How to Navigate Major Change During The Pandemic

Executive coach Katie Byrne explains how the stages of change and grief apply to COVID-19.

family coloring in home

Updated on May 8, 2020.

Over the past few months, you’ve probably had your share of ups and downs. One minute, you feel you have a handle on lockdown life and the next you’re longing for the way things were. Remember, these fluctuations are all normal. You may even be surprised to learn that what you’re feeling is a form of grief.

The stages of grief can be explained as the process of adjustment that comes with a major change or loss. In order to shift your perspective and seek a more positive outlook on your life, you’ll need to acknowledge your feelings and the ways you’re working through grief.

Sharecare spoke with Katie Byrne, an executive coach and founder of the leadership training consultancy EQUALibrium Group, about these stages of change and grief, the strategies she’s using to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic—and even some of the good that may be coming out of our new normal.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Tell us about the change movement model. How does it apply to life right now?

A. Everything has changed and that’s really hard to grasp. Right now, we’re thinking about change at home, our jobs, with our families and with schooling—and in order to support that, it’s good to have some kind of structure and model to think about.

When my colleagues and I teach the elements of change to business executives, we use a model based on the stages of grief outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. We’ve adapted our own version, which is a little bit shorter, but still very applicable. Our brains want to keep the list as simple as possible, so we focus on denial, resistance, exploration and acceptance. We jump around between all those stages.

Some people will start in denial. It's common, but not everybody will. Some people may have started in exploration right off the bat, especially the entrepreneurs. If we go back and think about those people who were like, "Change everything. Let's move, move, move," they are probably starting an exploration, but as time goes on, they may move to denial and then they may move to resistance.

I think that with everything going on, I am in each of those stages every day. I think acknowledging that piece is really helpful, because each day is a new day and you could feel really different tomorrow. But, yes, we're jumping between denial, resistance, exploration and acceptance on a daily basis.

Q: Can you break down the four stages?

Denial is fear-based and involves thinking that something is just not happening. I can relate to that when, weeks ago, my husband was in my ear telling me, "This is what's going to happen." And I told him I didn’t think it was going to be that bad. I was absolutely in that spot of denial, thinking, "I don't even want to go there. I don't think this is going to happen."

Resistance is, "I don't want this change. I'm going to keep doing it the way I'm doing it, because I don't like it. Why do I have to do this?" I think you can oscillate between those two, that denial of, "Is this really happening to me?" and, "No, I don't want to."

Exploration means trying different ways of doing things. Thinking, “Look, now we're having a call on Zoom and having virtual happy hours, and it's really great." You could think about the positives that are coming out of all this—how you’re talking to your family all the time, communicating by video in ways that you never have before, all things that seem really important and necessary. But with that, exploration can be exhausting because you're trying new things all the time.

Acceptance is thinking, "It's changed, and I'm good with it. These are the new things that I'm going to put in place to get through."

Q: How do you suggest someone get out if they’re stuck in just one of these stages?

A: Resistance is one that we all get stuck in. We often don't know that we're in resistance, and that's why we can't move out of it. The more conversations we have and the more actions you can put into place to help you shift out of resistance, the better.

That resistance piece is when we're feeling under attack and we turn to old behaviors. I was just having a conversation with someone today saying, "Yeah, it's interesting that there are things that we know that don't work for us, but when we're in resistance we go back to them because they feel good and they feel comfortable."

For me personally, I'm thinking about some of the things that I do in resistance and reflecting on those things. I've given myself a pass, but it's probably not that good for me so I talk through how I can stop some of those behaviors.

You want to reduce the time that people are in denial and resistance, because then they can get back out to exploration and acceptance and are able to be more productive.

Q: What are some of the silver linings you are finding through this pandemic?

A: That we're adaptable and changeable, that we're connecting with family and friends and that we’re thinking about new ways of doing work.

Q: Is this experience shattering any paradigms for you?

A: Yes. As a New Yorker, and this probably goes to my silver lining as well, we're all pulling together. When you go outside at 7:00 p.m. and hear everyone clapping, there's something just so powerfully strong about that.

I lived a block away from the World Trade Center on September 11th. I lost my apartment, but there was the same feeling of everyone coming together. There was definitely denial, resistance, exploration and acceptance—all of those feelings—and I can feel the similarities between then and now.

Article sources open article sources

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation. “The Five Stages of Grief.”

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