Handout on Change

The world of work, achievement, getting things done, is about all change. Change is not something that comes along once in a while in our work lives, it is present all the time. Change is a constant and a given. It has external aspects (new projects, a new boss, a new strategy…) and an internal dimension (our reactions and responses, uncertainty,..):

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything (George Bernard Shaw)

Rick Maurer opens his book on change with statistics to show that around 70% of major changes in organisations fail.[1] This jolts us into a determination and a curiosity about change at a deeper level. Looking at it as we have done until now, is not getting us the results we expect or want.

Maurer argues that leaders initiating and managing change make 4 common mistakes. These are

  1. Assuming that understanding equals support and commitment
  2. Underestimating the potential power of employee and management engagement
  3. Failing to appreciate the power of fear
  4. Failing to acknowledge how even a slight lack of trust and confidence in leaders can kill an otherwise fine idea.[2]

He looks into the world of human behaviour to understand why these mistakes happen, how human beings deal with change, and how energy around ideas takes shape and builds, to enable action.

Gestalt psychology and therapy and its application to workplace systems[3], is useful here.


The Cycle of Change

The Gestalt Cycle of Experience / Change helps us to see

  • There is a natural order in the life of change
  • What disrupts that natural movement
  • That nothing lasts forever
  • The potential consequences of various strategies[4]



The Gestalt cycle of experience / change describes the process an individual or system goes through in any given experience; it is used to heighten and promote awareness of own processes/ experiences and those of others, in the moment, assisting in diagnosis and design of procedures in a unit of work, and ensuring resolution and closure.


Briefly then, the cycle of change describes the process by which people – individually or collectively – become aware of what is going on at any moment (newness, change), how they mobilise energy to take some action that allows them to deal constructively with their needs,  and how they learn, and move on.
The cycle of change may be phased as follows
(if not blocked / interrupted):

  1. Sensation: something happens to disturb an existing situation and is perceived as a stimulus, (stimuli may come from within or from outside)….the sensory apparatus of the organism detects a change……intake of information happens….and initial scanning in a group / of a societal situation, or contextual analysis
  2. Awareness: awareness that something needs to be attended to (this awareness may come in the form of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, etc.); of unsatisfied needs, problems….data are collected and generated….steps of specific situation-analysis done….the beginnings of understanding…an idea forms…
  3. Energy mobilisation: excitement: the organism begins to respond to its awareness….creativity comes into play…ideas are formulated….resource potentials are identified…. differences are identified, plus resistances…solutions are designed…what to attend to is assessed, prioritised, decisions taken
  4. Action: things happen, there is movement, there may be experimentation, others are brought in, structures set up
  5. Contact: some satisfaction takes place (e.g. of needs), there is new practice; new experiences, change is registered
  6. Resolution: evaluation, assessment, assimilation of what is new or different, learning takes place
  7. Closure/

   Withdrawal of attention: a new equilibrium is reached, closure, a new cycle can be started

To take a simple example: a grumbling sensation in the stomach leads to awareness of hunger, the mobilisation of energy to head for the fridge or take-away, acquire food and eat (action); the food alters the hunger state and induces change in the body (contact), producing satisfaction (resolution, closure) and the withdrawal of attention from this issue, one returns to what one was busy with before hunger struck, or moves on to the next issue, according to the new sensation becoming figural.

Constructive and uninterrupted movement through the cycle produces smooth functioning in the system. Interruptions and blockages at any stage induce a state of disequilibrium, frustrating the inherent tendency of the system to function optimally, or to finish the business at hand. Blockages or resistance can occur at any stage in the cycle; leaving unresolved or unfinished business in the system to clog further sensation and subsequent processes. To refer again to the hunger example: notice one’s mental and bodily reactions to suppressing hunger in the interests of finishing a piece of work; ultimately such unfinished business returns or reoccurs, often in a more severe form.

Cycles of Change: an example

Take the case of parents rearing a child. They sense what is happening with the child, they observe and talk about their observations. They interact, they react to how the child is. They may change their actions if they realise they should. Often a special event or experience triggers changes. Parents can learn from day to day, but sometimes it may also take some time. Learning cycles can happen quickly.

The youngsters grow in phases: from baby to child to adolescent to adult. The parents grow with them. The relationship and behaviour to one another is different from phase to phase. In each phase there is learning as long as the process is observed, reflected upon, and conclusions drawn result in actions. Each phase can be a learning cycle, too.

Some things may need strategic thinking: what education would the child need to prepare it for life? Other things need more detailed planning: if a journey is to be made, how to travel, what to take. Again other things are organisational: the routines of everyday life, roles and responsibilities. Others may need careful observation (if there are difficulties in school) and respective corrective actions. Every now and then, a family may want to look back and reflect: how was our experience? And then, something may be changed.

At work or in professional contexts similar processes and cycles take place, as part of the ongoing experience of life. Adapting the concept of cycles of change to organisations, is more of a philosophy than a technique. It is taken from nature and related to human growth. Despite its philosophical character, this concept can give very practical hints on how to approach change.

Maurer defines the stages in the Cycle of Change for leaders, thus:

In the dark (sensation)

See the challenge (awareness)

Get started (mobilising energy)

Roll out (action)

Results (contact)

Time to move on (resolution, closure, withdrawl)[5]

Awareness and careful facilitation of each stage in a change cycle, will produce good energy and outputs for the next stage. There are key tasks for each stage (whichever version of the cycle you use) that need doing, or that need support to happen.

The “work” of each stage in the Cycle of Change:


Sensation /

In the dark


·       Encourage pausing and noticing perceptions, incoming data, feelings and sensations

·       Slow down to speed up, take time to get good data of what’s going on,

·      Allow everyone’s picture to emerge into the light, the multiple realities/perceptions

Awareness /

See the challenge


·       Surface awareness around all aspects of the situation, from all involved (careful of defining this group to constitute a critical mass to leverage change)

·       As intervener / leader feed back your observations of the situation to elicit more engagement and awareness

·       Deal fully, perceptively and confrontationally with what manifests in the present, by asking a variety of questions

·       Ask open ended questions, ask a variety of questions from all angles

·       Consult other stakeholders

·      Get a critical mass of those affected to see and feel the need for collective action around a shared strategy

Mobilising energy /

Get started

·       Find the point at which collective commitment happens.

·       Observe, locate, highlight  and explore changes in energy as people start to move, nurture this, encourage, inspire

·       Reflect back positive motivation

·      Identify goals and make plans

Action /

Roll out

·       Support experimentation / doing something different or new

·       Affirm energy and direction and support action

·       Clarify action steps together with timelines to encourage.

·      Facilitate reality checking.

Contact /



·       Help those involved to feel the point where change has occurred

·       Observe and reflect back any shifts or changes, to anchor them.

·      Name the new status quo and celebrate it, support the client in the “newness”


Closure,  Withdrawal /

Time to move on

·       Debrief change and learning, make it explicit; ask: “What did you learn?”

·       Facilitate reflection on what has been learned.

·       Ask about, and work with any unfinished business.

·       Let go of this work


·      Facilitate an end and how to build this on to the new / next thing to deal with.


Characteristics of Change[6]

From a systems perspective, change takes place at the boundary between two systems. It is in this flexible, permeable space that energy, ideas and information are exchanged, where reflection and learning (and unlearning!) takes place…that may result in boundaries shifting / change.

  • Change is paradoxical…

For change to occur, a system must first experience fully what it is, before trying to become what it wants to be: change occurs when a system – although temporarily – fully becomes itself, not when it tries to be what it is not. Change starts with and depends on the complete acceptance of the status quo.

The paradox of change

The paradoxical hypothesis of change assumes that one must stand firmly in one place before one can move securely to another place. It is paradoxical in that it pushes an organism not to change its nature, but to be(come) its nature. By and after doing so, one can allow for change. For the moment one abandons what one would like to become and instead attempts to accentuate what already exists.

In an organisation, this is related to being aware of a specific situation in all its detail, to involving all affected people (as represented by different stakeholders) in such awareness creation (for example by participatory methods).

This concept runs contrary to most beliefs that change occurs through overtly trying to become what one wants to be / achieve. The latter is a simplistic and blinkered view of the change process. It ignores the inevitable anxieties / risks that accompany any (even the most desired) change, and the various resistances that work to block (even the most desired) change.

Change always generates risk, creating fear and anxiety (a “void”). Change is also a natural and continuous phenomenon, which often goes unnoticed. In the interplay between an organism (with its boundaries) and its respective environment, ‘no change’ would be equal to death. In a living situation it is virtually impossible to remain the same over time.


  • Resistance is part of change

When one is involved in a conscious and chosen change effort, resistance must be expected and – paradoxically – supported. The first resistance that usually occurs is resistance to accept the unacceptable status quo. Because the desire for change is rooted in dissatisfaction with the status quo, how can one expect to accept that with which one is dissatisfied?

Resistance limits and controls the change process; it is necessary in order to assure self-regulation. Resistance manifests in tension, anxiety, excitement, passivity. When made conscious, resistance is a healthy process and allows an organism to develop. The decision to hold on to the resistance or to remove it must be made by the resistant organisms.

In individuals resistance manifests as ambivalence, wanting to move in the direction of change and at the same time wanting to hold on to what is known. In organisations, resistance manifests as multiple realities (different options, stances, views). It is only by exploring all realities that coherent, committed, collective movement is possible.

  • Polarities

In addition to resistance, managing polarities is another important component of change. For every proposed change, issue, problem, there exists a polarity, i.e. an opposite tendency, a radical alternative. Polarities challenge protagonists to see the ‘other side’ of any particular experience or suggestion. By exploring the polarity of a given or proposed change, one gains knowledge and potential of both the current state (‘what is’) and the future state (‘what is desired’). To explore polarities helps facilitate a possible integration of differences between the poles, and/or to establish the independence between them.

Intervening around change: the Gestalt approach

External intervener:

The intervener’s task is to heighten awareness of the client system about how they are showing up in a particular situation. Put differently, it is to help the client system examine its boundaries (around awareness, contact, etc.) and explore resistances with them.

The responsibility of the facilitating intervener is to balance the forces for sameness / persistence with the forces for change / difference, the need for integration with the forces for differentiation.

Change is the option of the client system; the job of the intervener is to help the client see its choices.

 Internal intervener:

Protagonists in a change-ing situation can support self and other levels of system by voicing the forces for sameness and the forces for change within themselves, and inviting others to do likewise. Appreciating the forces for sameness (which have been useful and productive until now) and the vested interests in them, can serve to allay anxiety about letting (part of) these go. Expressing the (mobilisation of) energy around change can assist the more reluctant parties to identify with aspects of this. Visualising where each is upon the spectrum between full change and full sameness (the polarities) prevents a them-us division and fosters a togetherness-but-in-slightly-different-place-on-the-same-path identification.

[1] Rick Maurer Beyond the wall of resistance (Austin, TX: Bard Press, 2010), p. 11. The Shaw quote is also from Maurer’s book.

[2]Maurer, pp12-14.

[3] The Gestalt model/approach is used by therapists (individual, couple, family and other small systems) and organisation and systems practitioners (groups, teams, organisations, and larger systems). Gestalt is rooted in perception theory (early 20th century Europe), with subsequent therapeutic application by Fritz Perls (1893-1970). Using the approach involves working with a process-orientation, a person-in-environment perspective, focusing on expanding awareness, dealing with blockages, wholeness and dialogue.

[4] Maurer, p.18

[5] Maurer p. 18

[6] This section draws on a handout given to participants in the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland’s course in Organization and Systems Development (International Program 1995-6); the handout is based on Arnold Beisser’s “The paradoxical theory of change”, in Gestalt therapy now, edited by J. Fagan and I. L. Shepard (Paulo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1970): 77-80.

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