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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Be Candid in Your Communications to Clients

In my last post, I talked about the importance of using language effectively when communicating with our clients. I discussed ways to match your communication to the listener’s frame of reference (FOR)—one of three aspects of using language that I have chosen to discuss in this series. I continue here with a discussion of the other two, candor and succinctness.

We all aspire to be straightforward with our clients by clearly stating what we want to say rather than speaking in generalities (and hoping the listener understands what we mean). This level of directness is captured in a number of common expressions:

  • “Tell it like it is.”
  • “Level with me.”
  • “Put your cards on the table.”
  • “Be a straight shooter.”

Given our desire to be trusted advisors, it would seem obvious that directness is a key element in any change practitioner’s communication toolbox. To the contrary, professional change facilitators often pull their punches (e.g., fail to pursue a sensitive topic, give tough feedback, or engage in necessary explicit conversations with clients). There are a number of possible reasons for this. Here are some examples:

  • The practitioner may not want to be seen as the bearer of bad news.
  • He or she may wish to avoid any negative emotional reaction from the listener.
  • He or she may fear it would cause distance in the relationship.
  • The agent may think he or she is speaking openly, but is actually using words and phrases that, in the listener’s FOR, soften, obscure, or otherwise weaken the message.

Frankness does not always mean bluntness. This depends, of course, on the relationship you have with the listener, the culture in which you are operating, and/or the context in which you are delivering your message. Many cultures value indirectness as a way of allowing people to save face and preserve harmony—it’s important to be aware of and respect these preferences. However, the goal of communicating clearly and unambiguously does not change. Your challenge is to know precisely what you want to convey and then to select the words, tone, and affect carefully to ensure that your listener gets the essence or the importance of your message.

When we are being frank and straightforward, we will:

  • Take the time to identify the most critical things the listener needs to know,
  • Communicate tough messages with honesty and compassion,
  • Build trust by providing accurate, valuable information about what’s really going on, and
  • Acknowledge strengths and opportunities as well as problems.

When we are not being frank and straightforward, we are likely to:

  • Avoid raising uncomfortable or tough topics,
  • “Spin” messages so they seem less negative than they really are,
  • Omit critical information, and
  • Craft messages to fit what we think the listener wants to hear.

Be Succinct

The final element I’ll raise is the importance of being accurate, crisp, and compelling in our communications. We can strive to match the perspective of our messages to the listener’s FOR and be completely candid about what needs to be conveyed, but still fail to convey the force of the intended message. The most effective change facilitators make a special effort to ensure they provide:

  • Accurate communication, by conveying the intended meaning without distortion or omission,
  • Crisp communication, by selecting a few carefully chosen words, and
  • Compelling communication, by being persuasive, holding the attention of the listener, and motivating him or her to action.

These three elements combine to create a signature style of communication, both oral and written, that enables practitioners to have the desired level of impact and influence with their clients. Although their value is obvious to the experienced professional, they each bring challenges that make it difficult to be consistent with their application during critically important change projects:

  • Accuracy suffers when we fail to collect a truly representative sample of perceptions or are otherwise misinformed about the relevant facts.
  • Communications are less crisp when we attempt to express certain points that we haven’t yet sufficiently thought through, or when we try to convey everything we know about a subject rather than paring it down to its essence.
  • A message is less compelling when we are not sure of our own conviction toward the points we want to make or we are not fully aligned with the goals, motivations, and FOR of our listeners.

In situations where we have time to carefully craft a message, such as in a written report or a formal presentation, it’s important to polish the message to increase its accuracy, its crispness, and its potential to be compelling. The highest level of skill, however, comes in being able to deliver communication that meets these standards while thinking on our feet, in front of the client, in a high-pressure situation.

When our communication is accurate, crisp, and compelling:

  • We hold the recipient’s attention throughout the duration of the communication,
  • The recipient “gets it,”
  • Whether or not the recipient agrees with our point, we, and our message, are more likely to be seen as credible, and
  • Our message engages the recipient in dialogue and/or action.

When our communication is not accurate, crisp, and compelling:

  • The recipient skims or skips over written communications, or “tunes out” of oral communications,
  • The recipient doesn’t “get it,”
  • We, and our message, are not deemed credible, and
  • Our message fails to engage the recipient in dialogue and/or action.


Successful change practitioners convey their observations, insights, and conclusions to clients in powerful, influential ways. To do this, they apply separately and then integrate together the three aspects of sound communications outlined here—matching (applying the proper frame of reference), candor (being frank and straightforward), and succinctness (being accurate, crisp, and compelling).

These are basic elements to practicing our craft that any novice could cite as essential to good communications. Yet, as seasoned professionals, many of us fail to apply them as consistently as we should. I’m sure nothing I’ve raised in this post is new to any of us. The question is, can we be more mindful and disciplined about applying this information to increase our effectiveness?

Posted on: April 04, 2012 09:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to Use Language Effectively

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.    —Hans Hofmann

As professional change facilitators, we have many reasons to communicate with our clients: listening, learning, educating, informing, persuading, guiding, or simply expressing ourselves. We also have numerous vehicles for conveying our intentions: speech, images, text, non-verbal signals, etc. While the look and feel of our messages and our choice of media are essential parts of our success as communicators, the most critical ingredient is how effectively we use language.

There are many aspects to using language so that we achieve our intended impact. I have chosen three that often challenge those in our profession:

  • Matching (applying the proper frame of reference)
  • Candor (being frank and straightforward)
  • Succinctness (being accurate, crisp, and compelling)

You may be curious—of all the elements that contribute to the effective use of language, why did I choose these? I’ve been training and guiding change professionals for almost four decades, and I can say with certainty that these three components are in short supply among many who aspire to practice our craft. I find few who disagree about their importance, but many internal and external practitioners are unwilling or unable to engage their clients consistently in these ways. Maybe they’ll do it if the circumstances are just right, but, too often, well-executed matching, true candor, and refined succinctness fall prey to political pressure or lack of skill. Whenever this happens, clients get less than they deserve from us.

Even if you consider yourself proficient in these areas, I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to up your game—challenge yourself to be even more aware of when you might emphasize these three facets of effective, change-related communications.

Match Your Communication to the Listener’s Frame of Reference

Each client you encounter looks at the world through a unique lens—his or her frame of reference (FOR). Individuals use FOR as a codebook for interpreting the information they process through their senses. This is shaped by many elements—personality, age, experience, role, etc. Many models can be used to discern a person’s FOR. These can provide the proper style of communications to increase the likelihood the receiver will understand and relate to what is being said. It’s less important which of these models you use than that you have one or more to rely on when tailoring your messages.

As an example, Carl Jung’s work in the 1920s has inspired numerous proprietary models describing differences in how individuals see the world and prefer to receive information. Each of these frameworks has its particular features, but all are variations of the same four basic FOR perspectives Jung first developed:

  • The Sensor communicating style puts a heavy emphasis on action. Individuals preferring this style thrive on accomplishing tasks without unnecessary deliberations or delays. Primary Sensors are direct, energetic, task-oriented individuals.
  • The Thinker communicating style tends to emphasize logic and order. This individual enjoys analyzing, dissecting, and solving problems. The solutions developed by the primary Thinker are weighed carefully and tested to ensure the chosen decision is the ‘‘right’’ decision.
  • The Intuitor communicating style tends to emphasize ideas. Individuals preferring this communicating style are imaginative, innovative, visionary, and conceptual. The primary Intuitor doesn’t take things for granted. This individual tends to question himself or herself and others because the Intuitor has learned the value of continuous investigation and reexamination in making and understanding complex interrelationships.
  • The Feeler communicating style tends to emphasize human interaction. Individuals preferring this communicating style seek and enjoy contact with others. During interpersonal interactions, a strong Feeler will focus on the emotions of the situation. The Feeler will try to empathize and understand the emotions of others as well as their own emotions.

Regardless of what FOR framework you use, your ability to apply the correct communication style appropriately helps ensure that your messages will have meaning for the listener. For example, if a client is primarily concerned with how a change will impact the targets (Feeler), he or she may not resonate with a message that stresses the sequence in which the change will be implemented (Thinker).

Though people usually have a strong tendency to see their world through a favored FOR, there are many influencing factors that can affect what FOR a person may actually apply in particular circumstances. The listener’s change role (sponsor, agent, target, or advocate), for instance, can influence whether information is seen as relevant or as noise. Information about the organizational benefits of a change that may be extremely valuable for a sponsor could have little meaning for a target who is just trying to figure out the implications of the change on his or her daily routine.

You may be saying to yourself that all this is too elementary for someone with your experience, but the ugly truth is that it is extremely common for change practitioners with many years of practice to let their guard down and start assuming their clients see the world the same way they do. Remember, pilots with thousands of hours of flight time keep themselves in compliance with basic take-off procedures by reviewing them every time they climb into the cockpit. Surely our egos will survive another pass at the fundamentals below.

When we use FOR effectively, we:

  • Take the time to understand the listener’s perspective on the situation at hand,
  • Craft messages that will be heard effectively by the listener,
  • Organize messages so that the information most important to the listener is presented first, and
  • Choose words carefully to avoid misinterpretation.

When we are not using FOR effectively, we are likely to:

  • Assume that our view of things matches the listener,
  • Provide too much, too little, or irrelevant context for the listener,
  • Choose words that have a different meaning for the listener, and
  • Present information in a sequence that does not take into account the listener’s way of understanding things.

In my next post, I will describe in detail the use of candor and succinctness in effective communication.

Posted on: March 27, 2012 09:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I am not young enough to know everything."

- Oscar Wilde