Virginia Satir's 6 Stages of Change & What it Means for Coaches! | By Emma-Louise Elsey

Please Note: In writing this article, I found it so interesting that I got a bit carried away! So this article is a bit longer than usual, but still less than 5 minutes to read - and it's a great way to envisage where your client might be at in the change process and pick up some tips for how to help them.

I have always been an admirer of Virginia Satir and her pioneering approach to family therapy. She recognized the family is a SYSTEM, and that as such everyone plays a part ie. it's not just one person who's the problem...

A quick look at how Virginia's beliefs about change align with coaching:

Virginia liked to work from the ground up - getting to the root of the problem by working at a thoughts and feelings level, not just focusing on changing behaviours. She respected and explored yearnings, expectations, perceptions and feelings - all things we look at when coaching someone.

When it comes to change, Virginia believed that the first step is always to create a positive context; she believed it was important to instill hope - the belief that change is possible.

She also believed that we should build trust through our own integrity, respecting our clients as equals and and accepting them as they are. This is a beautiful fit with the CTI (Coach Training Institute's) statement that clients are "Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole" - which I love.

And finally, Viriginia believed it's important to help clients focus on the PROCESS of change rather than a narrow focus on ACTIONS and RESULTS. What this means is that she believed the PROCESS of making the change - what we learn and achieve along the way - is as important as the final result and outcomes of that change. She defined change as "an internal shift that in turn brings about external change", another fit with coaching.

Virginia Satir identified 6 Stages of Change:

  1. Status Quo
  2. Introduction of a Foreign (new) Element
  3. Chaos
  4. Integration
  5. Practice
  6. New Status Quo!

1. Status Quo

There is a need for change - even if the client hasn't acknowledged it, or doesn't know what the change looks like yet.

What this means for our clients: The client is in a state that no longer works for them. People in this "Status Quo" stage may feel dissatisfied, unhappy, stuck - and this is often reflected in stress, overwhelm and even illness. There will be denial or avoidance of what's really going on, and the client may be using unhealthy or outdated coping mechanisms like working long hours, shopping, alcohol or overuse of social media or television.

What this means for us as the coach: Nothing yet... Until the client is ready to outwardly acknowledge the need for change, there is nothing we can do.

2. Introduction of a Foreign (new) Element

What this means for our clients: The client has recognized the need for change. The "Foreign Element" introduced in this stage is usually a person - the client tells someone of the need for change whether it's a friend, family member, colleague or someone else. In coaching, we ARE that "Foreign" or "New" element!

What this means for us as the coach: We start by setting a positive context for change. Step one is to create trust in the coach and coaching relationship. We also need to help the client believe that change really is possible for them.

How coaches help the client in this stage:

It's important that the coach is strong, trustworthy - and congruent. We must walk our talk and be reliable.

Then we follow the coaching process; visioning, exploring values, the "why" of goals, brainstorming action plans, examining limiting beliefs and where our clients hold themselves back - all without judgement.

It's also important in this stage that we trust the coaching process and not rush, cheerlead or rescue our clients. We must reflect back to our clients a state of possibility, and a positive view of themselves - whilst also calling out any incongruence or limiting beliefs we see in a non-judgemental way. This calling out is a valuable part of building trust in the coaching process - it shows that we know what we're doing, and can help them see where change is needed.

Resistance to change: Another area to explore in this stage is any limiting beliefs our clients may have about their capacity to change. And great area to explore here is the "Secondary Gain" - what the clients gains by staying exactly as they are. This secondary gain is usually a large part of why a client is stuck, and it's important to help clients see this without any judgements. One way to reduce judgement is to explore how these limiting behaviours/beliefs have supported our clients up until now. When we reframe these limiting behaviours/beliefs as something that has simply outgrown its usefulness, it's much easier to let go and replace them with new, more functional behaviours.

In summary: It's important not to rush our clients at this stage. The doing will come. But first we must build trust, connect with our clients and help them establish a strong vision of the outcomes they are looking for. We continue to believe in our clients and hold them accountable. We must challenge, but not pressure them. No client-fixing, instead hold them "Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole".

3. Chaos

Once the client has begun exploring their own beliefs, motivations, needs, vision and goals they are already moving to a state of chaos - the process of change has begun! By "Chaos" Virgina Satir was referring to "the system is now operating in ways we cannot predict".

What this means for our clients: As our clients begin to make shifts and changes, they move from a place of safety and "usualness" to a state of chaos or disequilibrium. This is possibly the most important and difficult stage for our clients - for it's where clients struggle and question everything! This is obviously hard for them. Even as our clients may be excited, their sense of safety is gone. Depending on the change they want and their past experiences, this can raise quite a lot of fear.

What this means for us as the coach: Virginia Satir used this stage and considered it vital for deep and lasting change. It's important to note that this stage is where we, the coach, are most likely to get stuck with a client. [If we do get stuck, we can ask for help from a colleague or mentor - while respecting confidentiality of course.]

How coaches help the client in this stage:

Fear needs exploring and normalising! When fear arises during a session, it helps to keep the client focused on the present - that they're safe right now and that fears are only possibilities. One phrase I like to use is, "Just because we explore something doesn't mean we need to act on it!". We can also remind our clients that there are many other positive possibilities too that could be focused on instead.

If necessary, a coaching session can be used to create backup or contingency plans should their fears be realised. For example if a client plans to ask their boss for a raise - what if their boss says no? This fear may stop them from asking for the raise. Role playing can be useful here to allow our clients to experience the worst - in a safe way, and to practice their responses. We can also remind the client that what they're working on is not life threatening, and to hold the space for the belief that they're more than capable of handling whatever comes up.

It's essential to allow our clients to express and work through their fears associated with the changes they want. And it's also essential, as the coach, that we acknowledge their fears without being pulled into them. We must stay grounded ourselves, and remember that our client is "Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole".

The "Chaos" stage is also a good time to also explore coping mechanisms. How have these coping mechanisms been helping - up until now - and what new, more supportive coping behaviours could your client implement?

Finally, the Cartesian Co-ordinates is a helpful tool (set of 4 questions) to deeply explore the potential benefits and losses of a goal or change - and to bring these into awareness.

In summary: This phase is where we work with our clients to shift and heal limiting beliefs and perceptions about themselves, their life and the world. We continue to validate, accept and respect our client during this turbulent phase, reminding them of the inner and outer resources they already possess. We normalise stress and fear as an essential part of change, and help them renegotiate their outdated rules, beliefs and coping mechanisms.

4. Integration

What this means for our clients: Integration is where our clients develop new possibilities, reevaluate and let go of old ways of being. During this stage they'll come up with new ideas, reconsider their beliefs, integrate dormant parts of themselves and explore new ways of looking at themselves and their life. Our clients will have more energy and enthusiasm. They'll see new futures for themselves - beginning to let go of what doesn't serve them, and really go for what they want!

What this means for us as the coach: This is a fun stage for coaches - a stage where a new place of being emerges for our clients.  As coaches we can reflect back what we see, encourage the client to connect with what's important, what they want and to try new things. We stretch them (within reason!) to be and do more.

How coaches help the client in this stage:

This is the time where we get to reflect back all the positive changes we're seeing! We also help the client find and integrate their inner resources - dormant parts of themselves (eg. a creative inner child), new positive beliefs, new perspectives on their life experiences and growing their self-worth. Strengths Boosting and Weakness Reframing work can be helpful too.

Virginia believed body-centered work can be helpful here - helping the client notice the feelings and shifts in their body - eg. a sinking feeling, flutter in the chest, tense shoulders - that signal we may be stuck in past ways of thinking and being. We can also help clients identify what happiness, joy, contentment and excitement feel like eg. our bodies feel light and spcaious or we feel grounded with our feet on the floor. How about that stomach flutter - it might be excitement instead of anxiety!

In summary: We help our clients identify and integrate their inner resources - new thoughts, beliefs, habits and positive coping mechanisms into their lives. We objectively reflect back the positive shifts we see in them, and support them in building a new way of being.

5. Practice

What this means for our clients: This is the stage where the clients implement and strengthen their new state by practicing! It can be challenging and disheartening in the beginning. And as our clients stick at it, they improve and they begin to feel proud and exhilarated!

What this means for us as the coach: As the client implements and practices their new ideas, they need support. The pull of old patterns is strong. We can encourage the client to connect with their inner strength, remind them what is possible, and point out where they may be slipping back into old ways of thinking and being (obviously without judgement!).

How coaches help the client in this stage:

In this stage, practical support is useful. Not advice, but encouragement to find ways to remember their new way of being. Help clients find what works for them! It could be affirmations, inspiring words and images on their phones, quotes, post-its with reminders in places they will be seen often. It could also be creating positive habits like mindfulness, meditation, journaling or body-centered exercises to ground or anchor them. These are all great ways to practice and implement a new way of being.

Clients will need encouragement (and reminders not to judge themselves) when they slip back into old ways - and they will! Each slip or "fall off the horse" is an opportunity to get right back on and celebrate all they've learned to get to this point.

Now is also the time to try out new ways of being and doing in new situations - to transfer and solidify their new skills. For example:

  • How can they take their newly identified strengths from the workplace to their home life?
  • Can our clients try out being vulnerable and "real" with their partners, as well as their coach?
  • How can they feel their feelings at work (not just with friends and family) and use those feelings to guide them in the workplace too?
  • Where can they validate others as well as themselves (or vice versa!)?
  • In what new situations can our client apply their new belief about their self-worth?

The list is endless. And the more the client practices and (positively) adapts their new beliefs, knowledge, thoughts and feelings - the more those wonderful new ways of being get integrated!

This is also a good time to encourage our clients to build a support team to keep them on track (I like to call it a Spark Team). These are people who support, encourage and inspire us to be our best selves - and keep going, even when we feel like giving up!

In summary: This stage is all about implementation and practice. We support our clients when the pull of old patterns is too great. We help them create supportive "structures", and to practice, practice, practice in as many ways, shapes and forms as possible!

6. The NEW Status Quo

What this means for our clients: This stage is where the client gets to enjoy the new, improved state of being. It may not always be comfortable, but the client is largely IN their new way of being - and it operates fully in their life. They notice when they slip and generally find it easy to get back on track. The client will literally FEEL differently - with more energy,  spontaneity and openness. They'll be more creative and see more possibilities for themselves and their lives.

What this means for us as the coach: This is a great time to celebrate with the client. We can reflect back what we see - holding up the mirror that shows the new person! It may also be a time where our coaching relationships ends, and we let go and set our clients free... You may need some time to "mourn" the loss of the relationship - especially if you really enjoyed the client!

How coaches help the client in this stage:

If the client wishes to stay with us, this is a good time to set a new vision and goals (and begin the change process all over again). Of course change is a never-ending process. There is always something new, and life throws us curve balls all the time.

And, once a client's goals are achieved, this may be the time they choose to leave coaching - whether it's for a while or forever! If so, be sure to have a client wrap-up process so the coaching relationship ending is professional and positive. Use this process to reflect on how far the client has come. How can you celebrate with them? How will they celebrate? It's also lovely to get permission to stay in touch with past clients eg. through your newsletter - that way, when the next goal or curve ball hits, they know who to call!

In summary: Change is a path, a spiral - hopefully onwards and upwards. If your client is ready to move forwards with their life, set them free, And if they're ready for the next change, it's time to get visioning and start all over again!

Wrap-up

This "model" of change is intended to provide context for the coaching process! Just like any "model", these stages of change are not linear.

The client doesn't 'literally' finish one stage before going onto the next. Instead they will jump around, repeat and experience these stages at many different times and levels. In fact clients can go through all these stages in one coaching session! And when it comes to bigger goals, they will follow this change process over a larger arc - of several weeks, months and even years.

The 6 Stages of Change is just a model - there for guidance and context. I hope you enjoyed this and found it helpful!

If you like this article on Virginia Satir's 6 Stages of Change, you may also like:

Image of Rolling Hills, Sky and Tree by Takra via Shutterstock

8 Comments

  1. Kat Sneddon

    Dear Emma-Louise - this is awesome. This entire site is awesome! Thank you. I've been studying and had my first client last Friday. It was amazing. Surely need tools and help that you offer. Thank you so very, very much!! Indeed. -- Kat

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Hi Kat, thank-you for taking the time to comment! Glad you find the site helpful 🙂 Good luck with growing your clients and business! Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
  2. Suzanne

    A great article and diagram, when you live and breath what you do, you forget how to break it down to make it easy for your client, and this article is just what I need right now. Thank you so much. 🙂

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Hi Suzanne, thank-you for your thoughtful comment! So glad you found this article useful - and I couldn't agree more 🙂 Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply

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