Can We Really Change?

Note: Can a leopard change its spots? Can human beings change? Actually, for some people the answer to that sounds about the same - no. I have a different opinion about that. Here are some of my thoughts on that subject; having been born with an insatiable curiosity and an irresistible urge to always try new behaviors and explore new ideas. Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at  http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/)

Is it Possible?

From the art and science of psychology, the mainstream thinking is divided.  Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D., a professor of counseling at California State University and author of 80 books says, "I’ve spent the past 35 years writing books about change, interviewing people about their experiences, researching the features that are most associated with significant transformations that endure over time. And here’s my conclusion: I don’t know. Neither do you. Neither does anyone else that I’ve encountered. It is indeed a mystery, a process so complex and multidimensional that it defies understanding."

The 4 Room Apartment Model

In the same arena, Swedish Social Psychologist Claes Janssen offers a more optimistic opinion on the subject of change; i.e., in the mechanism needed for change. His model, called the 4 Rooms of Change Matrix, describes the constant process we all go through to change. 
Janssen says that each of us lives in a four-room apartment. We move from room to room depending on perceptions, feelings or aspirations triggered by external events. Someone who occupies a room today may, in a week, a month, or a year, have moved to another room of the apartment.

The four rooms Janssen describes are Contentment, Denial, Confusion and Renewal. Janssen says that as we change and develop as human beings, we continually circle through these four rooms. He breaks down the characteristics of each room as follows:

  1. In the Contentment room, we like the status quo. We are seen as and feel satisfied, calm and realistic. We are uninterested in attempting improvements or major changes – “If its not broke, don’t fix it.” But we can’t stay in contentment of course or we would never grow. A significant challenge - a merger, reorganization, new leader, new system, market crisis, job threat – can move us out of the Contentment room into the Denial room.
  2. In a sense, people in the Denial room, already have the facts – that’s what they are in denial about. It’s the parent who finds herself still dealing with an adult son as though he were a teenager. Or the manager who, a year after his promotion to the new job, is fighting what everyone else already recognizes, that he has not made the switch from being an engineer to manager. They are, for their own reasons, not yet ready to deal with those facts. From the outside they are perceived as unaware or afraid of change. When we are in the Denial room and finally acknowledge what we have been hiding from, that doesn’t solve our problem; it only moves us through the door into the Confusion room.
  3. We thrash about in the Confusion room, sorting out bits and pieces of our lives. Far from a state to be avoided Confusion signifies a readiness to learn. People in the Confusion room acknowledge they don’t have the answer. They have energy to spare; they just haven’t decided where to invest it. We stay in Confusion until we own up to whatever fear or anxiety is keeping us from committing to the new. That moves us through the door to the Renewal room, and now we are perceived as, and feel, sincere, open, willing to risk.
  4. People in the Renewal room are trying out new practices and ideas. They are open to site visits to see what others have done and looking for articles about the latest innovation. The Renewal room feels like a place full of new converts, ready to put energy into a new path and wanting to convert others to the answer they’ve found.

But of course, over time Renewal subsides. We get comfortable with the new program, lifestyle, or relationship and we find ourselves back in the Contentment room. We have it “all worked out,” we have answers and we function comfortably within them; life is good.

Residing in any room is not a characteristic of a person’s personality; it is rather where they are at this time and in regard to this particular change. In time they will move because we all live in all four rooms.

Leaders or change agents, whose task it is to mobilize energy for a change, need to work with people in the Confusion or Renewal rooms. In every Confusion room there are people already taking constructive action. They would welcome help to obtain needed resources or to coordinate activities with others. It is they who will carry the initiative forward – if they can be brought together to learn how their initiatives integrate with the whole. The seeds of success are sown in the Confusion room and sprout in the Renewal room.

The people in the Contentment or Denial rooms are not frozen, events will move them soon enough. But to mobilize change people in the Contentment or Denial rooms are not an effective place to spend a lot of energy or time. Leaders need to continue to involve them in meetings with their colleagues, provide them information, but not to make them the focus of the change efforts.

We all need some part of our lives to remain stable especially when other parts feel like they are in confusion. When we are dealing with personal problems like a divorce, birth of a new child, adjusting to a child leaving for college – or when we are dealing with work issues that are disorienting, being passed over for promotion, or failure of a project, we need Stability in the other parts of our lives. And sometimes that stability is bought with denial. But when those troubling issues get resolved, then we have the energy to attend to what we had not seen before.

My Own Experience

Given my curiosity and interest in trying new activities and looking into new thought patterns, I believe it is possible to change - I have. Some of the changes I have gone through have been brought on by changes in the many different environments I have inhabited; some have come about as a result of major and sometimes traumatic changes in my life, while others have come about later in life, as a result of being able to review a fairly long time line of what has worked and what has not worked for me to my satisfaction. From my perspective of 63 years on the planet, I have but one wish. I would go back in time and take that 16 year-old me aside and share with him some things that could have made this journey (so far) much easier.

In conclusion, let me leave you with a short poem from my all-time favorite poet, Sara Teasdale (1884 to 1933), whom, I believe gives us one of the reasons we all do change. The answer is contained in the title of her poem - Wisdom.

“When I have ceased to break my wings
Against the faultiness of things,
And learned that compromises wait
Behind each hardly opened gate,
When I can look Life in the eyes,
Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the Truth,
And taken in exchange -- my youth.”

Next week: The need for laughter.