“We resist transition not because we can’t accept the change, but because we can’t accept letting go of that piece of ourselves that we have to give up when and because the situation has changed.”   William Bridges

Years ago, I worked with a wide range of business leaders as they looked for ways to help themselves and their organizations deal with change.  During that time, I discovered what I consider to be a breakthrough idea from Dr. William Bridges in his exploration of an underlying partner to change…the deeper element of the transition (for more see “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”).

Bridges spoke of a three-phase emotional process that underlies successful change.  He suggests change is situational – one day here, the next there while transition is the psychological experience people move through.  This happens in all of life’s changes, all the way from beginning school as a child through the big change “retirement” and all the others in between.  Transitions involves three phases:


Transition starts with an ending. This is paradoxical but true. This first phase of transition begins when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep. These may include relationships, processes, team members or locations.  In order to move to the next phase, some degree of “letting go” of those losses must occur if the change is to be effective.  The more we hold on to the old, the more energy we expend causing us to get stuck and unable to move to the Neutral Zone.

Neutral Zone

The second step of transition comes after letting go: the neutral zone. People go through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. It is when the critical psychological realignments and repatterning’s take place. It is the very core of the transition process. This is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what their new roles will be. They are in flux and may feel confusion and distress. The neutral zone is the seedbed for new beginnings.

New Beginnings

Beginnings involve new understandings, values and attitudes. Beginnings are marked by a release of energy in a new direction – they are an expression of a fresh identity. Well-managed transitions allow people to establish new roles with an understanding of their purpose, the part they play, and how to contribute and participate most effectively. As a result, they feel reoriented and renewed.

You will notice the first stage is not settling into the new situation, it is in fact, an ending, a letting go of the old.  This is a place where we often get stuck because of the difficulty in letting go of the familiar.

Another analogy used is:  “It’s as if we launched out from a riverside dock to cross to a landing on the opposite shore— only to discover in midstream that the landing was no longer there. (And when we looked back at the other shore, we saw that the dock we had left from had broken loose and was heading downstream.)”

With regards to transitioning to “retirement”, Bridges has this to say:

“It is no accident that people imagine they can prepare for, say, retirement by making adequate financial preparations, choosing a good place to live and developing some new interests.  In those articles about “retirement”, you don’t find anything about going through that three-phase transition process”

Transitions and Change

Ignoring the transition makes the change more challenging and even harder to accomplish.

Transition is a natural process of disorientation and reorientation – more cyclical than linear.  We may visit each phase and deal with issues there then move back to prior one.  It is a process of reconstruction affecting the interior of self – like rearranging the furniture or building a new house.  It is important to proceed gradually and sporadically through grieving, healing and renewal.  Honoring it can be a pathway to growth and discovery.

Finally, here are, in easy to digest fashion, some tips for managing your own transition:

  1. Figure out what is actually changing and what is not
    • Can I still do the work that I love?
    • How will changes affect my situation and future?
  1. Decide when it is really over for you
    • What are you going to have to let go of?
    • What can I safely hold on to?
  1. Distinguish between current losses and old wounds
    • Reactions to the present
    • Ghosts of past, losses never dealt with
  1. Take time outs
    • Establish quiet time or solid places as a retreat from chaos.
  1. Consider Your Possibilities in a New Light
    • Break out of your mold.
    • Suspend common sense and examine the possibilities.
  1. Experiment a Little Each Day (Starting Today)
    • Every day this week, look for a chance to say why not? to someone who says it can’t be done.
    • Force yourself to pause for a count of three the next time someone asks you a question today and reply differently from what you’d customarily say.

As I bring this to an “end”, perhaps the ultimate “letting go” ending is in the movie Toy Story where Andy is going to college and he decides to give his toys to Bonnie, all toys that is except Woody (of course).  Unbeknownst to Andy, Woody sneaks into the box of toys being packed up.  Upon emptying the box at Bonnie’s, Andy realizes Woody is in the box and decides to give him to her with the following (from Toy Story 2 – check it out):

“Now, Woody, he’s been my pal for as long as I can remember, he’s brave, like a cowboy should be, and kind and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special is that he’ll never give up on you, ever. He’ll be there for you, no matter what.”

Transition is not just a nice way to say change. It is the inner process through which people come to terms with a change, as they let go of the way things used to be and reorient themselves to the way that things are now. In an organization, managing transition means helping people to make that difficult process less painful and disruptive.”  William Bridges