Communicating Change in Three Steps


The only constant, it seems, is books, articles and presentations about change.

It’s the topic that just won’t go away — and for good reason. People hate change. It requires us to leave something familiar and comfortable and to try something ambiguous, different and maybe a bit dangerous.

We slip into a routine at work and we hate it when things get shaken up. At home, we watch the same TV shows and complain when they’ve moved to a new time. We eat the same foods, buy the same brands of groceries and keep our furniture in the same place (unless you’re my dad, in which case 6 months is too long for a room to look the same).

I’ve heard a lot of people speak on the topic of change, but never anyone as effectively as Dan Heath. The Fast Company columnist and co-author of the best-seller “Made to Stick” spoke last night to the Richmond chapter of the American Marketing Association. The title of Heath’s talk, “How to Change When Change is Hard,” sounded like every other presentation on change that I’ve seen, but he told stories and offered insights that I have not heard before. It was an entertaining, enlightening hour that passed much too quickly. That’s just about the best thing you can say about a presentation.

People are naturally resistant to change, Heath said, partly because we act based on our emotions. We don’t always think logically about why change might be good. Instead, we allow our fears, desires, hurts, anger and other emotions to guide our thinking and dictate our actions.

So, in order to lead such change-resistant, emotionally driven people to change, we have to appeal to their emotions. Put this line of thought into a business context: business leaders often try to bring about change by laying out logical, data-driven, Point A-to-Point B arguments to which people pay little or no attention. Meanwhile, people are thinking, “I’m comfortable with the way things are now” and “This doesn’t feel very good!”

Heath doesn’t suggest that change must be brought about solely through emotional appeals. Logic and reason play important roles. But without giving people something to feel about the change, business leaders have no hope to bring people along.

Change is a process that people take in three steps, Heath said:

  • They see it.
  • They feel it.
  • They change.

A chill ran up my spine when I heard this. Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post about my dad’s career as a preacher — which often involves leading people to change. He said his professors taught him to give congregations three things in every sermon:

  • Something to know.
  • Something to feel.
  • Something to do.

And I wrote about how these three points line up with what I have come to believe are the three things we communicators can and must influence among our audiences:

  • Knowledge (they see it)
  • Attitudes (they feel it)
  • Behaviors (they change)

It’s all the same stuff. This is the purpose of communication in the workplace. If we communicators aren’t trying to influence these three things in our communications, then we are useless expenses to our organizations.

A lot has been written about the role of communications in organizational change. Plenty of consultants make tons of money trying to make it a complex topic. In fact, it’s really quite simple.

  • Tell people what they need to know and let them see it through stories and examples.
  • Fill those stories with emotion and feeling so that the audience comes along with you and buys into the message you’re delivering.
  • Tell people what they need to do as a result of what they know and feel. Lead them to behavior change, if necessary, or to continue desirable behaviors.

Is it time to change your approach to communication? Striving for these three things is a good place to start.

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5 Responses

  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Especially for the last bit of information on change management communications. Some of our fellow communicators (the WoLM) have had to listen to me rant and rave about how some consultants drag a simple process on and on and on…

    Disclaimer – I know that all consultants are not that way.

  2. It’s ironic that I would end up consulting because I’m a bit skeptical of most consultants. When I started my consulting practice 9 years ago, I made a commitment not to waste my clients’ time or money. End of commercial. 🙂

    Come on, consultants! If we’re hired to help clients be more efficient and cost-effective, to help them find better ways of doing things, shouldn’t we set the example ourselves?

    The whole “see, feel, do” or “knowledge, attitudes, behavior” thing is so simple that I think it scares some business leaders and communicators. Can it really work if it’s that simple? YES!

  3. Robert:

    if you’re not careful, the Secret Society of Professional Consultants And Thought Leaders (SSPCATL) is going to send a secret hit squad out after you to shut you up.

    I agree with you . . . I find it hard to believe that I’m a consultant sometimes, too. And I’m often embarrassed, when I have to work on projects with other consultants, with their behavior.

    In my opinion, consultants should exist for one reason, and one reason only: To—-through the use of established best practices and proven tactics—makes things more simple and clear.

    Most consultants do the exact opposite of that, and act like they get paid by the pound of PowerPoint they create.

    Keep it simple. Know what works, customize it for the current situation, apply it, measure it. It’s not rocket science.

    Steve C.

  4. Effective, ethical, customer-focused consulting was summarized long ago: give a person a fish, and he/she will eat for a day; teach a person to fish, and he/she will eat for a lifetime.

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