The Seven Psychological Stages of Change

Posted on September 8, 2011


When I first started my coaching practice, I couldn’t figure out why some clients would get coaching tools, use them and almost immediately start transforming their lives whereas others would want to spend their 60-minute sessions just talking about what they wanted to accomplish. This latter group didn’t seem interested in coaching at all, but I gave them the best coaching tools I had in hopes that the inspiration would soon hit.

Knowing what I know about the human psyche, I thought that people who discussed the changes they wanted to make were getting mentally organized to change. Once they were done talking through everything, I rationalized that these people would be ready to take the coaching tools, tips and strategies and actually apply them to their lives. Surely in a session or two or three, they would be ready to move into action.

But, boy I was wrong.

After some time, it became apparent to me that I was working with two distinct groups of clients: those who were actually ready to change and those who thought they wanted to change but weren’t quite ready yet.

Although I had been taught about 4 steps of change in my training as a coach, I noticed that the group who just wanted to discuss change were resisting even the initial tools I tried to give them for the first step. It was almost as if they needed something before they could even begin.

And that’s when I discovered the Seven Psychological Stages of Change. Since then, I haven’t looked back.

These days, it’s pretty easy for me to tell where people fall in the spectrum of change. Once I realize this, it becomes much easier to coach people because I know what they need in each stage. It also becomes much easier for my clients to realize why they may be getting stuck. Once you accept where you are in the process of change and honor the steps you need to take before you can progress, change is no longer frustrating. 

By the way, there’s no judgment about where you fall in the spectrum of change. People have to move through each stage in their own ways and at their own pace. Those who are ready to move let’s say into the Maintenance stage aren’t any better than people who are in the stage of Contemplation.

However, in order for you to be successful for whatever change you want to make, it would wise not to spend time, energy and money on let’s say a 3rd stage item until you’ve completed the stages before it. Just like you wouldn’t want to spend gobs of money signing up for a Calculus class when you still have to master Pre-Algebra, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure by trying to initiate a change when you’re not really ready to.

Below I’ve listed the seven psychological stages of change with brief descriptions of each of them. I’ll discuss each stage in more detail in subsequent posts, and I’ll provide you with at least one coaching tool or strategy you can use to help you get started in that particular stage. Try not to view these seven stages as a hierarchy (where one stage is superior to another) but more as a process

By recognizing what stage you’re in, you’ll be better able to figure out what you need in order to move forward. And although one tool probably won’t be enough to get you completely through that stage, you can get started here on your own and call me when you’re ready for more individualized coaching.

The Seven Psychological Stages of Change

1. Pre-Contemplation: On a conscious level you want to change but there are a lot of subconscious messages you’re unaware of which will lead you to sabotage any of your efforts.

2. Contemplation: You are now aware of the subconscious negative messages that are holding you back and can even articulate them. But you’re not sure how to move past them.

3. Preparation: You have moved past the negative messages that have held you back from changing and you are now getting ready to take action. You are gathering many resources to help you in order to get ready for the next stage.

4. Action: You move into action towards the change you want to make. You find what personally motivates you and know how to start the process of changing.

5. Maintenance: As obstacles arise, you learn to deal with them. You learn ways to be flexible so that you can face the unexpected and still stay motivated to continue your change.

6. Relapse: Something happens that temporarily arrests your change and you slip back into a former self, the self you were in Stages 1 and 2. You learn ways to get back to the habits/patterns you’ve established in Stages 4 and 5.

7. Celebration: The results of your change are apparent. You celebrate the completion of your goal.