Would you like to know the universal stages of change that apply to individuals, families, work teams and even countries?

Stages of Change

Would you like to know the universal stages of change that can be applied to individuals, couples, families, neighborhoods, work teams, organizations, and even countries?

Learning these stages is a useful component of change management which apply to both positive and negative changes.

Clients who come for your services are often struggling with change. Your clients might struggle with a change in relationship, employment, health, finances, environment or the loss of someone dear to them.

As we know, some changes come quickly and other change happens gradually, but change is inevitable.

Stages of change

All change implies loss a loss of a previous situation, so I have never found Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief to be very workable.

I have introduced the following stages of change many times to clients who have found them easy to understand and helpful. After learning these stages clients are often visibly relieved as they can see how the tumult of their current experience makes sense. I often take out a notepad, draw an upside down bell curve and provide the following description.

The stages of change are:

• Denial• Resistance• Exploration• Commitment


Denial is the first stage of change, but it is also the shortest stage.

You have likely seen commercials of individuals who open their front door to find out they have won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. The expressions on their faces are of surprise, excitement and disbelief. They often say, “Oh my God. This can’t be true. You must be kidding. Me? I won? Are you for real?” and other statements of denial.

The same is true when people get bad news. Again, you likely can remember watching a movie or television show where an actor picks up the phone only to fall silent. Their expression grows somber and they might say, “Oh no! Please tell me it isn’t true. This can’t be true. They can’t be dead.” or other statements of denial.

The effect of denial is like the brain putting the brakes on. We suspend belief as we try to make sense of this new, powerful information.

Denial is the shortest of the stages as we soon come to believe the information to be true.

To deny the truth after it has been shown to be true would be a defense mechanism at best and a delusion at worst.

Denial is broken when the person understands and accepts the information to be true and knows there is no going back. That things cannot return to the way they were.

The condensed description of this stage is, “Oh my God is it true? OK. It’s true.”


Resistance is the second stage of change and often the most uncomfortable stage.

While poorly named, this stage is where all the feelings reside. These feelings can be worry, anger, elation, anxiety, sadness, fear, happiness, depression or guilt.

This is the stage of suffering. People realize they cannot go backwards, but they don’t know how to go forward. They are in the thick of it.

They may come to you with complaints of disrupted sleep, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, intrusive thoughts or changes in eating habits. Their work performance might be temporarily impaired. Their relationships may be suffering. People will describe some days feeling strong, and some days unable to control their feelings. Some quietly worry if they are “losing it” or going crazy.

Clients will often show up in this stage hoping for relief. Can you blame them? I will often reassure clients that their reactions, while uncomfortable, are normal. In fact, their reactions are somewhat predictable. In learning the stages ahead of them, people are generally relieved to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

How long a person resides in this stage is particular to that person and their coping skills. Unfortunately, some people do seem to get stuck in misery, anger, worry, guilt or depression, but they don’t have to.

The condensed description of this stage is, “This sucks.”


The next stage is exploration where the person begins to ask what they are going to do next? They realize they can’t go back, and they are suffering, so what are they going to do to handle their current difficulty? They begin to explore the possibilities.

This stage is a bit more calm and logical, but it is common for people to slosh back and forth between resistance and exploration. As the person continues to deal with the fallout of the change, they may be thrust back into resistance, try to regroup and move into exploration.

The condensed description of this stage is, “This sucks, but I can’t go back. Now what am I going to do?”


The final stage of change is commitment. The person has suffered the loss, developed their next steps and now commits to a path of reconfiguring their life. Through this path something new is created. The change is complete.

Past to future

The condensed description of this stage is, “That was difficult, but this is what my life is like now.”

It should be noted, there is no universal speed at which a person goes through these changes. And, a person can go through multiple changes at the same time with each running at it’s own speed.

What generally helps?

• Talking about it • Patience • Support • Self care

As mentioned, these stages of change apply to individuals, work teams and countries. As an example, let’s look at 9/11. Remember back to when you heard the news or saw the videos; the information was unbelievable. We all quickly realized it was real. Planes had crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center and people were dying. Coworkers were talking about their reactions. Parents worried how to explain these events to their children. You might remember the anguish and anxiety that gripped the country. Many people were worried for their own safety. Many were angry, bewildered, revengeful and fearful. And as we gained some distance from the immediacy of this event the country began to ask, “What are we going to do?” Many possibilities were explored. The government made changes to its own structure with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Air travel security changes were made and we have come to accept that they are here to stay. We have made our way through the change, and our government and society have been reconfigured in a new way which we hope will prevent another similar catastrophic event.

For more information on dealing with stages of change you might find the link Stress Management useful.

Also consider Tips for talking to children and youth after traumatic events and Tips for survivors of a traumatic event - stress management as useful resources from the US office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.