, if possible, to give you time to get comfortable with either having some time off or starting a new job. In doing so, you give yourself the time and space to adjust to the new normal.

If the change you are making is sudden, such as losing your job unexpectedly, accept the change as quickly as you can and shift your thinking and focus to the new normal and all the benefits the change offers.

In either case, you want to immerse yourself in the change by thinking about, experiencing your emotions, and acting within the change. In doing so, the change grows to be familiar, predictable, and controllable, and, as a result, more comfortable. The goal being that, in a short time, that change that was something different is now the new normal.

2. From “Threat” to “Challenge”

Actively shape how you perceive the change. If you see the change as a threat to some aspect of your life, you will likely go into “protection mode,” which produces psychological (e.g., negativity), emotional (e.g., fear, frustration, or anger), and physiological (e.g., stress and tension) changes that will interfere with your ability to respond to the change positively. Once a negative attitude begins to develop around change, it can entrench itself and be difficult to uproot.

Whether you have chosen the change (get married) or it has been thrust upon you (an illness), a threat reaction will only make the shift more difficult. You want to view the change as a challenge to pursue rather than a threat to avoid. With this challenge orientation, you produce thoughts, emotions, and actions that support a constructive reaction to the change, enabling you to adapt to the change more quickly and easily

3. From “Unknown” to “Known”

That which is unknown and unfamiliar is naturally uncomfortable and threatening. You can reduce both reactions by educating yourself about all aspects of a change. The more you can learn about a change — for example, what it is precisely and how it affects you — the more confident, calm, and committed you will be toward the change, and the more comfortable you will feel about it.

You want to seek out as much as you can learn about the change from internet searches and talking to others who have experienced something similar. For example, having a baby may be a wonderful experience, but it is also incredibly scary, especially for first-time parents. The more you can learn about what lies ahead in the next nine months, the more manageable it will seem. At a practical level, this knowledge will help you make better decisions and devise more effective plans.

4. From “Uncontrollable” to “Ownership”

The uncertainty of change, even change that you want and initiate, can cause you to feel out of control and wanting to flee. A lack of predictability and control is one of the most powerful sources of threat and stress to people. You want to empower yourself around the changes. When you actively engage in the change process, you give yourself the power to predict what lies ahead for you and you give yourself a sense of control over how those changes will impact you. This engagement can involve identifying a vision of what you want the change to be, goals that clarify how you want the change to transpire, a clear plan of action that will guide you toward a successful implementation of the change, and tangible metrics that tell you when the change has been completed. For instance, if you want to improve the quality of your diet, you can envision all of the health benefits that you will accrue, set goals for the types of food you want to eat at each meal, create a shopping list of foods you want to eat, and write down how you will know when you meet your food-related goals. In doing so, you instill in yourself a sense of ownership — “this change is mine and I have the power to shape it!”—where you take control of how the change unfolds.

In sum, few people like change, but change is inevitable and can be healthy and life affirming. Your best chance of fully implementing the changes you want in your life or accepting changes that arise outside of your control is to give yourself time to assimilate the idea of change, proactively shape your perceptions of the changes, educate yourself about the changes, and, finally, take ownership of the changes. If you approach change in this way, you increase the likelihood that you will embrace and internalize the changes in your life.

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