The Neutral Zone Or The Swamp?
Read in 5 min. Facilitators are often faced with change issues. Sometimes we are brought in to help with change programs. Sometimes the solutions that workshop participants come up with require little or big changes. And sometimes we have to face change going on within the group as we facilitate their meetings.
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One change model that many people use is William Bridges' three phases of change. Every change has an ending, a middle, and a beginning. The first phase is the ending: the termination of whatever came before the change. It is the process of moving away from what was. No matter how good the new is expected to be, or how much it is anticipated, there were good things in the old. Every ending is a little death, and requires the same process as Big Death. Time must be taken to grieve, and to go through the stages of grieveing.
The beginning is the start of the new. It is the integration of the new into our way of being, and ourselves into the new order.
Before you can get to the new, the integration, you must get through the middle: the transition from the old to the new. William Bridges call this middle phase "the Neutral Zone."
The Neutral Zone is a place of healing, of regeneration, of taking stock and being sure you know what your place is in the new order before you march off. It is where we learn about the new way, and about ourselves in relation to the new way. In the neutral zone, groups and individuals are finding their new path in the changed landscape of the organization. They are finding what works and what doesn't, what they care about, what they have energy for and where they can best apply that energy.
The Neutral Zone is hard, which is why the Israelites during their forty years in the Neutral Zone of Sinai's desert wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt and why many in today's Russia long for communist totalitarianism. The Neutral Zone contains many challenges. There is doubting and resistance and backsliding and testing: Julia Karpinsky calls it "purification" ? I tend to think of it as "trial by fire."
I have worked with colleagues who call this "the swamp." Such a name implies this is a place not to get stuck in, to move through as quickly as possible. That attitude ignores the wisdom contained in a colleague's advice to "forget change, forget initiatives. Support individuals. Tell them you're waiting...you're not sure what for, but you're waiting..."
Now of course you can overdo. Another colleague of mine talks about people who take out metaphorical mortgages and buy allegorical houses in the neutral zone, planning to take up residence there forever. You don't want to do that, either. The key is to work at the pace that fits the place and your place in it, to know the work that needs to be done and to do it steadily but not in a rush, to keep moving but at a pace that lets you learn from what you pass.
My wife and I do a lot of sightseeing on vacations. Our pace is somewhat different: she wants to go fast, because she hates to go somewhere and not see everything. I want to go slower, because I hate to go somewhere and not see anything. By balancing our needs, we seem to find a pace that's just about right.
There is a poem I like to use to talk about the neutral zone. It is a teaching poem from the Northwest Native American tradition. This poem was used to answer the question, "What do I do when I am lost in the forest?" The cedar forests of the Pacific Northwest of North America are so thick that, 200 yards into the forest, there is nothing to see but green, not even the sky above. This poem was used to teach children how to act when lost in the forest, but it applies equally to any of us who are in a place where we have never been before and must find our way. And it is some of the best advice we as facilitators can give to groups in the Neutral Zone.
The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is "here," and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
Listen: the forest breathes
It whispers, "I have made this place around you that,
Leaving it, you may come back, saying 'here'."
Are any two trees are the same to raven? Are any two branches are the same to wren?
If what trees do and branches do is lost on you then you are truly lost.
The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you
The Neutral Zone is not a place of total inactivity: you are listening to the forest breathe, you are coming to know this place around you, you are observing what trees and bushes and branches and ravens and wrens are doing. But you are not running off blindly in a show of conspicuous activity. You are waiting, in the moment, with beginner's mind, until wisdom comes. Only when we have completed this process are we ready for the beginning phase of the change: the integration of what we have learned in the Neutral Zone into what we do and what we are.
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