How to Deal Effectively with a Change Thrust on You

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 14, Issue No. 7a
November 1, 2015

By Dan Coughlin

A major change is thrust on you today.

Don’t go into shock. Don’t react without thinking. Don’t run out to buy a book on how to deal with change.

Learn from Changes in Your Past

Instead remind yourself you’ve been dealing with changes your whole life. Step back and ask yourself three questions about any one of those changes.

  1. What did I do that was effective in dealing with that change, and why was it effective?
  2. What did I do that was not effective in dealing with that change, and why was it not effective?
  3. What would I differently if I could go back and redo my response to that change, and why do I think that would have been more effective than what I did?

If you invest fifteen minutes in thinking about three major changes you’ve dealt with in the past, you will quickly assemble several useful ideas on how to deal effectively with the change you’re facing today.

Far too often people, including me, act totally surprised when confronted with a major change. They get extremely emotional and forget they’ve been down this road before. It reminds me of when it snows six inches in St. Louis, which is where I live. All of a sudden every television newscast starts with a weather report and every radio program is interrupted with a weather update and every student is looking for a school closing. People act like they’ve never seen this situation before. I remember one time a guy called into a radio program that was looking for weather alerts to say, “There’s white stuff coming down. It’s called snow. It happens every year. We’re all going to be okay.” I just cracked up laughing.

If you’ve been confronted by a major change today, catch yourself before you go into temporary shock. Review major changes from your past. Here are some typical significant changes people deal with during their lifetime:

  • Their family moves to a new community while they are in elementary or middle school and they have to get to know a new group of students.
  • Their parents go through a divorce.
  • Their closest friend moves to a different city and they don’t see that person again.
  • They play a sport for nine years and then they get cut from the high school team.
  • A close relative or great friend dies.
  • They have their heart set on attending a certain college and they get rejected.
  • They lose their job.
  • They move to a new city as an adult and don’t know anyone.

All of these are important changes. Many times we forget that we’ve dealt with these situations in the past, and therefore we don’t mine out the lessons to be learned.

Three Changes I’ve Learned from

Recently, I conducted a workshop for twenty people who were dealing with a major change in their organizational structure, which narrows it down to just about every organization in the world. The changes had generated a large amount of stress and frustration.

Rather than telling these twenty people what to do in order to deal with the changes, I simply asked them to think of three major changes they had dealt with in the past eight years and what they had done that was effective in dealing with them, what they had done that was not effective, what they could have done to be more effective, and why they felt that way.

Before they wrote down their answers, I shared with them three changes that I had dealt with and what I had learned.

My first change consisted of people dying. Five important people in my life (my dad, my sister, one of my very closest friends from high school, my college soccer coach, and a former client of mine whom I had developed a great friendship with) had all passed away in the previous eight years. What I did that was effective in dealing with this change is that I learned from it. I learned that life is short and that the end is unpredictable. I had heard the phrase “life is short,” but I didn’t know it until I dealt with this change. My strategy for success was narrowed to one word: care. I don’t know how long I have on this planet so I need to really care each day. Care about my family, care about my relationships with people, and care about the quality of my contribution in my work and in my community.

The second change involved my children steadily evolving into teenagers. Eight years ago they were eight and six years old. The way I talked to them then would be totally ineffective today. Every day I learn both what is effective and what is not effective in talking with them.

The third change I dealt with was in business. I had a major national client who represented about 90% of my work back in 2007. I was flying all over the country doing work for this organization. Then I received a call in 2007 that said they were no longer going to work with outside consultants at all. I was told it had nothing to do with the quality of my work, but that a decision had been made. They kept their word and my biggest client was gone almost overnight. I learned that you can’t have all your eggs in one basket. I had heard that phrase, but I didn’t know it until I lived through it. So I learned to be proactive in preparing for change rather than waiting for change to be thrust on me.

Lessons from the Group

After I was done, the audience had ten minutes to write down their answers to the questions. Then I put them into groups of three or four people to share their stories of change and what they learned from them. Each group then reported out their answers and we collated them into more than 120 ideas on what they did to be effective in dealing with change and what they did that was ineffective in dealing with change.

Here are some of their answers:

Things people thought or did that were effective in dealing with change:

  • Took time off to re-evaluate goals.
  • Understanding short term and what we can control.
  • Look for similarities in other people.
  • Due diligence in finding solution, keeping it within a budget.
  • Accepted the change.
  • Corrected some bad habits.
  • Did what felt right even if inconvenient, follow gut.
  • Take proactive role in staying connected – take the lead, don’t sit back and be victim.
  • Reflect and rebuild relationships when needed.
  • Face with as much positivity as possible – do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
  • Stepping back and thinking about how to react.
  • Looking to respected people for examples.
  • Educated myself to issues to understand options.
  • Focus on the why and not the what.

Things people thought or did that were not effective in dealing with change:

  • Taking on solutions by myself.
  • Not planning ahead.
  • Not making the most of time together.
  • Felt sorry for myself, lack of confidence.
  • Focused on the wrong things.
  • Letting my past define me and getting stuck in thinking about who did me wrong.
  • Not doing enough research.
  • Not open to help from others.
  • Not being fully prepared.
  • Not accepting change easily – holding on.
  • Not opening door for new people and new opportunities.
  • Closing off, thinking about past and how things were.
  • Worry, worry, worry can be overwhelming and all-encompassing.
  • Let others shut down.
  • Not leaning into others for support.
  • Taking time for granted.
  • Not realizing my limitations.
  • Didn’t seek guidance and advice from others in similar situation.
  • Not being prepared.
  • Not starting plan sooner.

After all the small groups reported their answers, we had another twenty-minute discussion as a large group on how the ideas from their past situations could be applied in dealing with the corporate structure change more effectively. In doing so, the group came up with their own answers, which I think is always more powerful than having someone from the outside tell them what to do.

Guide People in Your Organization to Think About How to Deal with Change

If the people in your organization are struggling with a major change, I encourage you to guide them through these three questions in reflecting on how they dealt with three major changes in their lives over the past ten years. Then have your group discuss their answers and how those answers can be applied toward effectively dealing with the current change. Your group may very well come up with powerful insights from their past that they can use today.