You Risk Relationships When You Don’t Communicate Changes Effectively

Think about the last time you learned about a change – one that had implications for your life – right as or right before it occurred. It may have been an increase in an annual payment, the layoff of colleagues or a change in your retirement benefits. Think about how that change felt. Were you angry? Did you feel caught off guard? Did you feel betrayed? Did it weaken your trust in those implementing the change?

If you are responsible for implementing or announcing any kind of change, remember that feeling.

Whether you are responsible for small incremental changes like the modification of a policy or large transformative changes like a restructuring of benefits, remember what it feels like to have a change dropped on you without any warning.

One of the keys to successfully implementing a change is communication. While most of us would agree, we can likely identify times when we haven’t done a good job of communicating an upcoming change to our family, friends, co-workers or constituents. Sometimes the reasons are benign. Implementing change requires managing a lot of moving parts. Figuring out how to share information is just one of those parts. It takes time and coordination to draft messages that will help others understand the need for the change and how it will affect them. If you are pushing hard to meet a deadline, you may not allot the time necessary to develop a coherent communication plan.

Unfortunately, sometimes our reasons are less benign. When we hold information that is going to affect the way others work, manage their budgets or influence their life choices, we are exerting power over them. Remember that feeling when you were caught off guard. When we do not effectively communicate upcoming changes, we are essentially saying, “The effect of this change on you does not matter.” That is often not what we intend and it is definately not a way to strengthen relationships.

If the effect of change on others does matter to you, then make sure that your change communications reflect that. Change communication plans can be relatively simple or incredibly complex depending on the size of your organization and the type of change you are implementing. But, unless your goal is to make those affected by change lose confidence in you, build resistance against the change or even end their relationship with you, developing an effective change communication plan is in your best interest.

Want to learn more about developing effective change communication plans? Contact me.

Life Beyond a List Post

I’ll admit that I get drawn in by list posts (i.e., those popular numbered lists used by marketers and bloggers). My conscientious side feels responsible for knowing the ten items you threw in your trash last night that you should recycle. My productive side fears losing its edge if I fail to employ six tips for making your day better even before you open your eyes. My romantic side wonders if I am single because I was unaware of the top twenty romantic comedies that screw up teens’ beliefs about love (really, someone ought to write that one). And, sadly, my serious side wants to know about the 365 fun things you can do this year even if only to appear fun by knowing how fun can be had.

It’s not that these lists aren’t useful. Many of them contain concisely-phrased common sense. Some of them, if you are lucky, are witty and a delight to read. Others provide information you really need (e.g., 14 of the Best Breakfast Taco Joints in Austin). But, the danger with these lists of handy tips, easy steps and secret keys is that they make it sound so simple. It’s not.

NumbersKnowing is not enough. In order to reap any benefit, you have to put all this must-know advice into practice. With the exception of eating the best breakfast tacos, that’s where it can get hard.

If we want to make reading these lists worth our time, we have to go further. In addition to knowing what, we have to know why and we have to know how. (Note: Rarely do these types of posts provide clues as to how you might act upon all this sage advice.)

For example, try something new is great, but why? And, how can you get started, especially if you are not keen on taking risks or inviting discomfort? There are many factors that influence whether you will take advice and actually do something with it. One, very important factor, is that you understand why trying something new may benefit you. Another is knowing that you are capable of it. If you can’t see how or doubt creeps in, it is unlikely that you will give it a shot.

Unfortunately, those of us who write up these lists often sell ourselves and our readers short. Perhaps we’ve read about shrinking attention span or found that numbered lists generate a higher click-through rate. For whatever reason, we act as if there’s not effort involved. In doing so we contribute to the belief that it should be easy. We make people wonder why it is hard for them.

The truth is our jobs, our families, our lives are complicated. Sharing advice can be useful, but first we have to admit that the practice of life requires a lot of learning – more than can be concisely contained in a numbered list.

Finding Connection in a Customer Service Call

“Hi, my name is Mike, how are you today?”

I had called customer service to cancel a service I had just purchased and to purchase one that I had realized better fit my needs.

I responded, “I am well. How are you?”

Momentary silence.

He cautiously replied, “Well … not great actually. I am a Seahawks fan.”

“Ohhhh,” I said, “I’m sorry. That was a tough ending. A heartbreaker.”

“Yes, I am having a hard time getting over it,” he said, sounding like he wasn’t anywhere near wanting to move on.

I did want to get to the reason I called, but I was also amused that a customer service rep was being so authentic. I hadn’t expected that. Maybe “being real” is a new tactic to “connect” with the customer. Or, maybe the final moments of the Superbowl had set him adrift like disappointment and loss can do.

His response had just surprised me. Talking to customer service doesn’t always feel like a human to human connection.

This did.

What’s funny about this is that I’m not a football fan. I usually end up watching only a few games a year (with family during the holidays or at a parties with friends). I had not watched Superbowl XLIX. Fortunately, I had read enough about the game to know about its dramatic ending.

I wondered how I, not being able to relate as a fan, could empathize with the customer rep’s loss. (I’ll admit that I’ve been re-reading a lot of Brené Brown recently and empathy was on my mind.)

I said, “It is not easy when you’ve put your whole heart on the line and lost.”

He replied with a knowing sigh.

In Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, the authors lift up Martin Buber’s thought-provoking description of the difference between an “I-it” relationship and an “I-thou relationship. Often we treat other living beings as its or things. Whether we are online or on the freeway, we retreat to “I-it” because it is easier. It’s less messy. We don’t have to think about anything other than our own needs. Essentially, it doesn’t require us to draw on much other than our basic instincts. In those rare moments when we allow ourselves to experience “I and thou,” we feel a true connection (even without a mutual love for football).

By the way, after our brief exchange, Mike completed my transaction quickly and wished me luck with my project. I ended the call as a satisfied customer. But more importantly, I ended the call as a human being.

An Art In Which We Should Seek Mastery: Listening

I thought I listened pretty well.

I paid attention. I could recognize distracting thoughts and willfully push them into the background. I learned to maintain eye contact, nod, and when appropriate, give verbal indications that I was intent on understanding what was being said. I was even getting better at repeating back what I had heard and asking relevant questions. I practiced presence. 

The problem was that I underestimated the power of listening. I thought of listening as a skill and to a degree it is. The ability to listen can be developed. There are people who practice it long enough to achieve what is referred to as mastery or expertise. You may have experienced skilled listening if you’ve ever met with a really good coach or counselor. But, listening has so many dimensions (e.g., physiological, cognitive, behavioral, etc.). I’ve discovered that I need to think of it as more than a skill.

Listening is an art.

You are probably thinking, “Right. Nothing new there. It’s another overused phrase — just like ‘the art of writing’ or the ‘art of conversation’.” Well, maybe. But, what do we mean when we describe something as an art?


BLUE PRINT INSTALLATION 8’x8’x4′ Installation

This week, I watched a TED Talks video of an extraordinary artist sharing how her initial fascination with shadows ultimately took her art in directions she had not imagined. Her name is Alexa Meade.

As she describes the evolution of her work, she takes what most of us would see as practicing a skill (i.e., painting shadows) and begins to explore it from different perspectives. At each stage of her journey, she starts with her tools, materials and even a defined mental image of where she’s headed, but then she does something different.

She remains open to what is unfolding.

Here’s where I think the distinction between a skill and an art may lie. She’s not just trying to master a skill, she using her skill to explore what can’t yet be seen.

I loved her description of one of her early works in shadow (i.e., painting on her friend Bernie).

“I had a very specific vision of what this would like…but, something kept on flickering before my eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. And then, when I took that moment to take a step back – magic.”

To experience that magic as listeners, we have to be open to what is unfolding.

That means not anticipating what we are going to hear.

That means not hearing only what we know and believe.

That means being fully committed to the process of discovery.

Before, I was seeking mastery of listening as a skill. What I understand now is that I seek mastery in the art of listening.

Another #%$! Acronym That Might Be Just What You Need

At least once a day, I end up looking up an acronym to find out what it means. Let’s face it. The use of acronyms is less about efficiency and more about excluding all but a small percentage of the population from knowledge you possess. That’s why LOL, which used to mean “laugh out loud” (or if you were a mom trying to be hip, it was “lots of love”) is OVER. It got overused. Too many people knew its meaning and it fell out of fashion. It’s no longer exclusive enough.

I’m not a fan of exclusivity. Also, not a fan of acronyms.

There is one acronym, however (and while I am only promoting the concept it represents), I do want to bring to your attention. Maybe you have seen it or heard it before.

PLN = Personal Learning Network

So what does that mean? Let’s break it down.

Personal means it relates to you.

Learning means acquiring new knowledge.

Network means access through an interconnected system of people and resources.

You acquiring new knowledge through an interconnected system of people and resources.

Personal learning networks are pretty cool things. And, unlike acronyms, they represent access to an expansive and expanding world of knowledge for those who create and leverage them.

My graduate program is hosting an open section of Exploring Innovation in Networked Work and Learning starting today. If you are interested in “models of learning that leverage networked environments,” join in. Personal Learning Networks are one of those models that might be just what you need to lead a learning life.

Bring on the Next Challenge

I was recently standing in a country cemetery with my parents visiting with one of my father’s high school classmates and her son following the death of a long-time neighbor. I had never met either my Dad’s friend or her son though I knew of them. The son thought he might have remembered me. He said, “You were a good athlete in high school. I remember seeing you at the gym.” Both my parents immediately began to laugh. I said, “Umm. No. You are probably thinking of one of my sisters.”

Though I played tennis in junior high and high school, danced with a civic ballet and even began to run in my adult life, completing a couple of half marathons and a few sprint triathlons, no one, including myself, would consider me a competitive athlete. My participation in these activities typically revolved around the social aspects and the cute attire. I’ve never been particularly driven by my performance in comparison with others. I have, however, always welcomed a challenge that pushes me to be healthier and more effective.

For the last seven days, I’ve been participating in the Your Turn Challenge. The challenge was inspired by the Your Turn book by Seth Godin. Seth’s Special Projects Lead Winnie Kao invited a like-minded community to push themselves to write and publish (i.e., “ship”). I learned about the challenge after reading Getting Unstuck (a one week challenge), one of Seth’s daily posts, and clicking on Winnie’s invitation to join her. I joined. I failed to ship on time twice during the week, but I did manage (just under the wire) to publish seven posts in seven days.

It was an inspiring experience. The camaraderie of the community. Reading so many interesting and compelling posts. Digging deep to quell my fears. Realizing once again that, for me, it is not about placing first in my age group, or setting a new personal best (although I suppose you could say that in the category of blogging, this week’s production was my PR), it’s about pushing myself little by little to a new place.

I’m tired, but exhilarated. All I can say is, “Whew!”

Tomorrow, though, I know I will wake up ready. Bring on the next challenge.

You Have Everything You Need

In yesterday’s post Unstuck and Trying to Stay That Way, I offered some of the tactics I employ when I am feeling stuck. One was seeking help from a coach. It was fresh on my mind because I had a productive session with a professional development coach this week.

Whether you are stuck or you just want keep moving, a coach can be a tremendous resource as you “fortify your surroundings” in support of who you are becoming.

Some background …

Two years ago, I set out on what I’ve called my “mid-life adventure.” I decided to leave a job I loved and had held for 12 years. I leased my house. I took a new position in which I would be working remotely (and thus could live anywhere). I packed up my belongings and moved almost 1,000 miles across the country (from Austin to Chicago). Oh, and I started a master’s program at Northwestern University … at the young plucky age of 44.  Why would anyone with steady income, a comfortable lifestyle, a terrific network of family, friends and colleagues do this?

Good question.

First answer, which is true, but admittedly vague: I am fascinated by almost everything. I thrive in environments where there is always something new to learn. I also get jazzed by new frontiers and challenging thresholds, what Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies authors James Collins and Jerry Porras called “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” I like the possibility that lies within “almost impossible.”

Second answer: For years, I had watched strategic initiatives succeed or fail based on the support of those implementing them and how much they were willing to change. In my field (i.e., higher education), I could see shifts in both internal and external environments that would soon require new ways of thinking, but I also knew that change could be hard, sometimes paralyzing.  So, I set off on my mid-life adventure to increase my knowledge and strengthen my skills so that I might help develop an important capability within mission-driven institutions and people – to effectively manage change.

As I completed my degree at the end of 2014 and recommenced the shaping of my career, I took every opportunity to learn from consultants, mentors, counselors and colleagues. Tactics, terms, strategies. I took it all in. I sought and received lots of advice and incorporated what made sense for me. Most of it was helpful.

Some of it was not.

Some of the advice I listened to (and to which I gave credence because of the credibility of those who gave it) muddled my purpose. I won’t go into why. But I gave their advice (which was intended for a general audience) power to create fear in me. I backed off of what I had been working towards for more than two years. I began to take steps to mitigate my risk and in the process lost focus.

Enter, Jessica.

Fortunately, because I now belong to an inspiring community of learners, I connected with Jessica Catz, a professional development coach and change consultant, and a MSLOC alumna. Like any effective coach, Jessica assured me that everything I needed to clarify my purpose was within me. Employing a few deft questions, she got me to re-articulate the reasons why I had sacrificed “comfortable” and invited so many big changes in my life. Honestly, I went into the conversation seeking her advice and guidance. But, with great skill, she managed to get me to guide myself. Within a one-hour conversation, I had recognized what had derailed me and how I could get back on track.

When you get stuck or your purpose is muddled, I highly recommend seeking the services of a professional development coach. You have everything you need within you to realize your goals, but sometimes you need a nudge.