Change Work June 2008

We shall not be moved!

If you live in Europe, you can't have missed the result of the referendum in the Irish Republic on the question of the "Lisbon Treaty".  It's been all over the news this week. A substantial majority said "no" to the proposed changes to some structures of the European Union.  Meanwhile, all of the other member states are in the process of ratifying the treaty without recourse to a popular vote.

Now we are into a period of intense speculation. Is the treaty dead?  What happens next?  What pressure will be put on the Irish to think again? Are they really opposed to the treaty or just objecting to the way it's being progressed?

This reminds me of the workshops I run with David Booth of ixq consulting (  These address the question "Why do people resist change?"

To answer this we have to recognise that people usually have their own, personal reasons for resisting. (Or for appearing to accept change without actually committing to it.)  Sometimes it's to do with a fundamental disagreement with what's proposed - in which case the proposal has to be modified.

Other times, probably most times, it's really about how the plans and their justification have been communicated: whether people feel that they've been seriously consulted and how much they've bought-in to the goals or benefits of the scheme. All of these issues seem to be at play in the Irish referendum.

So, one answer to the question, "Why do people resist change?" can be summarised as:

"There are no resistant people, only inflexible communicators - resistance is a sign of insufficient pacing."

Now, you may recall that "pacing" is a key part of achieving rapport.  When you match someone's posture, tone, language etc., you will establish a state of rapport or "unconscious sameness". In rapport, people are more likely to give you a sympathetic hearing.  They will want to agree because they want to stay in rapport - and they'll be constructive in helping you to find ways around the objections that they can't give way on.

Reaching this state can take some time - the "pacing" stage - and if you get into the meat of the argument too soon you'll find that people won't be prepared to shift their position.

Not just matching behaviours, you have to signal that you respect the other person's point of view.  This might require a lot of patient listening as well as talking - always looking for areas of agreement, especially at the level of personal values.

As well as emphasising the need for pacing, the saying above also refers to "inflexible communicators".  This identifies that responsibilty for the effectiveness of a communication lies with the sender and not with the receiver.  You use your knowledge of the others' priorities and concerns to anticipate their responses, modifying your words and delivery until they're as good as you can make them.

Of course, you do this before you say or send anything.  But even then, the actual response may still be a surprise.  So it's worth practising the skill of "reframing", i.e. being able to re-state your point, or to reflect what they've said, but emphasising some positive aspect of the situation.

It occurs to me that this gets really interesting when the receiver replies.  Will their reply be understood and who's responsible for ensuring it is?  The former receiver, now sender of the reply, may not care whether the original communicator understands or not. For instance, when various EU spokespersons - and the British Prime Minister - said that we need to understand exactly what the Irish people meant by their referendum vote, the retort, "What part of 'NO' don't you understand?" came back. This was quite amusing - at least it was the first time I heard it - but it illustrates that this affair is a contest rather than a search for the best solution.

In everyday business and personal life I think we can aim a bit higher and look for a "win-win".  And effective communication is crucial to the process.