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The Six-Stage Process of Inter-Personal Change

How many times have you considered getting fit or quitting a dead-end job without doing anything about it? Or, unnecessarily lapsed back into an unhelpful habit after working so hard to break it?

Whether we’re considering a minor change to one or two of our habitual processes or a cultural change across an organisation, it’s common to feel uneasy about embracing the process of change.

Lifestyle change, breaking bad habits, unhelpful beliefs or even changing a limiting self-image can all be daunting tasks. The extent to which we can embrace change will vary from person to person. We enjoy being at point B, but leaving point A can make us anxious and we need a process to achieve it.

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink”, you might appreciate how it’s never the helping practitioner who causes transformation in another’s life. That’s not what a good counsellor does. Instead, an efficient helper will assume the role of an enabler who works to empower and encourage the other to navigate their way through these changes that will lead them from point A to point B.

We can categorise those who want to change something in their lives 4 ways:

  1. There are those who want to feel better.
  2. There are those who want to become better.
  3. There are those who want to enable others to be better.
  4. There are those who want to transform culture/society.

For some, just realising that a particular habit or attitude is impeding progress is more than enough of a motivation for change. Those who readily embrace change are usually people who are secure within themselves, confident in their ability to learn, solve problems and create lasting transformation.

Unfortunately, for many people, it is much more challenging for them to break away from a destructive habit, behaviour or attitude. This is especially true if this has developed over a number years and has ingrained itself into a person’s identity beliefs (i.e. a man defines himself as being angry which justifies his usual angry demeanour).

In situations like this, the road to lasting change arrives via an unbroken succession of efforts, that when followed in natural order or flow, will significantly increase the chances of change happening, and that change is permanent.

The secret to successful personal change does not depend on luck or willpower. It is a natural process that anyone who appreciates how it works can achieve. If change is a necessity for you (or, for those whom you work with) once you determine which stage of the change process you’re in, you will quickly recognise the practical next step(s) to take.

The Six-Stage Process of Change:

Stage 1) The Pre-contemplation Stage:

“Men who think deeply appear to be comedians in their dealings with others because they always have to feign superficiality in order to be understood”. — Friedrich Nietzsche

In the Precontemplation Stage, we will not yet admit that there is an area in our life in need of attention. Because of this stage of denial (defined as a defence mechanism by Sigmund Freud), we might even avoid acknowledging the subject. While some people might say, that ignorance is bliss, in truth, it can be hell. Failure to recognise the areas in our life that need our attention can keep us in a perpetual loop of self-destruction indefinitely and sometimes fatally.

In this pre-contemplation stage, we aren’t necessarily thinking about changing yet and likely aren’t interested in seeking out any form of help. People in this stage often defend their ‘habits, choices, attitudes, etc.’ and don’t yet see they have a problem.

Stage 2) The Contemplation Stage:

“Contemplation often makes life miserable. We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live”. — Nicholas Chamfort.

In the Contemplation Stage, we might have realised that something about how we’re living life needs to change. We notice our issues, even if we don’t understand them, and start to consider the steps we can take to bring about resolve.

It’s here where we can become undecided and have mixed emotions about committing to a course that can make the change happen, even if it’s what we want.

We become more aware of the personal consequences of our habits, and attitudes and think about our problem. Although we can consider the possibility of changing, we tend to be ambivalent about it.

Stage 3) The Preparation & Planning Stage:

“There are no secrets to accomplishment in life. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” — Colin Powell

The Preparation Stage is where we make well-informed decisions. It’s here that our desire for change has become more significant than our desire to remain the same. While some people spend more time considering change than changing, other people will make a committed decision to change and immediately prepare to take action.

At this stage, our outlook will become focussed more toward our future and less on the present or the past. This is a research phase where we are taking the first small steps toward change. We gather information, sometimes by reading things like this, about what we need to do to facilitate change in our lives.

Stage 4) The Active Change Stage:

“A reactionary is someone who wants to return to a previous state — that’s never a possibility in my books. For me, everything’s irreversible in the life of a society, as well as an individual’s”. — Michel Houellbecq.

Change is the only constant in life. It is in the Active Change stage where we must leave the comfort zone behind and embrace the uncertainty that accompanies a step into the unknown. This is the shortest of all the stages and the amount of time people spend in The Active Change Stage varies. There are no techniques or magical processes that can mystically make our issues disappear.

We are on our own unless we source relevant input from an appropriate helper (I.e. You). Deciding to change is one thing, and it’s another thing taking action steps towards making change happen. We need helping relationships at this stage, and this is often when helping practitioners/coaches/counsellors are employed.

Stage 5) The Maintenance Stage:

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. — George Bernard Shaw

The Maintenance Stage is the part of the process that demands grit, patience, perseverance, persistence and hard work. This is the character developing stage of change, as unless there is someone in the driving seat who’s driving change, the process will probably crash. Yes, we’ve taken action, and we’ve made a start, but unless we’re committed to ongoing improvement, growth and development, old habits have a way of working their way back in our lives.

Newly gained change is a fragile thing, the temptation to quit can seem overwhelming at this stage; therefore, much planning and preparation are required to see this stage to completion. We need to set goals, do our homework, action planning and establish our priorities.

Stage 6) The Relapse Stage:

“Relapse is a pivotal part of our learning process. It gives us a chance to appreciate better all of the intricate details about the changes we intend to make.” — David Sack M.D.

The Relapse Stage isn’t part of the process that all people will experience, however, it is still a standard part of the change process for many.

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “two steps forward and one step back”, the one step back is commonly referred to as a relapse. Relapse doesn’t have to be as drastic as it sounds It can be merely the result of a momentary lapse of judgement, a poorly made decision, or temporarily succumbing to peer pressure. It can be a pivotal part of our learning process, a chance to appreciate better all the intricate details of the change we wish to make

After a relapse, many people return to the Contemplation Stage which allows time to reflect, adapt, adjust, figure out what went wrong, before re-entering the action stage once again. Effective ‘self-changers’ can go through these six stages multiple times before they complete the cycle of change with no relapse.

Change can be a complicated process and committing to positive changes can be laborious and stress-inducing, but we have to remember that the pain of change is still less than the pain of remaining the same and the potential benefits can be huge. If we plan carefully and build a solid foundation for change, implementing change can be far more comfortable with increased chances of success.

Change is an inevitable part of life. Understanding these six stages of change can help us to help ourselves and others better when dealing with the inevitable adversities we will face.

Whether we want to facilitate change in ourselves or others, a sense of urgency, a compelling vision for what change looks like and a commitment to hard work will spur the momentum that makes change part of everyday life.

The Achologist is the official online publication for Achology, the Academy of Modern Applied Psychology for professional practitioners and life coaches.




The Achologist

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Kain Ramsay

Kain Ramsay

Founder of, International Training Instructor and Editor of The Alchologist Magazine

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