How Change Happens

Change Process
Our environment is changing at an astonishing pace, driven by ever-increasing numbers of people, technology that allows us to transform our environment at a speed previously unimaginable, and (thanks to cheap fuel) unprecedented mobility of humans and products (goods and bads).

Meanwhile, people change slowly. We are change-resistant. We change when we have no other real choice. Social change is therefore a complex phenomenon: It occurs only when a large group of people have no other choice. Bomb the hell out of Iraq for four years and you can get four million people to flee the only country they know, the land they love, and try to make another life, somewhere else, anywhere else.

The change to ecological consciousness, and the change to a life without the automobile, will have to go through that same slow process, until a very large group of people have no other choice, and finally accept that they must change.

Each of that large group of people has to agree to Let-Themselves-Change. In that group, some are likely to be open to doing so, while others will not. Openness to (capacity for) Let-Self-Change is a function of:

  • Your freedom to change — social, cultural, economic and political freedom, from responsibilities and other constraints that would prevent you from changing
  • Your worldview — liberals are inherently more open to change than conservatives
  • The time you have to change — time you have, or time you make, to think about and then act on your intention
  • The information/knowledge you have that provides a context for supporting the decision to change
  • Your level of awareness and attention to what is happening in the world
  • Your critical thinking skills and imagination, that enable you to assess and conceive of possible change

If you have the capacity, the next thing you need is a catalyst, a provocation to change:

  • New information, ideally first-hand observation or a context-rich, moving story, that determines or upsets and changes what we believe to be true, or
  • A compelling argument increasing our passion or sense of urgency, or
  • An important event or profound environmental change

When we first formulate our position on something, we tend to accept the first information, argument or other determinant of belief that resonates with our prevailing worldview. It’s easiest to ‘get’ to us before we have already ‘made up our mind’. Once we’ve done that, the bar is raised — the catalyst for change must be profounder. Or, to put it another way, the ‘tipping point’ is higher.

But when we finally reach that tipping point, we can change remarkably quickly. Today I listened to a presentation (with a great story line) that changed the thinking of a whole room of people (more on it tomorrow). I’ve been through similar sudden, major Self-Changes, for example when I read each of the fifteen critical books on my Save the World Reading List. And I have Let-Myself-Change each time I’ve made a major geographic move or career change in my life. I had no choice. More recently, as I’ve started to pay attention to the world, these changes have come more often, and more easily. The wild creatures in my life have continually provoked profound changes in me, because I am now open to change, and because I learn so much from them. Every day, it seems, brings new revelations and new changes.

I think sometimes we crash through this tipping point in a hurry, and astonish ourselves at how quickly and dramatically we’ve Let-Ourselves-Change. And sometimes it is as if we sit just short of the tipping point for a long time, and then some little thing, some final straw, nudges us over it.

An exercise: Tell a story about some significant Let-Self-Change in your life. What was the catalyst? Did it happen suddenly or gradually? What did it feel like — was it anAha! or a sense of sheepishness (“how could I ever have believed that?).

What does this teach us about how to bring about change in others?

(Thanks to Lugon at Fluwikie2 for the inspiration for this post.)

Category: Let-Self-Change
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6 Responses to How Change Happens

  1. Dagny says:

    I think you need to add the concept of risk into your “How Change Happens”. We evaluate the risk of loosing what we have that we need/like/want when considering change. Also, the change process itself has risk associated with it – “what if I fail to make the change successfully?”.

  2. Mike says:

    Excellent analysis Dave. One of the things that makes change difficult is government’s relationship with business and the powerful lobbyists/ campaign contributors. Even if people want change, these organizations make it very difficult to effect positive change on a large scale basis. However, I do believe that if enough people wanted change, and acted differently, we could effect change through means such as stopping buying all of this crap that we don’t need.My self-changing was a slow process, that resulted in a “tipping point”, but took a lot of reading of alternative news, and books. It took me years to change my world view, but I feel that I am better for it. When offered the “blue pill or the red pill”, I took the one that allowed me to see reality (can’t remember which colour it was – probably red).

  3. etbnc says:

    Red pill or blue pill? It’s a concise, compact, and effective framing metaphor, isn’t it? Seems to me it doesn’t even matter which color meant what. The meme sticks with us anyway. We recall the concept of choosing reality instead of illusion.And as as that meme spreads within our culture, it seems we need not even mention (or need to know?) what movie it came from.Sticky memes, narrative frames, life choices, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into those two brightly colored pills, isn’t there?

  4. etbnc says:

    There’s an older metaphor about being painted into a corner. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit lately.I think it’s implied in Dave’s text description of having the freedom to change, and in whether the change would be fun. The flow diagram expresses the fun factor, if not, perhaps, other aspects of that perceived freedom to change.It seems to me that we prefer to make a dignified and graceful exit from an uncomfortable situation. It’s tempting to call it an easy way out, although I suspect what makes it easy is that it seems dignified. Finding oneself painted into a corner isn’t much fun. It’s undignified, perhaps embarrassing. Freedom to change can include having a dignified exit path, a clean way out despite potentially messy wet paint. I hang around some other venues where I often see an expectation that people should change right now, on the spot, before our very eyes, and to admit that they’ve been persuaded. (That is, they should admit defeat.)I find it rarely happens that way. When it does, I think it’s because we offer a dignified exit path. More often, though, I think we find our exit path in private, offline. We change our minds in private, at home, after closing the book, long after an argument ends, when the social cost of being seen to change seems less daunting.I’ve been trying to adjust my persuasive methods to factor that in. Besides offering information and stories, I’ve been trying to create easier ways out. I try to dry the paint, or provide cleaning rags, or offer new shoes to replace the ones that might be ruined by walking through the wet paint. I try to give folks private time and space to find their preferred ways out, to let themselves change.One result, for me as a potential persuader, is that I don’t always receive direct feedback, or credit, or acknowledgment. So I have to find some other reward, and remind myself that it’s worth doing even if I don’t receive much feedback.That’s a lot forone comment, so I’ll condense my personal change story. As you might guess, it happened offline, in private, after closing a book.Cheers

  5. Mike says:

    Very true – pointing out reality to others does not in and of itself cause their change. Everyone must go through the process on their own, taking information from many sources, and looking at why they believe so strongly about something.

  6. lugon says:

    Thank you, etbnc! Now I understand why I decided against inmersing myself in some specific action led by others, while feeling all the time that I was sort of betraying them … I just needed time to close the book. (I still do.)Maybe the biggest needed thing is to turn off my tv, internet and everything. Maybe host some “silence weekends” in a rural setting, if you’re into facilitating change in others.Sounds suspiciously like open space. Silent open space. Self-communicative open space. It feels right.

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