Responding to Change

“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”
“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”

The Western world is in an uproar over the predicted-by-some, yet surprising-to-most, election win by Donald Trump. For me, the event and its aftermath is a fantastic example of what many experience as “unwanted change”, and the behaviours that manifest at such times. This is a fantastic public theatre of what occurs on a smaller, often ignored, scale within organisations undergoing change, planned or unplanned, welcomed by or imposed on the employees. This article highlights some of the more obvious behaviours being exhibited and highlights some considerations that may create a more positive outcome at an individual level.

We have seen significant grass-roots responses to unrecognised needs by those in power in the form of Brexit. Now a surprise (to some) Trump victory. As life giving as change can be, it is not always positive. Enough wars show change can be damaging. Fear is palpable now. For many groups, if Trump seeks to fulfil his intent stated in his campaign speeches, there are real threats to loss of rights and liberty. Some of his early choices suggest he intends honouring, as far as possible, what he promised during his campaign.

Based on some of the more obvious behaviours being demonstrated since the Trump election win, here are some ways people react to change:

  • Polarisation and strengthening of positions: Ardent fighters for and against a change strengthen their positions and fight it out. The fight may be peaceful, or might descend as low as individual human morality allows. There will be a mixture of those aggressively assailing others with a different point of view, whether physically, emotionally or through power over. Others will assert themselves, clearly identifying who they are and what they stand for, without imposing on others. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers’ non-violent protests of British rule is a good example of the latter.
  • Run away and hide: This may be observed as people and groups getting busy with something else, a way of distancing from the pain of loss and occupying themselves with something they have control over. It may be literally exiting the scene, leaving the country, becoming a hermit, or otherwise divorcing self from the challenge of being or staying engaged.
  • Filter reality: Notice how many proponents of each side argue, using only the information (often opinions of others rather than real facts) that supports their view, and ignore anything counter to their position. This also shows when others are accused of falsehood when citing something that is counter to the position held. The media are getting a lot of flak for beating up situations if they merely mention something that doesn’t support promoted views.
  • Normalisation: “Give him a chance”, “Wait and see” and in a practical sense, sitting on one’s hands. Then, almost as in a frozen state of numbness nothing is said or done as ongoing change initiatives bring into reality the worst nightmares of those who voiced fear of the worst. For example,
    • Steve Bannon, former head of alt-right nationalists’ recommended media source, Breitbart News, appointed as Chief Strategist
    • Myron Ebell, a global warming denier, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency
    • Trump’s own children being put forward for cabinet and advisory roles, and simultaneously running his and their own businesses, with a simple, “You can trust us.” Very basic ethical principles are trampled underfoot, and seems to be widely accepted as okay. Not if anyone else tried it!
  • Disavow any responsibility: “I don’t know”, “I didn’t realise this would happen?”, “How could I know?” Or as in Seth Meyer’s case, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, when challenged on calling Bannon ‘controversial’, he was unwilling to give an opinion because he had not met the fellow conservative. Seth Meyers, of the Closer Look program, called Meyers on this side-step well when he said, “I’ve never met John Wilkes Booth, but I let his past work inform my opinion of him.” It is as though many are running for cover and refusing to say anything that may impact their future position with the one in charge. They could do with taking Lucy Gennaro McClane’s advice to Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), “You need to grow a bigger set of balls!”

When facing change, we each have choice. We can allow fear to overcome us and react to what is happening from that place. We rely on the fear-based survival reactions fight, flight, freeze and fabricate. Alternatively, we can function from our personal power, and manifest the power-based thrive responses assert, attend, act and authenticate. The former requires little consciousness from us, with our amygdala (or reptilian brain) reacting to threat. The latter requires conscious choice and self-intervention to assure we behave in a manner that is of our choosing. The thrive responses also require that we are clear about and are congruent with our values, not relinquishing them when the going gets a little tougher.

What I experienced as warm, heart-felt and assertive was the plea and invitation offered to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton at the end of their show. The play was themed around freedom,  the constitution and diversity. After the final curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Mr Pence, inviting him to listen, and said:

“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016 (link)

Debate is as polarised around whether this was appropriate as it is on many other issues related to the election and subsequent events. One of the bigger questions is how to voice disagreement in an environment that seems hostile to any opinion counter to the future Commander-In-Chief.

While I have used very public examples from the follow-on of the Trump election, these behaviours often occur in change situations. The choices you make in response determine your contribution to the outcome. When confronted with change, particularly change you do not welcome, what do you choose to do? Do you voice concerns you hold? Do you assert what matters to you? Do you shrink away and leave it to others to work through? Do you get overwhelmed and find it all too much, unable to find anything you can constructively do? Do you look for what you can do, stay engaged and take some action? Do you blame others for what has happened? Do you act from a place of personal responsibility and ownership and attempt to help shape next steps?

The Next Step is My Responsibility

Taking the next step
Whatever my next step, I am responsible for taking it.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, whether organisational strife, a need to change our own circumstances, estranged children, meeting the consequences of previous action or any number of other possibilities, the next step is, in my world, my responsibility, and in your world, yours. That may seem sweeping and bold as a statement. It is. If it is not your responsibility to create the difference needed in your world, whose responsibility is it?

If I am in conflict with my partner, and I don’t take responsibility to take some positive action, at least attempt something towards a reconciliation, the message is “Darling, I don’t care and it is your responsibility.” If I am in a work environment and observe an injustice, and choose to do nothing, in the inaction I am saying, “I accept and support this form of injustice.” If something I value is being eroded, and I do nothing, I am declaring “I don’t really value this thing.”

People who do pursue their passion and seek to correct something they see as out of whack are often labelled “Activists”. For those who are not engaged in their passion, the activist can be a real challenge to things as they are. None of us can possibly pursue every cause, right every wrong, or address every injustice. Bring any two of us together and we won’t agree across the board on what matters and how the issues ought to be addressed. Hence a variety of political parties, religions, nations, cultures, clubs and so on.

Yet, if we do nothing, sit back because we are busy or someone else can do it better, or for any other reason we concoct, we are saying “What is occurring is okay.” Creeping Normality, otherwise known as Death by a Thousand Cuts, highlights how inaction over an intrusion into what we value leads to greater acceptance of greater wrong, until our world has changed and the new normal is massively out of step, and we feel powerless to intervene. The often cited, usually as a poem, speech by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), “First they came …” speaks of inaction as first one group is taken, then another, with no intervention, until they come for “me”. Oops.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Global warming, genocide, war crimes, pollution, racism or any other –ism, political and business corruption, and a host of other intrusions into what some people value are classic examples of Creeping Normality. It occurs within organisations as well when a person imposes their values on others and remains unchallenged. It is easy for those with authority within a system to assume that they speak for the whole, or that they know best. Status is a great opiate. Many “leaders” choose to reach decisions in isolation. It is a difficult and courageous act of leadership to engage with and hear the voices of subordinates or others impacted by decisions. You may still have to make the hard call. Doing so while engaged with those affected, understanding and appreciating the values of those impacted, enables heart as well as head to be engaged in the decision. Conversely, it takes great courage to raise one’s voice and speak out against processes and decisions that appear inappropriate, especially if also seeking to maintain open and constructive dialogue. It is not unusual for those fearful of opposition to silence objections.

As with all things, balance matters. If every idea raised were to be shot down by someone else, we would have anarchy, and little chance of progress. When there is no ability to voice concern, we have a dictatorship. Somewhere in the middle is a place where ideas and counterarguments can be voiced and respected. That is a difficult and valuable place to reach and maintain. That requires willingness and commitment of all involved.

We are responsible for how we feel, what we think, what we say, the actions we take, and the behaviours we exhibit. We are also responsible to others to let them know how we feel, what we think, how they are impacting us, and what we need. After all is said and done, in any situation, we are each individually responsible for what and how we contribute to the results that are achieved.

  • Are there situations, issues or challenges that threaten your values?
  • How might you contribute to creating outcomes that reflect your values?
  • Do you value and respect the rights of others to justice and fairness? If so, what are you doing or could you do to ensure the voices of impacted individuals and groups are heard and considered?
  • How can you balance expedient decision-making and action with understanding and consideration of relevant issues and concerns of others?
  • If you choose to bypass or minimise opposition or counterarguments, what is your motivation?
  • Are you functioning from a place of personal power or reacting to fear?

To Give or Not to Give Advice? That is the Question!

Know your customer
Great advice! Do you receive it entirely positively?

Mr Fix-It is a well known male stereotype, the one who hears a problem and instantly gives a solution. Males are not the only gender that likes to give advice. In the context of communication, males are known for seizing a problem and wanting to rescue the situation with a fix whereas women like to voice their issues and concerns, be heard, and know there is connection rather than a solution (another stereotype). They may still enjoy a solution but after they have connection.

There is something really satisfying about giving a juicy piece of advice, a solution to someone else’s dilemma. ‘Irrespective of the chaos and issues in my own life, I feel in control and satisfied when I can solve someone else’s problems, … and I don’t carry any of the responsibility for the repercussions.’ It seems easier to address someone else’s issues than to take a cold, hard look at one’s own situation, and apply energy to personal challenges and barriers.

Believe it or not, this thought process was reignited a little while ago as I walked along a rocky shoreline behind my wife. It can be very easy to say “Follow my lead across these rocks”, something I saw being modelled by another couple. I was naturally following my wife yet found myself stymied and frustrated. I could not see my own path because I was too close to her. Her path was not working for me because she takes smaller strides than me. I quickly ventured out on my own route. I felt freer and had more fun rock hopping as soon as I did that.

Our brains are similar to this path exploring process. Each person has a unique brain with its very own set of neural pathways. We have different experiences and approach situations differently. While a similar approach may often work, insight, the basis of learning and personal illumination, has to be individually earned. When we experience insight our brain literally creates new neural pathways. In the moment of insight the thing we realise becomes ours, hard-wired into our brain circuitry. The more significant the process of discovery that led to the insight, the stronger the experience of insight. Insight also carries benefits of personal ownership of the learning, and a marked increase in the motivation and capacity to implement what has been learned.

Spoon-feeding information and solutions does not create insight without an independent cognitive process that deepens awareness and understanding. Advice giving has poor results in idea uptake. It is an improvement over mandate, yet it is not a benign act. It carries a message of “I know better.” While that may be true sometimes, it does not strengthen or develop the capabilities of the person receiving the advice. It undervalues the autonomy of the recipient, indicating a lack of belief in them to take responsibility and action to create their own results. Advice is often given out of impatience, an unwillingness or personal inability to nurture and support the other person, believing that giving advice will get the end result quicker. If the end result is purely about finishing a task to specification, then it may be the way to go. If developing the recipients’ capabilities matter, then advice is counter-productive.

There are certain situations advice, in the professional sense, is necessary. Then, someone credible provides feedback on a planned approach before investing in something that might be doomed to fail. I have spent much of my career in this space, giving and receiving professional advice. However, advice is often received as a “thou shalt…” which carries a sense of coercion that most independent, autonomous beings resist. Even when asked for, advice can be difficult to receive and does not map into personal insights or ownership for the recipient. Regardless of intent, advice is often received as a coercive or aggressive instruction, even if below the level of consciousness. I have seen many excellent ideas not implemented. I am not advising you to never give advice. My intent is to open the door to an alternative way of engaging with others when the situation allows.

Engaging with others in a more meaningful manner has been a primary motivation for me moving into coaching, an area in which advice is a complete no-no. An agenda held by the coach is also a big no-no. Coaching relies of establishing a relationship of trust, and the coach asking sound questions, without agenda, and meeting the client where the client wants to be met. Coaching supports them to develop their own insights. There are a lot of professed coaches who revel in the opportunity to give advice. This is not coaching as defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF), the professional body I associate with. The ICF defines a set of core competencies that they assess their coaches against. Advice giving, even with the permission of the client, is counter to the best practice of coaching. I continue to learn to deepen this capacity within my own being.

The following are some questions I use to develop my awareness of my advice-giving tendencies. Perhaps you will find them useful:

  • How often and when do I offer advice to others?
  • When I do give advice, what do I notice happens to the receiver of my advice? To the connection between us? Do they expand or diminish in their role?
  • What would I need to change within myself to engage with this other being without giving advice?

Relating Interdependently

Maturing with respect to external relationships
Maturing as a being that can relate to others

As part of normal development, we are born as highly vulnerable and dependent babies, reliant on our parents for food, shelter, protection, and love. As we grow up we learn to cope with things for ourselves and develop elements of independence. Developing independence is an essential ingredient in finding ourselves and being a separate and distinct being. Without independence we will not fully realise who we are, own our thoughts, feelings, desires and other aspects of ourselves, and will be limited in our capacity to be self-responsible. Interdependence becomes available to us once we have matured through independence. Then, we are able to choose to engage with others in relationship and consciously place trust and reliance in them, and retain our sense of who we are. From that place the relationship we experience is powerful and freeing.

A common experience when romantic relationships end is to experience significant fear, even terror, of being alone, a driving desperation to have someone else as a partner. You may fear that you are not lovable, that you will be forever alone, or that you cannot cope on your own. These indicate that you feel dependent on someone else for care and protection. From this place any relationship formed will have the dynamic of neediness (I need you so I feel loved etc.) and it is rare for one person to enter a relationship with another person who is not also exhibiting complementary dependence issues, leading to a co-dependent relationship where the fears of each are the basis for keeping them together. They feel good when they can rescue the other, and when they are rescued, a repeated reinforcement of ‘I need you; you need me’.

When you are between relationships, it is a marvellous time to strengthen and mature your independent capacity. Then, face your fears of loneliness, inadequacy, your sense of being unlovable, and learn from within, from your own sense of self. Get to experience that you are okay and you can be independent and experience love, protection, and take care of yourself from within your own being. You do not ‘need’ the other person to meet the hungers of fear within you. The quality of the relationship you form is one of choice, trust and love. You know you contribute, that you are responsible for yourself, and you are choosing to draw close to and rely on the other. This choice is not born of fear and desperation, and leads to an expansive experience. Fear leads to contraction, limits possibilities, and stifles opportunity. To enter a relationship without fear is to be fully open to the potential that exists, and step into a new space.

That is not to say that you won’t have moments of fear. You will meet situations that warm you up to past hurts, fears, and in those moments your responses are likely to be patterned after those from the past, be reactions. Being vulnerable and trusting of someone else when we hit those moments, and relying on them to still love us, is an act of courage that comes from having already developed your capacity to be independent, and then choosing to be independent. In those moments fantastic healing of the past can occur, and trust in each other deepened further.

If you find yourself outside a relationship, and feel some degree of desperation to be back in one, take some time to be alone and learn to be independent. However, some people choose to then stay independent, preferring this to exposing themselves to more hurt, and in that they miss some precious opportunities to experience life that only come from loving, trusting relationships.

Freedom Through Self-Responsibility

The following are examples of behaviours that may be exhibited by someone acting irresponsibly:

  • displaying “poor me”, self-pity, blame and other behaviours that distance themselves from results they are getting in life;
  • withdrawing, being aloof, failing to disclose their true feelings and thoughts, or habitually seeking to please others and otherwise “protect” others (and themselves) from their authentic expression; and
  • seeking to control or take responsibility for others.

To act responsibly means that as a person you do own your outcomes, do express yourself with authenticity, and encourage others to do the same. I have strongly espoused taking responsibility for self. Recently, in a positive way, I gained greater insight into the life-giving value of taking responsibility for myself.

Happy couple in lasting relationship
Lasting, happy relationship

Juanita, my wife, and I hold dialogue sessions when one or other of us needs to surface and work through concerns, misunderstandings, hurts, or other potential or real barriers to our relationship. She called for a dialogue. I wondered what was concerning her, being starkly oblivious to anything I might have done. Being committed to holding a dialogue when needed does not mean they are easy, however I have found them highly beneficial.

Juanita started to share what was up for her. To my surprise, delight and relief, she was choosing to use the dialogue to express gratitude and appreciation to me. One of her particular points was that she experiences a real sense of freedom with me because I take responsibility for myself, examples including:

  • being open and clear with her about how I think and feel;
  • sharing with her any matters I am struggling with and not making the issue her problem so she is not left guessing; and
  • she feels comfortable sharing herself with me knowing I will receive her, even when she has something difficult to share, knowing I will listen to and receive what she is saying, seek to understand her concerns before responding, and that I don’t get defensive or aggressive in the process.

For Juanita, this means she can more fully be herself, explore and be what seems right and true to her being, and can risk being more fully engaged in relationship with me. If she says something that may challenge me, she feels safe knowing I will take responsibility for my internal reaction to her, that I will own my reaction without putting it on to her. In the same vein I expect her to own her responses and not dump on me because she feels hurt, misunderstood or is otherwise struggling. Juanita chose to voice gratitude, and we were both blesses as a result. As we both remain committed to being responsible for ourselves and to the other, we do open up more, engage more fully, freely and authentically with the other, and enjoy a greater sense of being seen for who we really are.

It is a great moment when the blessing of taking responsibility becomes so clear. Walking the path of responsibility can be difficult and fraught, but it is so worthwhile.