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Friday, 30 March 2012

How do you make changes stick?

Over the past 20 or more years of working in training and development, I’ve been particularly concerned about my ability to affect real, sustainable change. For many people, arranging or attending training is about finding a ‘quick fix’ to a specific problem, or about acquiring valuable new skills in a few hours which will transform their performance for ever-more.

It sounds a bit over-optimistic doesn’t it? Well my answer is yes and no…

I really do believe that training can and does help to address specific problems and anyone can learn valuable new skills through training – otherwise I wouldn’t be in the business I am in! However, here’s the catch: It’s never going to be that quick or that easy. Anyone who thinks they can go on a course, read a book or listen to a lecture and can go away transformed will be bitterly disappointed. Whilst our intellectual selves may be bright enough to grasp the concepts – even to predict or pre-empt what is being taught, it is our emotional selves that take a bit longer to catch on…

Have you ever been told about a fantastic new way of dealing with a difficult situation, such as how to structure a conversation with a difficult employee, or how to say ‘no’ to a bullying boss? You may have given it a go with some early success, but then found that you never got any further or that it never got any easier? The chances are, having tried it a couple of times, you will have decided that it couldn’t have been particularly good advice in the first place…

Well not necessarily so. In order to be totally certain, you need to be sure that you have been through the four stages of personal development in order to make them part of your natural skill set, before you can categorically say whether it works for you or not. The four stages of development needn’t take long, or be too difficult, but you will need to go through each one. If any of the steps are missed out, or rushed then the sustainable changes you’re looking for are unlikely to happen.

Here’s a quick overview of the four steps to sustainable skills development:

Step 1: Acceptance

It can be extremely difficult to step back from your busy day-to-day activities and to take an honest look at what’s going on. A certain amount of courage is required to face the things that we’re not particularly good at, or the things we’re doing or not doing that are not producing the outcomes we want. But this is a really important stage, because we need to be able to face the reality of the situation before we can plan how we are going to move forward and make the right changes. The way in which we experience this stage is critical. If we are challenged too quickly, too harshly or too much in one go, then we will become overwhelmed/defensive and we will revert to the comfort of ‘blissful ignorance’.

Step 2: Understanding the Reality of the Situation

Only once we have accepted the reality of the situation, are we truly going to want to change and to learn. Step two is about becoming conscious of the underlying causes, the ‘system’ and the ‘triggers’ that initiate or support the undesirable behaviour. Simply increasing awareness of these can be a huge step towards making the desired changes.
For example, you may be ready to face reality that your lack of skills or confidence in a particular area isn’t what you want anymore. Now you need to start to notice what is happening, both internally and externally: What are other people saying and doing? and what are you thinking and feeling? If you identify any unhelpful patterns of behaviour or any illogical patterns of thought that may be preventing you from applying the new skills, then part of your change strategy will need to address these.

Step 3: Practice

Only once we have completed steps one and two, are we ready to make the changes. Although most people would really like the change to be as quick and easy as it was to desire it, sustainable change often needs intensive practice until the new patterns of behaviour become the new habit.
The mistake we often make is to assume that because we feel motivated for change right now, we will necessarily feel the same next week or next month. Many people report a short-lived high after training, which can fade fast and lead to disappointment. This is because life has a tendency to resist change in order to maintain the status quo, pushing us back to where we were. But if we allow this to happen, we can end up feeling even worse, as despite our best intentions we have clearly failed...The best way to avoid ‘relapse’ is to persist, finding various ways of keeping ourselves on track until the new behaviour becomes a natural part of our repertoire. By this time, the people and situations around us will also have adapted and changed. Step three is therefore about regular practice.Even if the new behaviour feels easy and change seems instantaneous, you are strongly advised to build in opportunities to practice and reflect, in order to consolidate the change and keep it in place. Remember that you may need to return to steps 1 and 2 as more information comes to hand or circumstances change.

Step 4: Reflect and Celebrate

The final step is about taking the time to reflect on the changes that we’ve made, and celebrate our successes. Reflection is an important part of making sustainable change and it goes hand in hand with practice. Each time we try to implement a new behaviour, or to avoid an unwanted behaviour, we need to identify what has worked and why it has worked. This will help to keep us motivated and on track to making the changes part and parcel of our natural being. It will also help us to refine our future efforts so that we develop our own version of the behaviour – and not just a copy-cat version that we have heard about on a course or in a book.
Try not to focus too long on things that you ‘should’ or ‘could’ have done better. The energy spent on regret and guilt are far better redirected towards improving the future.When you are sure that the change you’ve made is truly part of the new you, then find a way to celebrate the learning.

THE HOLE: Life-Long Learning in a Week

(Inspired By Portia Nelson’s “There’s a hole in my sidewalk”)

I’m walking down the road minding my own business.
There is a deep hole that I don’t see, and I fall in.
It’s not my fault I fell in!
I feel lost, helpless and angry.
It takes me forever to climb out.

I’m walking down the same road minding my own business.

The deep hole is still there, but I wish it wasn’t there.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am the hole again.
But it still isn't my fault!
It takes a long time to climb out.

I’m walking down the same road minding my own business.

The deep hole is still there and I can clearly see it.
But I still fall in, because falling in has become a habit of mine.
I know where I am and this time I accept it’s my fault.
I climb out - it’s a little easier than last time.
I’m hoping nobody has seen me.

I’m walking down the same road minding my own business.

The deep hole is still there and I can see it is there.
I try to walk around it, but I still fall in.
It’s nobody’s fault.
A passer-by quickly pulls me out.
I’m very grateful.

I’m walking down the same road minding my own business.
The deep hole is still there and I can see it is there.
I'm determined not to fall in.
I stumble but I don't fall in.
I hope nobody noticed.

I’m walking down the same road minding my own business.
The deep hole is still there and I can see it is there.
I carefully walk around it.
I’m so pleased with myself.
I tell all my friends, "I didn't fall in!"

I’ve found a different road to walk down.

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