“If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things;
if you want to make big changes, change the way you see things.”
Don Campbell, American rancher.
When I invite a new group to complete the sentence “change is…”, I’m always reminded of the huge variety of human responses to the stimulus of any approaching change; stressful, scary, out of my control, challenging, freeing, exciting, positive. The list is as diverse as the number of people in the room. Whilst many can see that change represents evolution or progress, others will talk about change for the sake of change or how babies get thrown out with the bathwater and we end up reinventing wheels.
The new, and the novel, engage most of us some of the time, but it’s a perfectly human response to be at least partially wary of what we do not know or understand. Fear of the unknown probably kept our ancestors alive and so it can be a helpful mitigation to unchecked enthusiasm. It’s when fear morphs into resistance that it comes to be problematic.
Nothing stays the same
Just as nothing stays the same in nature, as it continually evolves to survive and thrive, the same can be said for humans. Change is inevitable, inexorable, and so whilst fear is often natural and resistance understandable, it’s also invariably unhelpful. If we are unable to see change as something not only to accept but to proactively engage with, then our lives begin to feel like a continual struggle.
The possibility, necessity or opportunity for change can ignite hope, fear, reservation or enthusiasm in equal measure, depending on the circumstances and context. Also crucially on our own internal wiring; the unique blend of our individual personality and programming.
When we first come into the world, our lives are a continual unfolding of new experiences. The way we learn to respond to these changes becomes hard-wired into our brains at an early age. If we’re supported so that new things are rendered interesting and safe, then we are likely to carry a sense of confidence into adulthood which will stand us in good stead when riding the rollercoaster of daily life. If we’re frightened and no one is there to reassure us, then we may well internalise a sense of our own fragility that can translate into an overwhelming urge to avoid change at all costs.
The Edge Model from Relationship Systems Intelligence Theory (more here) conceives of any change as an ‘edge’ we must step, leap or build a bridge across. From our current ‘primary’ – the known and familiar, what we believe to be true, the way we do stuff. To a future ‘secondary’ – the unknown or only partially in view, new ways of being and doing. At the edge of change is where we experience in ourselves, and observe in others, a whole range of responses. Behaviours range from fidgeting, irritability or defensiveness, to far more elaborate efforts to avoid, undermine or destroy the way forward.
We are probably all familiar with these edge behaviours in others. Whether that’s our partner or child rolling their eyes when we try to talk to them about a plan they are averse to, or our colleagues at work covertly belittling a new process or actively sabotaging a new policy.
Yet how many of us are aware of our own edge behaviours?
We may notice our feelings, an uncomfortableness when a new idea is mooted, or a sense of anxiety building as we see others leap towards it. Often we explain these feelings in terms that exonerate us from doing anything about them. That person is making me feel uncomfortable. This situation is making me anxious. Yet no one can make us feel anything. In reality, our feelings and reactions are simply our own internal response to being triggered by the words or actions of the other person or the situation we find ourselves in.
Therefore these feelings are ours to process and understand. It’s when we do that we gain control over them. Once we recognise this, we can begin to make new choices.
Approaches to change
The Edge Model describes three broad groups into which the majority of people fall when faced with approaching change. It can be useful to view our own and other people’s responses through this lens.
The first category is described as the tradition holders. Those who wish to hang on to the old ways of being and working. This group can be vilified by others as being a brake on progress, or complainers who just want the world to stand still. Yet these folk often hold a deep memory of the family, group or organisation and as such, may have valuable insights that we need to pay attention to if we are to avoid making costly mistakes.
The leapers are those who enthusiastically embrace new ways of being or working and instantly jump ahead of the rest. Forging the way and learning from both success and failure. While there is great benefit to blazing a trail, sometimes things that we value or can be usefully brought along, can be burned if not carefully preserved.
Finally, the bridge builders see the virtue in a more methodical approach, knitting the enthusiasm and energy of the leapers to the experience and knowledge of the tradition holders and through so doing, creating a sustainable path to change.
What role do you tend to occupy?
Most of us will have occupied all of these roles in different circumstances throughout our lives. We may be quite different at home with our families as opposed to in social or work environments. Yet there is usually a tendency towards one type of response to change built into our egos that drives us to respond in similar ways the majority of the time. In a healthy family, group, or organisation all three change responses will be present and can be used to blend and enhance each others perspectives. The energy of experience fuels the enthusiasm for growth without holding it back. While the drive to connect the best of the old, with the potential of the new, provides harmony to smooth the way.
The power of self-awareness
A fundamental part of self-awareness – emotional intelligence – is being able to recognise and take responsibility for our own feelings and responses. Understanding that no one else can “make” us feel anything is liberating. Our emotions occur within us and once we’re able to recognise this, they become more of a choice. Though our choices may be skewed by the way our minds have developed to react in a given situation we can work towards liberating ourselves from this.
It has often been said that what fires together, wires together. Meaning that if we experience a flood of fear when faced with a new challenge because our only place of safety as a child was the known and familiar, then the experience of “new challenge” will instantly ignite the psychological and physiological response of “fear”. If the same stimulus was met in our infancy with reassurance and curiosity, it’s these feelings that instead will flood our system today when we’re faced with a new challenge. Working out what our feelings are and owning them is the first step to accepting that we can intentionally change them. Thus we start to regain a sense of control in our lives rather than finding our well-being seemingly dictated by the whim of the world around us.
If our personal response to change can so powerfully help or hinder our blossoming as individuals, it’s not surprising then that the multiplicity of individuals who make up our families, groups and organisations have the power to support or thwart their evolution. This will depend on how readily we and they engage with change. If our workplaces are to offer ever-improving services or products, they must first be spaces within which we as individuals can grow and thrive. Encouraging open conversations that explore how we feel about change is vital. When we welcome all responses, as equally valid voices from within this particular organisational system, we promote the safety in which we can support one another overcome resistance.
Where’s your focus?
There is an Inuit saying that,
“in every person there is a battle between a good wolf and a bad wolf.
The one that wins is the one you feed.”
So if you have anxieties about change and you continually stew on them, they will get bigger and more immovable. If instead, you shift your focus to find the hope for improvement and feed that instead, it is that which will grow.