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A Transitional Positive Change Methodology: Using the Boiling Frog for Good

June 25th, 2007 by Howard Ditkoff

In Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B, he gives the example of a boiling frog as an analogy for how our culture has become so dysfunctional and destructive. He explains that if you put a frog directly into boiling water, it will leap out. But if you put it in water of a mild temperature and then very gradually turn up the heat, it will die with a smile as the water begins to boil one tiny step at a time.


Quinn makes the point that over the past 10,000 years, our modern industrial culture has “turned up the heat” one step at a time, taking us from tribal peoples living in an environment to which we were adapted by evolution to civilized peoples living in an environment that does not suit us or meet our needs. Through step-by-step increases in population and pressure to conform to the dominant culture, we have ended up in a boiling pot of water that threatens to doom us, all the while smiling as things heated up.

Quinn’s books are not doomsday tales, but rather attempts to wake us up to the water temperature and encourage us to find ways to jump out of the water. This challenge has led me to delve deeply into change methodologies of all types, seeking ways to promote awakening and healing in my own life, in the lives of others, and subsequently on a broader global scale.


The primary change methodology that has attracted my focus for several years is Appreciative Inquiry. One of the tenets of Appreciative Inquiry is that the method used for change should be congruous with the end change desired. So, for example, if you want improved communication, you should use a process that itself models the type of healthier communication you envision. This principle is described in The Power of Appreciative Inquiry as “The Enactment Principle”, which says that “Positive change occurs when the process used to create the change is a living model of the ideal future.”


While this theory appears sound, and often does lead to wonderful results, I have noticed far too many situations in which it doesn’t work. For instance, sometimes when I model healthy communication to someone who hasn’t used it in the past, they don’t become better at it, but rather their defenses kick in and they simply feel extremely uncomfortable with it or even afraid of it. They may feel such communication sounds “cheesy” or “weird” and actually rebel against it.


Furthermore, I have noticed several situations in which the opposite has worked. For instance, I have seen very wonderful relationships begin not with “healthy communication” but with flirting that might even include some good natured ribbing that leads to a bit of challenge and rapport.


This led me to a bit of a crisis of confusion. How do we create positive change? Do we do it by modeling the end result we wish to see, as Gandhi promoted with his quote “We must be the change we wish to see in the world?” Or do we “meet people where they are at”, attempting to make change while stuck in the old unhealthy paradigm of those with whom we are relating?


Einstein famously said “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” This is, I believe, accurate. We must move to a new level in order to solve our most vexing problems. However, despite initially agreeing with Gandhi’s statement, I now am starting to feel we need to find a transitional methodology. In other words, we need to find a way to turn the water temperature down just as gradually as we turned it up.


We cannot always best foster health by “being the change we wish to see” in the sense of modeling the “ideal future”, the end result of what may be a process that requires many steps. We sometimes must break that change down into steps and “be” the next step for each person we are attempting to relate with. Perhaps this could be restated as “We must be to each person their next step in the change we wish to see.”


There are many examples where moving in a healthy direction requires gradual change. Children don’t grow into full adults overnight by simply watching adult behavior. We do have to also speak to them in a way that helps them grow step-by-step. We don’t help our child become good at math by embodying only the “ideal future” and doing advanced calculus problems around them. We also need to go back and remember our first steps and model those by showing them how we do basic arithmetic again.


Addicts cannot simply become healthy by going “cold turkey” in some cases [though in some they indeed can]. In fact, they may die if they try to do so. Weaning and gradual rebuilding of health is the rule with some serious addicts. And nobody becomes a model of physical health by simply taking on overnight the workout of a professional bodybuilder. To do so would not bring health, but destruction.


However, neither can we grow and attain health by simply doing more (or less) of the same activities that brought us dysfunction in the first place.


There must be a transitional methodology – an Incrementally Appreciative Inquiry.


So, what I am attempting to create is a methodology that combines Appreciative Inquiry’s ideas on modeling health and being congruent with an understanding of the power of gradual change. If we turn the boiling water off immediately, the rapid temperature change could itself cause the frog to have a serious and unhealthy reaction. But with a transitional tool like this, we can find a way to bridge the gap – to model change, but do so at a gradual and feasible pace. And this will then allow the frog to heal and smile a smile of health rather than a smile of unawareness.

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    2 Responses to “A Transitional Positive Change Methodology: Using the Boiling Frog for Good”

    1. Luke Says:

      I really enjoyed this post. I think your idea of transitional positive change is analogous to succession in the living community, i.e. the actions of the first arriving organisms create the conditions that let the next to arrive grow, and so on, to a climax community. Thank you, and I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    2. Howard Says:

      Thanks Luke. Well really the whole idea is that we evolved in a healthy way, and now our culture at large has deviated from many of those healthy ways. My point is that we can’t necessarily instantly start living in a healthy way again. We may have to evolve back into it in a way just as we evolved out of it over time. It’s tempting to want to employ quick fixes, but some processes require incrementalism.

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