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the fear of change

March 30, 2010

A conversation I was a part of earlier today:

Them: “This policy applies to all contractors on site.”
Me: “I am a contractor working on site.”
Them: “It doesn’t apply to you.”
Me: “But I am contractor.”
Them: “It depends on how you define contractor I suppose…”

If change is, as they say, the only constant and it is so important to communicate clearly around change, then why can’t we do it properly? If people don’t understand the nature of the change I think they are justified to be worried or even fearful about what might come.

At the heart of it all is the importance of a common understanding. In my younger days I was fond of responding to an apparent mis-communication by saying something like “I know you believe that you understood what you thought I said, but please be clear that what you heard me say is not what I meant.”

Communicating change can be a lot like that.

I was surprised today to find fruit growing on a lemon tree that has never managed to do so before. It isn’t that it has only just matured or reached a certain size where it can support fruit,  it is that it has been raining here in Brisbane lately. A lot. And much more than it has in the past nine years. The recent drought was a long one and the rains we started receiving last year were almost universally welcomed – except by my youngest daughter.

She was born around about when the rain stopped and it wasn’t until she was about seven that she experienced the long, soaking, heavy rains that are for me a fond memory of my childhood. The green tree frog in the drain pipe outside my bedroom always sent me off to sleep happy. Not so for her.

Her initial anxiety around heavy rain was put down to a lack of understanding about the nature of the thunder and the lightning. We would sit together and watch the lightning and count for the thunder to work out how far away it was. We talked about how beautiful the lightning was and how good the rain was for the plants and the animals (including us). Nothing seemed to work. The more it rained the more anxious she became.

“What is it that you are worried about?” I asked one night. She talked about floods and stories about Noah and his boat and wondered if we would get flooded and whether a boat would come for us. We talked about the advantages of living on the side of a reasonably sized hill and how water always runs down hill. “Anyway”, I said, “you needn’t worry about our house flooding… if our house flooded the whole of Australia would have to be flooded!”

The next time it rained she was even more anxious.

Sharing my stories of how it was when I was younger, how it had not rained much for the first eight years of her life and how it was understandable she would be anxious about the changes she was experiencing seemed to help calm her down.

Until it rained again.

Sitting with her on our bed in the dark, looking out the windows at the rain and the lightning and listening to the drum of the rain on the roof and the occasional clap of thunder, I had run out of things to say. All I could think to do was to ask her why she was still worried despite all the information I had given her, all the stories I had told her and all the reassurances I had given that she had nothing to fear.

In her small quiet voice she answered my question and taught me a lesson I will never forget. It wasn’t the thunder or the lightning so much anymore she said. She told me that she knew it took a lot of rain to cause a flood and that she understood that water always runs down hills to the lowest part.

(At this point I was feeling pretty good. I was obviously being successful in managing this change as I had clearly managed to communicate that much to her!)

“But,” she said, “isn’t Australia at the bottom of the world and won’t all the water run down to the bottom of the world and cover us up?”

I should have been quiet and listened and lot earlier. Maybe I would have heard what was really troubling her about the change she was experiencing. Maybe I would have heard my own voice offering me the same advice I offered all those years ago…

I know you believe that she understood what you thought you said,
but please be clear that what she heard you say is not what you meant

Communicating change is a lot like that.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2010 6:28 am

    “I was surprised today to find fruit growing on a lemon tree that has never managed to do so before. It isn’t that it has only just matured or reached a certain size where it can support fruit….” – a great metaphor!!!

  2. Gavin m permalink
    March 31, 2010 1:03 pm

    Its funny that the term “fear of change” doesn’t seem as concerning as it once was. Continual change seems to be the norm in particular for our organisation. The scary part is that there is is little or no visible effort to support change or to communicate it. As a consequence understanding at times appears lost – but then again if enough time passes the next ‘change’ will be upon us.

    What we were all doing 10 years ago seems so long ago (so valuable the memories and learnings), what we will be doing 10 years from now seems incomprehensible, understanding what we are doing now is crucial to who we are and hopefully personally reassuring.

    I have struggled with the notion of change being its own entity, separate from all other aspects of our lives. Is change the evil intervention to our current paths or is it just the vehicle we all move forward with? At times we may tire of these changes, resist changes, not be ready for these changes but it inevitably occurs whether understood or not.

    • Paul permalink*
      March 31, 2010 7:03 pm

      The concept of change being”its own entity” is an interesting one that has got me making all sorts of strange connections. Change is inevitable I agree. I think that if we are the agent who is creating that change we have a responsibility to listen to others so that we can come to a mutual understanding.

      Maybe the issue is in the phrase “communicating change”? It often has a single direction associated with it. “I will tell them about the change that is coming…”.

      There is no silence, no space to listen there. Maybe if we did we could hear the change coming?

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