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How to Talk About Change at Work

By Tiffany Monhollon

It’s like clockwork. Every thirty days or so for the last five months, a seismic shift at work.

What I’m focusing on is that I’ve learned a fair amount already. Both observation and mounting experience are incredible mentors in a pinch. Along the way, I realize that I’m learning some things at a breakneck pace, but one lesson is still presenting itself throughout the process. And that’s how to talk about a change you’re trying to figure out — precisely while it’s happening.

But it’s important to figure out how you’ll talk about change, because your speech shapes so much - you, others, the future. There’s an incredible power in language. Tone, illustration, metaphor. Each time I talk about the change, I hone my body language, inflection, examples. But as time has gone on and I’ve talked more about the change, I’ve also grown to understand it better, starting within myself. So here’s what I’m learning about figuring out how to talk about change that’s happening at work, wherever you talk about it.

Discover your reality.

Find a group of people or a quiet, safe place so you can talk out the reality change is bringing into your life. Get it all out. The good and the bad. When a change happens at work, especially one you didn’t fully understand or anticipate, your first impulse will probably be to go into denial or wait for someone else to tell you what to do next. Instead, take time to immediately and honestly diagnose exactly how the change will affect you, your co-workers, your friends and family. Your workload, your career, your ideas. Change doesn’t have to be a bad word. Which is where the next point comes in.

Envision a positive outcome.

Immediately choose to see the bright side of the change. Almost every time there will be one. So, even if you aren’t sure right away exactly what could be good about the change, decide you believe that it exists. This part takes a certain amount of faith, but it’s necessary. This part is mostly about self-talk. But it’s critical. Because how you talk to yourself about the change will shape your attitude. And attitude has incredible power. Not just over others, but also over yourself. So, it all cycles back around, and you can’t escape your feelings in the end. You won’t fool anyone, least of all yourself, if all you really see is a bleak, unpromising future ahead when change happens. So, after you’ve taken some time to hash out your reality, go right from challenges into believing there are opportunities. And then you’ll be ready for the next step.

Define the change as a benefit.

It’s so easy to focus on how change sucks. Believe me, I’ve had my days. Weeks even. But really, all that does is suck the life out of you and keep you from moving on. What I’ve learned is, there’s a narrow window of opportunity when change happens to influence new outcomes. So you have to be quick to the draw, (or however that saying goes.) But before you can do this, you have to figure out exactly what you want those outcomes to be. Here’s why it’s important to figure out how to influence new outcomes: to talk positively about change as time goes on, you have to actually move into the process of making that change really an actually great thing.

Wait. There’s an important point here I don’t want to gloss over. Because leadership during change is a tricky thing. Specifically, you may not have a title or formal leadership position. If you don’t, you may be tempted to let this hold you back. Push past the awkwardness of this, and continue on in this exercise. Because regardless of your position, tenure, or role, what your leaders need from you during times of change is your ideas, your energy, your solutions. And your advocacy. So, figure out how to talk about the change well right now whatever your title, because ultimately, your leader will appreciate this more than you may ever know.

So, to define change as a benefit, think of some specific, concrete examples of how the change is good. There’s a fair amount of creative flexibility here, that’s why I used the word “define.” Let go of your assumed constraints. Break out of some silos. Cross some scary boundaries, go crazy. Dreaming big may seem like a risk during a time of change — after all, who wants to be seen as an opportunist? But if there’s ever a time to take risks at work, it’s now. (And anyway, people who bring solid benefits during change are much more likely to be seen as strategists, problem solvers, team players.)

Choose your own change.

When change happens around you, you have two choices: stay the same and get swept away by the current, or remain and choose to be shaped by it. What’s hard about allowing change to shape you is that rarely do we see this as a choice, and rarer still as an opportunity. But it is. Every change that happens, whether at home or at work or in the grocery store, is an opportunity, if you choose to see if that way. When they run out of asparagus, go for the green beans. (This metaphor works for me, because who wouldn’t rather asparagus, but green beans work, too. The point is, something will work.)

Figure out how you will change in response to the change that’s happened to you. Make it your change, your opportunity. Make it about progress, not obstacles.

Remember reality.

So, when you’re talking about change, these are the steps you need to go through first, to get your mind around what’s happening. So you can understand what to say. But just because you have to go to an almost insane positive extreme to project yourself into a future that’s moving forward doesn’t mean you forget reality when you talk about change. Because if you skip out on reality at this point, the only person you’ll convince is a maybe-delusional version of yourself.

Here’s how I pull this all together: “In the last five months, we’ve gone through a major restructuring.” It gets at the daily reality of what we’ve gone through and at the same time tells you that we’re moving forward. And that’s where I choose, every day, to be. In the progress you can create out of change. In the possibility you can embrace.

It’s also what I choose to say. Words like potential, possibility, progress. When you put them together with action, they’re not just words. They’re power.

So, say them more. And be them more. Starting today.

Talk it out.

Have you gone through change at work? Are you struggling to find a balance that explains your reality but empowers you to move forward? Let’s chat about change in the comments section. And if this post hit home with you, please share it on Twitter, or come chat with me there!

By Tiffany Monhollon | August 5, 2009

Topics: Business, Communicating, Leadership, Learning, Life, Personal PR, Work |

10 Responses to “How to Talk About Change at Work”

  1. Mark V. McDonnell Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Dang, Tiffany, I’m twice your age, with half your wisdom. I find that irksome ;)

    Natively, it’s easy for me to merge denial and positivity, a la Pollyanna. Harder to see the need (or is it admit the need?) for immediate and decisive action to adapt to wide-ranging change.

    Thanks for this. Much food for thought.

  2. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    August 6th, 2009 at 5:11 am

    @ Mark - Thanks for the kind words!
    I think you’re right on - it is easy to go into an odd denial when change happens and to neglect the balance that reality and positivity need. Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  3. Chris Rodgers Says:
    August 6th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Tiffany,

    I enjoyed reading the post. Your point about the power of language is spot on. Also about the need to surface and ‘own’ any negative emotions that might exist, as an important step in moving forward.

    As the conversations change, so does the organization!

    Cheers, Chris

  4. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    August 8th, 2009 at 12:49 am

    @ Chris - It’s really incredible to see the change that language can make. Defining is really what it is, because if you think about it, even the same words can have different descriptions in the dictionary. And of course, they’re both right, but maybe one helps you more than the other, so that’s the one you go with.

    What happens so much is, with change, we go with the easy answers. The words that make sense. The feelings that prevail. And those become our speech. And we say the same speeches to ourselves. Before long, we’re saying those speeches to others. And then that becomes the course we continue on… but with the right words and thoughts and projections, we can set outselves from the start on a brighter course.

    By no means is this easy or flawless. I haven’t done this well every time a chnage has happened. But I think ideally, it’s how I should do change. So having this little formula is maybe a good way to remind myself of what I need to be thinking, saying, and doing when a change happens.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and helping me refine mine!

  5. Stephen Billing Says:
    August 11th, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Hi Tiffany,

    I found your post to be one of those that encapsulates reality in a way that I’d never thought of expressing it before. I say to managers that when communicating a change to your team, you have to find a way to make sense of it for yourself so that you can discuss it with your team. You have outlined a process by which you can make sense of, and then discuss the change - and this process has obviously been developed in the crucible of necessity.

    I am reading into this that if you want to survive change, then you have to find a way to be positive about it. Otherwise you will be part of the “dead wood” that gets swept away by the change.

    I think your post highlights in a non-obvious way the political elements of being in an organisation that is changing dramatically. Talking about your doubts, fears and concerns about the change must be done behind closed doors with trusted others - it is not to be mentioned in general conversation for example with those who report to you, unless you have already worked out the answers so that you can ultimately put a positive spin on it.

    Thanks for your very thought provoking post whose edge is honed by the voice of experience.

  6. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    August 11th, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    @ Stephen - Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful comment!

    It’s interesting that you bring up politics - because I think that politics really are a part of all organizations, in one way or another, and yes, you do have to consider them in how you process change internally, how you process it as a leader, and how you communicate about it with your team.

    Thanks again for the comment - hope to continue the conversation with you!

  7. Stephen Billing’s Blog » How to be a Good “Change Recipient” Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    [...] you seen this blog post by Tiffany Monhollon called "How to Talk About Change at Work" that recently caught my [...]

  8. Jennifer Koren Says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Tiffany, this blog hit home for me. I have been stuck at ‘Envision a Positive Outcome’ and I admit that bitterness has taken over in many situations. The path that you lay out to take is not only professional but encouraging and I’m glad I stumbled on this.

    I think the only thing that I didn’t see is how change affects your staff and how when you’re not on board with the change in can trickle down to everyone.

    My biggest hurdle right now is communicating the change with my staff but feel like I have to be standing on solid ground before laying out new goals and structure to them.

    This article was a great step for me to help push me in the right direction as to where I needed to be.

    Thanks Tiffany

  9. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Hey, Jennifer - I’m so glad it helped!

    I do think that dealing with communicating with you staff can be a challenge. For me, this really is a part of that final step - remembering reality when you communicate.

    You know what has really helped me through this time is the insight of Patrick Lencioni and Ken Blanchard - I’ve gotten to interview them for some work publications and Patrick’s great on teambuilding. Ken is great on managing change.

    For me, what struck home is that both of them really put a heavy emphasis on involving people in the change process. Talking openly and honestly with your team. So, to me, as a manager, I first have to get through the first steps of this process at my level, with my peer group. And that process has to be fast (though it is cyclical and you keep going through it as time goes on.)

    Once you’ve internalized and understand how the change can propel you forward, you take that attitude to your team, explain the reality of the situation to them, and say, ok — what can we come up with together to take this thing on?

    Of course, that process never is perfect, but I think it’s a good way to make sure you aren’t cutting your legs out from under yourself by saying one thing and having an attitude that doesn’t match.

    Thanks for the comment!

  10. 5 Lessons for Moving into Management at Personal PR Says:
    August 25th, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    [...] Dealing with change is difficult enough without the added stress of trying to handle it all alone. Lucky for me, I’m a part of several communities for emerging leaders, and the first one I tapped into when this challenge arose was my team of peer leaders at work. Because we’d spent time building good, working relationships in the midst of the change this year has brought to our company, instead of bogging down into sticky traps like territory, I was able to discover that a member of someone else’s team would be a great fit for mine, and we were able to find a solution that was really a win for everyone involved. My new team member is now able to flex even more of their skills and abilities, and we were able to make what could have been a progress-halting transition without missing a beat (or a deadline). [...]