As a career coach, I am always listening for how someone is making sense of their current situation. This is just part of how I work. However, when working with clients who have experienced a job loss, my listening almost automatically becomes informed by a model I hold near and dear: Bridges Transitions Model.
William Bridges (1933–2013) was a preeminent authority on change and transition who transformed the way people think about change. As an author, speaker and consultant, his pioneering research provided a methodology to guide organizations and individuals during significant transitions that accompany a major change. His work offered fresh and humane perspectives on how people approach transition, both on a personal level and in organizations.
The strength of Bridges model lies in the fact that it focuses on transition, not change. The difference between these is subtle but critically important. Change is something external that happens to people, even if they don’t agree with it. Transition, on the other hand, is internal. It’s what happens in people’s minds as they go through change. Change can happen very quickly, while transition usually occurs more slowly.
Speaking from my own experience, what I’ve discovered in working with my clients and former colleagues learning Bridges Model can be one of THE most important and helpful ways of making sense of your thoughts and feelings after a job loss. And, regardless of whether that job loss is involuntary (i.e. I was laid off, downsized, reorganized, etc.) OR voluntary (i.e. I’ve decided it’s time to change jobs/careers) the internal experience is the same for us as humans.
The model highlights three stages of transition that we go through when we experience a change. These are (and in this particular order):
- Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
- The Neutral Zone
- The New Beginning
Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
The first phase of any transition actually begins with an ending. A letting go of the old ways and the old identities we once had before the change. An ending naturally results in a loss and therefore, we will go through the stages of loss and grieving and experience the sequence of emotions that occur when losing something that matters to us.
And here’s the key point Bridges really brought to light – that everything new begins with an ending. Something new can’t really, fully take shape and grow until you acknowledge that something old has actually ended. This can be a difficult concept for us to wrap our heads around. As humans, we actually don’t like loss or endings because they force us (in more ways than one) to let go of something that we’re comfortable with. Whether that be the physical location of our work, seeing the people we worked with every day, the duties and tasks of the work itself that we’ve gotten so good at, or even likely, our overall identity. We knew who we were at that job, within that department, within that organization, within the work, etc.
To work with this phase, we must allow ourselves to acknowledge the losses we’re facing. So write them down in a journal, talk about them to someone you trust, cry, get angry, whatever. Allow yourself to experience this phase courageously and honestly knowing this too shall pass.
The Neutral Zone
The second phase we go through in a transition is the Neutral Zone. This is the in-between time where we now know that the old is gone but the new hasn’t fully taken shape or hold. This can be a chaotic time for people because the unknown that accompanies this phase is oftentimes even more scary than the known of the ending. Bridges uses a “wilderness” metaphor when describing the Neutral Zone. People will likely wander through the wilderness for a while not knowing exactly what will be on the other side.
And while the neutral zone can feel like a difficult stage for people, critical psychological realignments and repatterning are taking place. Recognizing all that has ended, we can now give ourselves the space to wander for a little while. Wandering simply means we don’t really know what’s next as our new beginning hasn’t taken shape yet.
But here’s the thing, if we allow ourselves to relax into this wandering phase a bit, it can become the space where new possibilities emerge. It can actually be a stage of innovation if you can look toward the new beginning with a sense of optimism and openness.
The New Beginning
The final phase is the New Beginning. This phase happens when people are finally able to develop a new identity and/or way of understanding themselves. All of this can only happen after we go through the Neutral Zone. The new beginning means we now can finally experience an emotional commitment to something new. A new job, a new career, a new sense of purpose and/or sense of ourselves in all of it. The new beginning is at long last taking shape.
At the end of the day, knowing all of this can be quite liberating during times of change. It’s all just part of it. And remember, you don’t have to go it alone. While there’s often a tendency for us to think “I can (or should) just do this on my own,” the process will likely be different if you find a partner on your journey. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Who can help me as I work through the phases of my transition?
- What support do I most need right now?
The next time you experience an external change, I encourage you to use Bridges Model. I’m confident it will help you as much as it’s helped me.
“The essence of life takes place in the neutral zone phase of transition. It is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity and innovative ideas can come to life and flourish.”
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