The Role of Chaos in Personal Transformation



As a change artist, whether I am working with individuals, groups or organizations, one approach is to figure out a way to get them to the point where they want something badly and don't know how to get there, and are in fact, fed up. We need to create a situation where the client confronts the impasse which their situation represents.

As a change artist, whether I am working with individuals, groups or organizations, one approach is to figure out a way to get them to the point where they want something badly and don’t know how to get there, and are in fact, fed up. We need to create a situation where the client confronts the impasse which their situation represents. They may be able to see that they are stuck at one of Prigogine’s ‘bifurcation points’ and that, one way or another, they are going to go out of existence as they have known themselves. They can either ‘die’ as they are, or let go of the current map and move to a higher level of conceptual organization. Consultants and coaches need to be alert to the moments in an individual or a system’s life when the chaotic bifurcation point is closer than usual in order to enable the client to move toward needed action.

I use several approaches to get our clients to that point. One of the most basic is to assist them in moving through the following layers of experience.


1. The Drama

Every individual, group and organization exists simultaneously in several dimensions or layers. The first, also the most obvious and closest to the surface, is the drama layer. This is the ‘soap opera’ of their lives. It reveals what games and roles they are playing, and how they are trying to be something they aren’t in order to be acceptable to others—or to feel safe or familiar. The ‘problem’ is that they feel as if there is something essentially bad about them as they stand, and the soap opera contains the clues as to the ‘solution’ that has evolved. The effort to avoid being what they are results in many voids and a loss of available energy for living. Getting the client to confront this layer is often relatively simple.


  • 1. Get the client to look at something which is not working, and acknowledge and eventually accept what they do to hide that fact from themselves and others.
  • Have them do a ‘double chair’ conversation where they address someone they aren’t getting along with and assist them in seeing how they hide from the truth in their interactions with this person.
  • Have them look for their inner voices which urge or threaten or lecture them about being the way they are supposed to be. People need to get past their judgments about being where they are—which are also a manifestation of the drama layer—to a clean acceptance of it all, without blame. They need to see how the drama has been functional up to now.


2. The Fear

Just beneath the drama layer is a fear of some kind which keeps the drama going. They might be afraid of failing, or succeeding. They might be afraid of being held accountable for what happens. This fear is not just an individual phenomenon; entire organizations can be into it. They are afraid to find out what would happen if they were no longer driven by the fear! Consultants need to help them to confront that fear and to begin rewarding people for experimentation.


  • Ask, ‘What do you want? What is stopping you from being there.’
  • When it is obvious that the fear is operating loudly, ask people straight out: ‘What are you afraid of?’
  • Get them to look at what they are avoiding and why.


3. The Impasse

This is where they get in touch with reality: ‘It’s not working, and I haven’t got the foggiest idea of what to do next!’ When people say things like, ‘What did you say? I missed that…’ or ‘This isn’t making any sense, John!’ I actually get excited, because it usually means they are entering what we call the abyss or the void where their epistemology (epi- and stemos: what they are ‘standing on’ from the Greek) is unraveling. This is the space of truly not knowing what to do or how to be. The old game has been called, and the reasons for it exposed. They are left with chaos and, if supported and encouraged to hang in there until something happens that doesn’t look like more of the same old stuff, they usually experience the next level, implosion.


4. Implosion

There is often at this point a kind of grieving which comes over people as they confront the absurdity of all the years of drama and effort they have been putting into maintaining the facade. There can be deep sadness, weeping (for some the first time since childhood), or even self-loathing over how they have been limiting themselves and putting those around them through a ringer. Here, they go inside and search for something they can hold onto.


  • Let them have their experience without rescuing them. It’s hard sometimes, since we’re also in touch at that moment with our own sadness about our own drama. But we have to let them go deep.
  • Encourage them to give voice when they can to the feelings and judgements coming up or to express them as images.
  • Invite them to just be still and breathe deeply and slowly while they think about what they are discovering.


5. Explosion or Release

Soon, in their own time, they come to a new way of experiencing themselves. You can see it in their faces, their posture, their voices. Groups going through this process feel different to people in them. Trust goes up, communication is easier and more complete, and new energy is available for work.


  • There is not really much to do here except to be with them as they move. At this point, they are on their own flight plan, which has its own source of power, and we are actually spectators to the breakthrough.
  • Sooner or later, ask them how they feel; encourage them to talk about what has happened.
  • Get them to make promises out of this new space as soon as possible—changes they now see they want to make.



As partners on the journey of transformation, we get the client to accept what is so, embrace what comes from this realization, celebrate the breakthrough, and take the first step to actualize the change.

As the old patterns break down and we add positive feedback to the oscillations, losing control, even for a moment, opens up a space for something new to happen. This work is not for the faint-hearted! The most important thing is that you must be willing to go there yourself (into the abyss of not knowing) while being the consultant or facilitator of change. If you aren’t willing to hang out there in the chaos with your client, not knowing where this is going, knowing/believing that the outcome is going to be something amazing, then your client will sense it and chicken out, taking the first distracting clue that floats prematurely by their mind’s eye.

What seems to work best is to:

  1. Focus fully on the client’s process, attending to what the client ‘knows’ to be true, and get them to be willing to operate for a moment as if that were not the way things are.
  2. Ask questions from the position that neither of you really knows where this will lead, but that it will lead through the chaos which is about to occur and into a new place on the other side.
  3. Let them have their own journey, even if it gets rough, with tears of confusion or shouts of rage. Getting to a breakthrough doesn’t have to look any particular way, and the way someone gets there doesn’t have to look like someone else (like you) thinks it should.

There is a lot more to be explored. For instance, what do we do when the client is a large system? How do we set up an impasse without people getting fired? What is the organizational analogy to an individual client’s tears? How does the system keep going while it is confronting a breakdown?

In your work as a facilitator of creative change, chaos plays a positive, even crucial role in moving toward personal and organizational transformation. As a change artist, you had better be ready and willing to go into that abyss with your clients in the confidence that a breakthrough will come to you both out of the void.

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