Serving as a professional change facilitator is challenging under any circumstances but this is especially true when attending to people in the midst of deeply emotional, or cathartic, breakthroughs. The intense struggle associated with trying to hold on to the status quo, the anxiety of letting go, and then the difficulties of opening up to new possibilities generates extremely profound emotions that we must be prepared to recognize and respond to properly.
The following items represent aspects of practicing our craft that most of us employ in our work anyway. When dealing with people expressing cathartic-level emotions, however, these components of our work are particularly important. (Several of these items have been addressed in earlier posts and links to related material are provided within those posts.)
It is essential to apply the proper mix of logic and emotion to transformational change. However, there are times when more emphasis needs to be given to the feeling side of transitions. This is particularly true for clients struggling with cathartic-level breakthroughs. These situations pose unique challenges for change practitioners. We must understand the dynamics in play so we can create experiences to help guide clients through the process. More specifically, we need to create safe environments, both one-on-one exchanges and in groups, where they feel they have permission and acceptance to express their emotions and work through the formidable path to realization.
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In the last post, I hope I made the case that both logic and emotion are employed in successful transformational initiatives. Although a balance between the two is our ultimate aim, there are times when we need to attend more to the client’s emotions than to their rational processing of change, and that is the focus of this series.
When working with clients, it’s important to note that there is a wide range of situations that evoke strong emotions:
I’d like to share with you some observations and learnings around what I consider the most challenging emotion-based work our profession engages in with clients…addressing cathartic-level feelings tied to letting go of the status quo and migrating to the unfamiliar. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences in this regard.
Cathartic emotions are not typical.
Catharsis is a form of emotional cleansing first pointed out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The word originally referred to an audience’s strong emotional reaction to a tragic play. The reference was later picked up as a medical term meaning purging. It has also been applied extensively within psychological contexts to describe the process of emotional release or, more precisely, one emotional energy giving way to another (e.g., the discharge of a long-standing, pent-up resentment that leaves a void, which can then be filled with compassion).
I’m applying the term catharsis here in a very specific way. During major change, it is common for clients to express their feelings in strong, definitive ways. Whether positive or negative, powerful emotional reactions to the transition process are certain to surface. Cathartic feelings are not the normal reaction to change, however. They are the ones that live at the “deepest end” of the emotional pool. These are the breakthroughs that clients sometimes experience when they finally accept new circumstances after a long struggle to keep the status quo intact.
This kind of emotional release has three phases: 1) an extended period of hanging on to the way things have been, followed by 2) letting go, which then opens the way for 3) opening up to new possibilities. Although each phase has its unique characteristics, all three play a vital part when someone transitions from a strongly held position or viewpoint to a dramatically different perspective.
Because there is a big investment in each stage (hanging on, letting go, and opening up), there is a corresponding release of energy associated with each movement. In fact, each stage’s resolution fuels the next with energy. For example, the amount of emotional energy that goes into hanging on is often reflected in the amount of emotional release displayed when letting go takes place. The deeper the resolve to hold fast to the status quo (regardless of the positive or negative implications for maintaining it), the greater the emotional discharge when surrender finally takes place (see box).
This can be seen when people who have been highly invested in the old status quo finally let go. Letting go can unfold in one of two ways:
Whether we find ourselves in one-on-one coaching exchanges or facilitating groups in workshop settings, as facilitators of change, our role is to guide people away from D-type and toward O-type reactions to change.
Successful cathartic breakthroughs require all three phases (hanging on, letting go, opening up), which explains why some people start the process of deep change but never complete the journey. Not all who struggle extensively to preserve the current state will reach a point of surrender. (These are the ones who tend to go down fighting.) Some can surrender to the reality of losing the way things were, but never find a new way to fill the opening that was created. (These are the ones who tend to remain lost and stuck in resentment.) In this series of posts, I’m describing clients who resist mightily but then face “what is” and find a way to reframe their viewpoint and support implementation of the change. When they do, they tend to experience extremely strong emotions. This is cathartic-level transformation, and we need to ensure we are prepared to provide the proper guidance to those seeking this passage.
Cathartic emotions run deep.
Cathartic breakthroughs are always accompanied by a flood of emotions. Remember, we are not dealing within the client’s logic realm; we are in his or her emotional space. Cathartic release is not the result of some rational evaluation of the “cost/benefit ratio for continuing to fight for the status quo versus capitulating to the new circumstances.” It takes place when the emotional energy associated with letting go and opening up overrides the struggle to hang on.
Here’s an example: If the hanging on is intense and has gone on for a long time, it’s likely the person’s identity has become enmeshed in the struggle. People who fight the good fight for extended periods sometimes reach a point where they fear that letting go might mean they will lose a part of who they have become…the protector of the status quo. The unspoken (and usually unconscious) question in play here is, “If I’m no longer a guardian of what was, who am I?”
This question can create a powerful void between hanging on and opening up. After “what was” is gone, but before the “what is to become” space is filled with something new, there is a psychological opening that is extremely uncomfortable (and therefore avoided at any cost). As a species, the ultimate existential anxiety for us takes place when we are unsure of who we are.
Although most people think their fight to hang on is about what is right or wrong, good or bad, in large part the struggle’s intensity is actually tied to preserving one’s self-identity. Few people are aware of it, but one of the primary reasons we try so hard to protect what we have is because the things we try to preserve have become part of how we define ourselves. We battle so profoundly because we are not only fighting to conserve what is around us; we are also fighting for our sense of distinctiveness. Given how invested people become in the outcomes of these battles, when they are lost, the emptiness can be profound. And with intense loss comes intense emotions, thus the cathartic-level release.
We must be prepared to help clients deal with deep emotion.
Cathartic experiences are personal by nature and therefore different for each individual. Two people in different relationships can experience divorce at the same time yet their responses will likely vary dramatically. That said, they will have one thing in common: If they don’t surrender and then “purge” their hearts following their respective break ups, they won’t likely be open to a new, deep relationship. It is this relinquishing, clearing out, and adopting that allows something fresh to unfold.
In our role as change practitioners, it’s important that we design and conduct individual interactions, meetings, workshops, etc. in a way that creates space for various kinds of “surrender/vacate/acceptance” experiences, including those of cathartic intensity. For example, helping a client develop a business case for change is an opportunity to reveal why his or her status quo is so untenable. Facilitating controversial, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue among key players about the business implications for failing or succeeding with their initiatives can create a cathartic moment for the sponsors. This is when they realize at a deep emotional level that they can no longer continue on the same potentially catastrophic path. As a result, they release their vice-like grip on the established, familiar way of thinking. This can open the way for new perspectives to emerge that lead to a desired future state, less encumbered by the anchors of the past.
As change practitioners, an important part of our work involves encouraging clients to face the reality of their circumstances:
When this happens, we are engaged with our clients at deeply meaningful, emotionally expressive levels and we need to be prepared to recognize these cathartic situations and respond appropriately.
In the next post, I’ll describe some of the ways we can prepare ourselves for cathartic work with clients.
To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.” —Arnold Bennett
A great deal of emotional investment is necessary to achieve the desired outcome of strategic initiatives, yet most change endeavors lean heavily toward the intellectual components (data reviews, critical activities and milestones, logical presentations, rational decision-making, etc.). Several factors contribute to this, one being that intellectual commitment typically precedes emotional commitment and thus, in some ways, is easier to come by. That is, people may quickly grasp the implications of a change at a rational level but then find that they need more time and effort to make the necessary emotional adjustments.
When emotional accommodation is too far behind the logical acceptance of change, dual—often contradictory—signals are sent by the person facing the transition. This kind of split-level commitment can produce confusion, mixed signals, and ambiguous communication for all involved. People may think that they have accepted a recent approach or policy shift only to find that once they actually engage in the new behaviors, they are not emotionally prepared to deal with the consequences (such as changing relationships with co-workers or a shift in the political landscape).
When implementing major change, a foundation of logic alone (without an emotional counterweight) creates one-sided behavior in people:
When understanding, commitment, and alignment are less than they need to be, what typically results is installation of an endeavor’s intended outcomes rather than full realization. (For a deeper exploration of these terms, see my post, Guidelines for Dealing With Top Change Challenges.)
One way professional change facilitators can create value for clients is to ensure the approaches, models, techniques, etc. we use promote the proper mix of logic and emotion throughout the entire implementation process.
Overall, successful transformation requires a healthy balance between reason and emotion. At certain points, however, it is important to place disproportionate weight on the emotional components in order to break through entrenched mindset blocks and/or resistance patterns that thwart realization. As professional change facilitators, it’s incumbent upon us to be prepared to address the strong feeling-based aspects of practicing our craft. By this, I mean encouraging clients to delve into the connection between their heads and their hearts…to help them see how the logical aspects of the process relate to the emotional side of unfolding change.
Leaders who succeed with change understand the emotional aspects of implementing change.
Emotion-based interventions are by no means limited to our work with sponsors, but I’ll focus on leaders here because they often need our assistance to see the value of addressing the feeling side of the implementation process. Initiating sponsors face many challenges that call for a heightened emphasis on the affective components of implementation. Here are some examples of when strong feelings could come into play:
- Blind-spot behaviors that could jeopardize desired change outcomes
- Perspectives or biases that could cause unintended negative consequences
- Displaying insufficient resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity
- Failure to acknowledge or learn from mistakes
- Focusing on parochial concerns instead of realization of change
- Showing patterns of conflict avoidance, passive aggressiveness, attacking/blaming, and destructive disagreements
- Covert sabotaging of unpopular decisions
- Ignoring diverse opinions
- Engaging in turf wars and silo mentality
- How much—and how fast—change can be introduced
- Which important projects or aspects of the business will be reduced in scope, slowed down, or altogether eliminated to make room for even more important change initiatives
- Who among the incumbent management/employees is capable of enduring the high risk, accelerated ambiguity and demanding pace—and who can’t or won’t make the journey
These are only a few of the circumstances that professional change facilitators must be prepared to address when clients deal with the emotional side of their transformational journeys. In this series, I’ll explore what I consider the more difficult of the emotion-centered interventions we pursue…those that take on a cathartic-level release of feelings. In the next post, I’ll explain what I mean by the cathartic part of practicing our craft.