The ‘F’ word we just can’t talk about

At the base of your brain are too small almond-shaped organs called the amygdalas.  They sit deep in what’s known as the limbic system, the oldest part of our brain in terms of our evolution – the part that houses our most basic, instinctive and animalistic impulses and reactions.   Our amygdalas play a crucial role in controlling our emotions, especially fear.  They jump into action when we face any sort of threat – like a rampaging bull, a man with a gun or, er, a change programme.    When it comes to stress and anxiety, our amygdalas have a lot to answer for.   The trouble is, like the rest of the limbic brain, our amygdalas can’t answer for anything.   You see, the part of our brain that controls our feelings (good and bad) has no capacity for language.   Language, reasoning, planning and other conscious thought processes originate from the newest part of the brain – the neocortex (which is unique to mammals) or more specifically from the prefrontal cortex – the development of which puts (most of) us humans beyond the apes.    There are two reasons why this is important for communicators.   Firstly, it explains why people react instinctively to change.   When confronted with a threat – as complex changes at work could be perceived – it’s our instinctive limbic system that reacts first and generates stress.    Whilst the organisation is saying “we’d like to give you some details about the change programme” our amygdalas are waving their arms in the air shouting “run away, run away”.   Or “stand up and fight” if you’re that way inclined.    The human survival system kicks in and our behaviour becomes more irrational and unpredictable.   Or predictably unpredictable in some ways.    We might deliver award-winning, well crafted, meticulously planned and clinically executed comms but still find our audience feeling uncertain, disengaged and stressed to bits.   And that’s the key word – FEELING.    How do people FEEL when we ask them to change?  How do they FEEL when they find out they might lose their job?   How do they FEEL when they can’t ask questions?   How do they FEEL when no-one sits opposite them and asks them how they are?   It’s why good change managers (and change communicators) take account of both the hard and soft elements of the transformation.   Ironically, most organisations tend to be better at the hard, logical, practical stuff and not so good at the soft, emotional, behavioural side of change.   It’s the soft bit that’s actually hard.    Unfortunately, our ability to understand the answer to how people feel is hampered by the second reason why this stuff is important.   People can’t tell us how they really feel.    If you’re a parent, how would you put into words the love you have for your children?   If you play sport, how would you describe the feeling of winning?   If you’ve recently had a great holiday, how would you explain that sunset that took your breath away?    Hard isn’t it?   It’s why Olympic gold medallists – when asked how they feel – often say “I can’t describe it” or simple “unbelievable”.   We can’t describe why we love people –  we just do!   It’s because the part of the brain that deals with feelings doesn’t do language.   There’s a disconnect.   It’s also why we sometimes just feel a decision is the right one, without being able to explain why.   It’s why we refer to ‘gut reactions’.   My rational prefrontal cortex may say one thing, but my stomach FEELS something else.   Scientific evidence seems to suggest that ‘gut feel’ decisions made in seconds are often better than those taken after hours of rational analysis.   The advice to “go with what you feel” can often produce the best results.    In comms-speak, it’s why our first draft is usually the best one.   All of this puts effective change communication even higher up the agenda of must-haves for successful organisational change.    By understanding what people go through and anticipating how they may feel we can play our part in softening the impact of the change – controlling those screaming amygdalas!    We can put extra effort into explaining the ‘reason why’, we can manage the expectations of our leaders, we can train our line managers to provide support and empathy, we can take steps to address questions quickly, we can bring people together, we can help them articulate how they feel, we can time our messages to better reflect where people are on the change curve, we can use language that reflects their emotions.   When I run change comms workshops, I must use the ‘f’ word – FEEL – a hundred times.  I keep stressing it because I think it’s important.  I can’t explain why. I just do.

4 thoughts on “The ‘F’ word we just can’t talk about

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