Kelley and Conner’s Emotional Cycle of Change

Think back to the last time you made a change in your life. Perhaps you started a new job or enrolled in a night school program. Chances are, you went through some ups and downs as you went through this process.

Researchers have noted that this is common, and that many of us go through a predictable cycle of emotions when we choose to make a change.When you know what emotions to expect in these situations, it’s much easier to cope with them.

About the Tool

Don Kelley and Daryl Conner developed their Emotional Cycle of Change model in the mid-1970s, and they outlined it in their Handbook for Group Facilitators.

The cycle has five stages, shown in figure 1 below.

Stage 1: Uninformed optimism.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism.
Stage 3: Hopeful realism.
Stage 4: Informed optimism.
Stage 5: Completion.

Figure 1 – The Emotional Cycle of Change

Kelley and Conner Cycle of Emotional Change

List and image from “Change Thinking,” by Daryl Conner. © 2012 Conner Partners. Used with permission.

The figure above outlines how your emotional response – the extent to which you react emotionally to something, based on how much it will affect you personally – is likely to alter as you go through a change.

It rises as you move through a stage of pessimism, and falls as you become more confident with your project.

You may be familiar with other change models, such as the change curve , which explains the emotional impact of involuntary change.

If you compare the models, you’ll see that the most obvious difference is that the Change Curve shows a first reaction of shock, because the change was unexpected. In contrast, Kelley and Conner’s cycle shows that when you make a planned change, you’ll initially feel optimistic.

How to Apply the Model

You can use the five stages outlined in this model to understand and anticipate your emotional responses after you make a change. Below, we look at each stage in detail, and we outline tools that you can use to cope with your changing emotional responses.

Stage 1: Uninformed Optimism

In stage 1, you may be excited to get started, but your emotional response levels will be low, as you’ll be focused on doing, rather than thinking.

However, you may not be aware of the difficulties that you could face along the way.

Capitalize on your excitement: make a treasure map  , and draw up a list of the benefits that you hope to achieve. These will motivate you later on.

Stage 2: Informed Pessimism

As your new situation progresses, you may start to feel some negative emotions about the project, especially if you hit problems.

For example, you may become frustrated by challenges, or anxious about your ability to meet your goal. You may even want to quit altogether. This is the point at which many projects fail.

It’s also the point at which many people “check out” of a project. Kelley and Conner noted that this can happen in two ways.

  • If you check out publicly, you may voice criticism, or point out objections.
  • If you check out privately, you lose interest, become ambivalent about the situation, and reduce your involvement. It’s harder to spot this kind of checking out, because it may be subconscious.

If you find that you’re procrastinating or feeling negative at this point, you may be checking out. Revisit your goals to make sure that they’re still achievable, or adjust them to match your new understanding of your situation.

You may also want to look for a Coach or Mentor  or support network to help you deal with challenges and self-sabotaging thoughts  . Alternatively, try to keep a journal. The more you verbalise your doubts and fears, the easier they are to address.

Stage 3: Hopeful Realism

Once you’ve pushed past doubt, your pessimism should start to decline. You may still feel anxious, but you’re more likely to be able to solve problems, because you’re now more familiar with your situation.

Use action plans or project management tools to keep on top of tasks, and look for ways to build habits   that support the change that you’ve made. For example, if you’ve signed up to a new class, set aside regular times for study, and ask friends or colleagues to check in with you to see how you’re doing.

Stage 4: Informed Optimism

In this phase, you’ll start to feel confident that you’ve made the right choice. You’ll look at the change with more experienced eyes, and you’ll feel less anxious about problems.

You may now be in a position to support others who are at an earlier stage of the change process. For example, you could offer to be a “study buddy” or mentor to someone starting out in a new class, or offer to share your new knowledge with colleagues.

This is an effective way to cement new information, and you may even inspire someone to embark on a similar change.

Stage 5: Completion

You’ll probably feel very satisfied when you reach your goal. Your emotional response levels will have lowered, now that you’ve worked through the problems and brought about a change.

Celebrate your success, and thank people who supported you during the change process.

Finally, before you move on, reflect on what went well, and what you learned. This kind of project review   will boost your self-confidence  , and it can help you with similar projects in the future.

Key Points

Don Kelley and Daryl Conner developed the Emotional Cycle of Change, and published it in the “1979 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators.” The model outlines the five emotional stages that most people go through during voluntary change:

Stage 1: Uninformed optimism.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism.
Stage 3: Hopeful realism.
Stage 4: Informed optimism.
Stage 5: Completion.

When you understand these five stages, you can prepare yourself for the practical and the emotional impacts of the changes that you decide to make.

– Excerpt from MInd Tools: