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Change Work November 2006

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Last month we looked at what we can do to establish rapport, or "unconscious sameness", with other people. We saw that it's a matter of paying attention to the other person's physiology and behaviour and then matching as many aspects of them as possible.

Why is this important?

When they are in rapport with you, the people you interact with are more likely to be honest and trusting, to be receptive to your ideas, to listen to your advice and to remember the interaction with pleasure.  Or, as with George Bush, they might even vote for you if you ask them to!

But there's another level we can go to.

The situations in which we might be concerned with getting into rapport are very often to do with changing something.  Perhaps we want others to accept and adopt an organisational change. Or a change of plan. Or a change of rules. Or to take on a new role.

We want to lead them into a new behaviour of some kind and we want them to be committed, or at least willing, participants.

There's quite a bit of "Naked Ape"-type video footage of pairs of people in conversation, unconsciously adopting similar postures.  Then when one of them spontaneously moves to a new posture, such as leaning back and putting their hands behind their head, the other immediately copies them.

We are also sensitive to signals that break rapport.  When you want to end a conversation, it's not necessary to stand up and put your coat on!  Even on the phone, just a change of voice tone and a word like, "Well ...", is usually enough to indicate that time's up.

We seem to be very susceptible to being led.

However, before they will follow, people need to experience a minimum amount of time in rapport with the would-be leader.  This is called "pacing".  It means "going along" with another person, at their pace, until they are ready to change.

A good example of this is the situation of seeking to calm someone who is angry or upset.  It is crucial to match their emotional state for a while before attempting to lead them into a new state.  You would match their posture, expression and voice tone while you talk about the problem - expressing sympathy and concern for their feelings.  You would ask questions rather than expressing your own opinions.

This pacing stage fulfils their need to have their distress acknowledged. As it proceeds, you'll notice their emotional temperature decreasing to the point where you can lead them.  You might suggest getting a coffee or moving to somewhere more comfortable.  You'll also lead the conversation into a more constructive, "What can we do about this?" area.

If you attempt to lead without the pacing, you'll probably be unsuccessful.  They might go with you for a coffee but they won't experience a change of state.  They will resist.

The same principles apply in other change contexts.  The nature of the pacing will be different but it's still necessary. For example, if you simply announce an organisational change to your team without any preparation you'll probably get a range of reactions.  From "About time too!" to "Over my dead body!"  There will be resistance, even if it's not immediately expressed.

Now, to pace people, you have to start from where they are.  This means acknowledging their current beliefs and presuppositions.  Your conversation with them (perhaps several conversations) has to start by considering the situation as it is - good points and bad.  You recognise how things came to be as they are.  Then you can lead them into understanding the need for change.  In fact you allow them to go through the same thinking processes that led to the conclusion you've already reached.

If you try to short-cut this process then you'll be resisted.

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

So, by developing our communication skills we can become more effective leaders and people will follow. Mostly ...

...but not always.  Occasionally we come across individuals who simply can't make the change we're asking of them.  In contrast with the examples above where we assume that the people involved are easily capable of fitting into the new organisation, or the angry person is capable of being calm, sometimes there are mental barriers that render the proposed change literally impossible for someone.  These barriers are similar in effect to phobias, and can be just as powerful.

They are also beyond where I intended to go this month!  So, if you want to follow me down that particular path, look out for future editions of "Change Work".