Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Helping Clients Through the Deep Emotions of Change

In this series, I have been talking about recognizing and responding to the deep emotion of transformational change.

Serving as a professional change facilitator is challenging under any circumstances but this is especially true when attending to people in the midst of deeply emotional, or cathartic, breakthroughs. The intense struggle associated with trying to hold on to the status quo, the anxiety of letting go, and then the difficulties of opening up to new possibilities generates extremely profound emotions that we must be prepared to recognize and respond to properly.

The following items represent aspects of practicing our craft that most of us employ in our work anyway. When dealing with people expressing cathartic-level emotions, however, these components of our work are particularly important.  (Several of these items have been addressed in earlier posts and links to related material are provided within those posts.)

  • Encourage the discovery/examination of the emotional aspects of deep commitment 
  • Foster delving into the connection between heads and hearts (how the cognitive aspects of the process relate to the affective or passionate side of unfolding change)
  • Ensure that you are relating to people within the trusted advisor context
  • Listen deeply for the context, as well as the content, that people express in their communications and actions
  • Communicate back to them in ways that are direct, explicit, and, when appropriate, prescriptive and confrontive (not argumentative)
  • Apply a three-step communication framework when reframing people
  • Present thought-provoking questions that encourage exploring issues at a deeper level than normal
  • Challenge viewpoints, biases, and perceived limitations in a provocative but respectful manner
  • Probe and sometimes contest certain basic beliefs and assumptions on which people rely to form their opinions and make decisions
  • Promote new (and sometimes uncomfortable) mindset/behavior patterns
  • Create and maintain an empowered relationship with those you intend to influence
  • Frame a context that helps shape and narrow the decisions/actions that should be considered
  • Look for opportunities to draw distinctions between corrective mistakes and failures
  • Choreograph (sequence and integrate) the use of concepts, interactions, and techniques that facilitate surfacing and exploring what is underneath strong emotional reactions to change
  • Provide frank, unvarnished feedback (candid observations, tough interpretations, Antabuse®-type feedback *, etc.)
  • Be understanding and supportive of how challenging it is for a person to let go of what has been considered vital, and how unsettling it is to face unfamiliar circumstances when the stakes are high
  • Offer compassion and empathy for the pain and discomfort that accompanies difficult personal transition
  • Apply mindfulness to deepen the intensity of your attention so that you can be more sensitive to what you observe and/or act on
  • Stay attentive to the surrounding environment; move with, build on, and/or orchestrate shifts in the “energy field” of the individual or group you are working with
  • Help people understand that the struggle and discomfort that comes with cathartic breakthroughs can lead to different learning harvest outcomes
  • Utilize “ethical ploys” that invite people to explore implications of their decisions, and actions that lie beyond what they anticipate
  • Encourage leaders to reveal their own deeper emotionally-based motivations for pursuing organizational change in ways that elicit similar reactions in others
  • Help people differentiate between inherent problems to be managed and preventable problems that can be circumvented
  • Continue to remind people that they can’t transform their organizations unless they are willing to transform themselves
  • Keep in mind that cathartic situations can sometimes be better understood when viewed through the lens of the “crisis” phase of the paradigm model
  • Remain attentive to how cathartic struggles can foster opportunities to implant new change-related DNA
  • Be vigilant about utilizing the Intervention Sequence as your guide to addressing cathartic situations

Our Role

It is essential to apply the proper mix of logic and emotion to transformational change. However, there are times when more emphasis needs to be given to the feeling side of transitions. This is particularly true for clients struggling with cathartic-level breakthroughs. These situations pose unique challenges for change practitioners. We must understand the dynamics in play so we can create experiences to help guide clients through the process. More specifically, we need to create safe environments, both one-on-one exchanges and in groups, where they feel they have permission and acceptance to express their emotions and work through the formidable path to realization

*Antabuse is a registered trademark of Wyeth-Ayerst Labs for a drug designed to assist recovering alcoholics. Once taken, any subsequent ingestion of alcohol within the next 24 hours results in dizziness, aching muscles, and nausea, which the alcoholic avoids by not drinking. Antabuse is not a subtle feedback mechanism; it’s a powerful vehicle for delivering direct, explicit self-imposed consequences for failing to adhere to an important commitment. “Antabuse,” as used by Conner Partners, is a metaphor for relationships where one person asks for and receives direct, explicit feedback from another as part of the cost to succeed on the journey toward mastery.


Go to the beginning  of the series.

Posted on: February 21, 2012 05:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Adjusting to the Unfamiliar Is an Emotional Process

In the last post, I hope I made the case that both logic and emotion are employed in successful transformational initiatives. Although a balance between the two is our ultimate aim, there are times when we need to attend more to the client’s emotions than to their rational processing of change, and that is the focus of this series.

When working with clients, it’s important to note that there is a wide range of situations that evoke strong emotions:

  • Some surface positive feelings, others negative.
  • Some are transient, others sustained.
  • Some are easy to interpret; others are complicated with conflicting signals.
  • Some are indicative of singular issues; others reflect multiple dynamics.
  • Some dissipate once “venting” takes place; others linger and become embedded.
  • Some are associated with holding on to the past, others with the ambiguity of the present, while still others are associated with the dangers/opportunities of the future.

I’d like to share with you some observations and learnings around what I consider the most challenging emotion-based work our profession engages in with clients…addressing cathartic-level feelings tied to letting go of the status quo and migrating to the unfamiliar. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences in this regard.

Cathartic emotions are not typical.

Catharsis is a form of emotional cleansing first pointed out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The word originally referred to an audience’s strong emotional reaction to a tragic play. The reference was later picked up as a medical term meaning purging. It has also been applied extensively within psychological contexts to describe the process of emotional release or, more precisely, one emotional energy giving way to another (e.g., the discharge of a long-standing, pent-up resentment that leaves a void, which can then be filled with compassion).

I’m applying the term catharsis here in a very specific way. During major change, it is common for clients to express their feelings in strong, definitive ways. Whether positive or negative, powerful emotional reactions to the transition process are certain to surface. Cathartic feelings are not the normal reaction to change, however. They are the ones that live at the “deepest end” of the emotional pool. These are the breakthroughs that clients sometimes experience when they finally accept new circumstances after a long struggle to keep the status quo intact.

This kind of emotional release has three phases: 1) an extended period of hanging on to the way things have been, followed by 2) letting go, which then opens the way for 3) opening up to new possibilities. Although each phase has its unique characteristics, all three play a vital part when someone transitions from a strongly held position or viewpoint to a dramatically different perspective.

Because there is a big investment in each stage (hanging on, letting go, and opening up), there is a corresponding release of energy associated with each movement. In fact, each stage’s  resolution fuels the next with energy. For example, the amount of emotional energy that goes into hanging on is often reflected in the amount of emotional release displayed when letting go takes place. The deeper the resolve to hold fast to the status quo (regardless of the positive or negative implications for maintaining it), the greater the emotional discharge when surrender finally takes place (see box).

Cathartic Post 2 Graphic

This can be seen when people who have been highly invested in the old status quo finally let go. Letting go can unfold in one of two ways:

  • People may shut down and stop exploring new options. When what was once familiar is no longer available, they sometimes decide the best defense against ever feeling vulnerable again is to close themselves off from believing too much in new people or things. This is the route taken by those who prefer to detach themselves from new possibilities rather than run the risk of ever being so distressed again. (This was explained in depth as “D-type reactions” in my series on reshaping mindsets).
  • People may open up to new possibilities that could fill the void. They decide that the vulnerability and pain that comes with lost attachment is an inherent part of life and refuse to hold themselves back from venturing into new, uncharted territory. This is the route taken by those who tend to learn from their mistakes and continue to grow, rather than become stagnated and buffer themselves from the discomfort of subsequent disappointments. This was explained as “O-type reactions” in the same series.)

Whether we find ourselves in one-on-one coaching exchanges or facilitating groups in workshop settings, as facilitators of change, our role is to guide people away from D-type and toward O-type reactions to change.

Successful cathartic breakthroughs require all three phases (hanging on, letting go, opening up), which explains why some people start the process of deep change but never complete the journey. Not all who struggle extensively to preserve the current state will reach a point of surrender. (These are the ones who tend to go down fighting.) Some can surrender to the reality of losing the way things were, but never find a new way to fill the opening that was created. (These are the ones who tend to remain lost and stuck in resentment.) In this series of posts, I’m describing clients who resist mightily but then face “what is” and find a way to reframe their viewpoint and support implementation of the change. When they do, they tend to experience extremely strong emotions. This is cathartic-level transformation, and we need to ensure we are prepared to provide the proper guidance to those seeking this passage.

Cathartic emotions run deep.

Cathartic breakthroughs are always accompanied by a flood of emotions. Remember, we are not dealing within the client’s logic realm; we are in his or her emotional space. Cathartic release is not the result of some rational evaluation of the “cost/benefit ratio for continuing to fight for the status quo versus capitulating to the new circumstances.” It takes place when the emotional energy associated with letting go and opening up overrides the struggle to hang on.

Here’s an example: If the hanging on is intense and has gone on for a long time, it’s likely the person’s identity has become enmeshed in the struggle. People who fight the good fight for extended periods sometimes reach a point where they fear that letting go might mean they will lose a part of who they have become…the protector of the status quo. The unspoken (and usually unconscious) question in play here is, “If I’m no longer a guardian of what was, who am I?”

This question can create a powerful void between hanging on and opening up. After “what was” is gone, but before the “what is to become” space is filled with something new, there is a psychological opening that is extremely uncomfortable (and therefore avoided at any cost). As a species, the ultimate existential anxiety for us takes place when we are unsure of who we are.

Although most people think their fight to hang on is about what is right or wrong, good or bad, in large part the struggle’s intensity is actually tied to preserving one’s self-identity. Few people are aware of it, but one of the primary reasons we try so hard to protect what we have is because the things we try to preserve have become part of how we define ourselves. We battle so profoundly because we are not only fighting to conserve what is around us; we are also fighting for our sense of distinctiveness. Given how invested people become in the outcomes of these battles, when they are lost, the emptiness can be profound. And with intense loss comes intense emotions, thus the cathartic-level release.

We must be prepared to help clients deal with deep emotion.

Cathartic experiences are personal by nature and therefore different for each individual. Two people in different relationships can experience divorce at the same time yet their responses will likely vary dramatically. That said, they will have one thing in common: If they don’t surrender and then “purge” their hearts following their respective break ups, they won’t likely be open to a new, deep relationship. It is this relinquishing, clearing out, and adopting that allows something fresh to unfold.

In our role as change practitioners, it’s important that we design and conduct individual interactions, meetings, workshops, etc. in a way that creates space for various kinds of “surrender/vacate/acceptance” experiences, including those of cathartic intensity. For example, helping a client develop a business case for change is an opportunity to reveal why his or her status quo is so untenable. Facilitating controversial, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue among key players about the business implications for failing or succeeding with their initiatives can create a cathartic moment for the sponsors. This is when they realize at a deep emotional level that they can no longer continue on the same potentially catastrophic path. As a result, they release their vice-like grip on the established, familiar way of thinking. This can open the way for new perspectives to emerge that lead to a desired future state, less encumbered by the anchors of the past.

As change practitioners, an important part of our work involves encouraging clients to face the reality of their circumstances:

  • We can help them recognize when they are holding on too long, letting go too early, or prematurely grasping something new.
  • We can help them see the right timing and approach for harvesting what has worked, release it, and move on to what is to come.

When this happens, we are engaged with our clients at deeply meaningful, emotionally expressive levels and we need to be prepared to recognize these cathartic situations and respond appropriately.

In the next post, I’ll describe some of the ways we can prepare ourselves for cathartic work with clients.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: February 14, 2012 05:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Emotional Side to Facilitating Change

To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.”    —Arnold Bennett

A great deal of emotional investment is necessary to achieve the desired outcome of strategic initiatives, yet most change endeavors lean heavily toward the intellectual components (data reviews, critical activities and milestones, logical presentations, rational decision-making, etc.). Several factors contribute to this, one being that intellectual commitment typically precedes emotional commitment and thus, in some ways, is easier to come by. That is, people may quickly grasp the implications of a change at a rational level but then find that they need more time and effort to make the necessary emotional adjustments.

When emotional accommodation is too far behind the logical acceptance of change, dual—often contradictory—signals are sent by the person facing the transition. This kind of split-level commitment can produce confusion, mixed signals, and ambiguous communication for all involved. People may think that they have accepted a recent approach or policy shift only to find  that once they actually engage in the new behaviors, they are not emotionally prepared to deal with the consequences (such as changing relationships with co-workers or a shift in the political landscape).

When implementing major change, a foundation of logic alone (without an emotional counterweight) creates one-sided behavior in people:

  • They have only a cognitive understanding of what the change entails. Therefore, they under-attend and under-resource key emotional components needed to actually accommodate what is happening.
  • They lack the heartfelt emotional commitment needed to sustain them during the long, difficult journey.
  • They avoid the difficult discussions required to build true alignment and thus fail to create the emotional context needed to transform the organization.

When understanding, commitment, and alignment are less than they need to be, what typically results is installation of an endeavor’s intended outcomes rather than full realization. (For a deeper exploration of these terms, see my post, Guidelines for Dealing With Top Change Challenges.)

One way professional change facilitators can create value for clients is to ensure the approaches, models, techniques, etc. we use promote the proper mix of logic and emotion throughout the entire implementation process.

Overall, successful transformation requires a healthy balance between reason and emotion. At certain points, however, it is important to place disproportionate weight on the emotional components in order to break through entrenched mindset blocks and/or resistance patterns that thwart realization. As professional change facilitators, it’s incumbent upon us to be prepared to address the strong feeling-based aspects of practicing our craft. By this, I mean encouraging clients to delve into the connection between their heads and their hearts…to help them see how the logical aspects of the process relate to the emotional side of unfolding change.

Leaders who succeed with change understand the emotional aspects of implementing change.

Emotion-based interventions are by no means limited to our work with sponsors, but I’ll focus on leaders here because they often need our assistance to see the value of addressing the feeling side of the implementation process. Initiating sponsors face many challenges that call for a heightened emphasis on the affective components of implementation. Here are some examples of when strong feelings could come into play:

  • Convincing others that the organization is faced with a business-imperative scenario and that it is vital for them to be prepared to do whatever is necessary to reach full realization
  • Establishing a deep connection between success of the various initiatives and fulfillment of one’s purpose
  • Making compelling personal statements about the positive implications for success as well as the price to be paid if an initiative doesn’t achieve its intended results
  • Ensuring consistency between what is communicated about an initiative’s intent and the related consequences affecting people
  • Helping other leaders understand that their job isn’t to keep people happy during change, it’s to help them succeed despite their discomfort
  • Engaging in personal, introspective examinations of such things as:

-   Blind-spot behaviors that could jeopardize desired change outcomes

-   Perspectives or biases that could cause unintended negative consequences

-   Displaying insufficient resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity

-   Failure to acknowledge or learn from mistakes

  • Dramatically shifting long-standing cultural mindsets and behaviors that are hindering the realization of needed change
  • Significantly reducing (if not eliminating) organizational pathologies such as:

-   Focusing on parochial concerns instead of realization of change

-   Showing patterns of conflict avoidance, passive aggressiveness, attacking/blaming, and destructive disagreements

-   Covert sabotaging of unpopular decisions

-   Ignoring diverse opinions

-   Engaging in turf wars and silo mentality

  • Making extremely tough decisions about such things as:

-   How much—and how fast—change can be introduced

-   Which important projects or aspects of the business will be reduced in scope, slowed down, or altogether eliminated to make room for even more important change initiatives

-   Who among the incumbent management/employees is capable of enduring the high risk, accelerated ambiguity and demanding pace—and who can’t or won’t make the journey

  • Facing the reality that sponsors themselves are often the strongest inhibitors to realizing the very changes they promote
  • Accepting the phenomenal levels of responsibility and accountability carried by senior leaders of business-imperative, transformational change

These are only a few of the circumstances that professional change facilitators must be prepared to address when clients deal with the emotional side of their transformational journeys. In this series, I’ll explore what I consider the more difficult of the emotion-centered interventions we pursue…those that take on a cathartic-level release of feelings. In the next post, I’ll explain what I mean by the cathartic part of practicing our craft.

Posted on: February 07, 2012 05:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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