Empathy, an undervalued asset for driving change
We fear change because we can’t anticipate the outcome. As Lao Tzu said, “If you do not change your direction, you may end up where you are going.”
An old man accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life.
Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. Everyone asked him how he managed to survive.
“I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me,” the old man replied, “Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. That’s how I survived.”
Resisting change won’t turn the outcome in your favor. The old man survived the rapids not because he knew what to do but because he didn’t fight the current — he let go. Conversely, the bystanders worried more about his fortune than the ‘victim’ did.
Did you know your brain prefers predictable negative consequences over uncertain outcomes?
You cannot control uncertainty. Worrying will only make things worse. However, understanding what’s going on in your mind (or someone else’s) can reduce the pain. It will increase your chances to thrive when the unexpected knocks at your door.
Driving change is an act of empathy. It requires understanding the emotions and fears that get in the way — to stop resisting uncertainty the next time you fall into the rapids.
Resisting Change Makes Things Worse
“Fear sees, even when eyes are closed.” — Wayne Gerard Trotman
If change is an integral part of our lives, why resist it?
That’s the paradox of change. As a society, we worship progress — change will bring opportunities and improvement. However, unconsciously, we all believe that longevity equals goodness.
We associate lifespan with higher quality, even though tradition gets us stuck more times than not. According to research, the longer something is thought to exist, the better it is perceived.
One particular tree described as being 4,500 years got more positive reviews than when people were told it was just 500 years old. The same occurred when comparing ‘two’ pieces of European chocolate. One was portrayed as first been sold in its region 73 years ago; the other, 3 years ago. Though it was the same chocolate, can you guess which got a five-star rating?
Resisting change makes things worse — whatever we resist, persists.
When it comes to dealing with change, research indicates that there are three primary emotions we experience: cynicism, fear, and acceptance. The first two are strongly negative, and the latter is vaguely positive. No strong positive feelings made it to the top.
I experience this very often when coaching teams. Even when a new initiative will provide clear benefits to the people, they resist it. The problem is most executives can’t get past the ‘my team is resisting change.’ Walk in their shoes — what’s causing resistance?
To conquer the fear of the unknown, you need to understand which emotions come to play. Not all resistance is driven by the same feelings. There are many ‘sub-fears’ than can paralyze a team — certain emotions might hurt one person more than others.
We all admire and fear change at the same time.
Change is a paradox. Being empathetic requires understanding that people can maintain both favorable and unfavorable attitudes towards change.
Do you suffer from loss of control?
Do your coworkers worry if they will thrive in a new scenario?
Does your team think that change demands more work? Is lack of clarity exhausting their energy?
Why do we fear change?
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” — Bertrand Russell
The desire to change and to maintain sameness coexist. I consider myself an explorer and change instigator. However, even though I’m continually challenging myself (and others) to get out of my comfort zone, I also fall prey to this paradox.
Change is uncertain and risky (even for those who embrace it).
To be able to conquer the fear of the unknown, you need to understand why people seek for certainty at any price. Research has demonstrated that we prefer to know for sure that something wrong will happen over not knowing what an outcome will be.
A sophisticated experiment, conducted to understand the relationship between uncertainty and stress, provided a compelling answer. When we fear being at risk, our defense mechanism moves us into action. We associate dopamine to addiction, but its role is not limited to rewarding ourselves — it encourages us to run away from adverse outcomes.
Train your mind to become more aware of your emotions — empathy will help you understand both yours and other people’s feelings. Learn to pause before you act: are you consciously saying no, or just running away from the uncertain?
Let’s address the seven fears associated to change.
1. Fear of the uncertain
David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart, said that the brain seems wired to want to resolve unknowns. “When the brain is facing uncertainty, it creates certainty.” Driven by the emotional need to solve this tension now, your brain defaults to the easiest, fastest and least-painful option. Thus, you don’t choose the best option — you stay in your comfort zone.
Anticipation can cause more damage than change itself.
Dealing with change requires being open to the uncertain. Embrace the unknown one step at a time. Learn to accept reality rather than fight back.
2. Fear of failure
No one wants to fail. Especially in a society that reveres success. However, making mistakes is a necessary part of experimenting and learning. Your fears can get you stuck rather than help you grow.
Experience is the name we give to our mistakes according to Oscar Wilde.
The more afraid you are of failing, the bigger the chances of things going wrong. Mistakes are part of your human nature. Accept being vulnerable; to err is acknowledging you are human. Reframe mistakes as learning experiences. Instead of resisting them, ask yourself: “what’s the lesson?”
3. Fear of being ridiculed
We all like to look good in front of others. That’s why we wear masks sometimes: to be appreciated and accepted by other people. However, this approach is unrealistic — you are letting your ego take over your true self.
When you stop caring about other’s opinions, you become free.
FEAR is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. Who says that people don’t laugh at you even if you are not taking risks? Are you willing to let go of an opportunity just because what others might think? It’s impossible to master something you try for the first time. Feeling awkward is a necessary part of the learning journey, as I wrote here.
4. Fear of losing control
Our brains are wired to provide answers. Even if we don’t have a clue about what’s going on. That’s why we have a hard time letting go instead of freely surfing life’s strong currents.
We fear change because we feel relegated to a secondary role: we are no longer in the driver’s seat.
Researcher Dan Gilbert said: “We come into the world with a passion for control and we go out of the world the same way. And research suggests that, if we lose the ability to control things at any point between our entrance and our exit, we become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.”
Life is always out of your control, even when you stand still. Wait for the outcome to unfold; embrace a ‘maybe’ mindset.
5. Fear of inadequacy
How many times have you told yourself you are not good enough?
We all feel that at some point or another. Either because we are too perfectionist or because we compare to others. The grass is always greener on the side it rains the most. Facing the unknown questions our convictions: are we up to this challenge?
If you hesitate, you will most probably fail.
To embrace change requires that you take the leap. Self-doubt erodes your clarity. Don’t anticipate the events. Trust your gut, trust yourself.
Marianne Williamson wrote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
6. Fear of the extra work
We have an idealized version of life. We believe that things should be easy; we are not supposed to suffer. However, suffering is intrinsically part of being human. Pain and joy are two sides of the same coin since the moment you were born.
The experience of living requires a lot of hard work.
When you don’t know what will happen, you let your lazy brain take over. Margaret King said that uncertainty is one of the most de-motivating things — we avoid it at all costs. That’s why we will just do nothing if we’re not sure.
Change requires extra (mental) work for sure but, sometimes, stop resisting takes less effort than we think. Like it happened to the old man, allowing the current guide you is more natural than fighting it back. Letting go of control is critical to adapt to uncertain events.
7. Fear of being happy
We all want to be happy, but we are afraid to be happy. That’s why, unconsciously, we boycott ourselves. The fear of happiness is a cultural thing, as I explained here. Sometimes we feel guilty about feeling great; that’s why we stick to the sameness rather than explore the progress.
“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” — Japanese Proverb
Happiness is a state of mind, not just a consequence of the things you have or your personal experiences. Realizing that will make things easier for you when dealing with change. You can opt to resist what you don’t know, or you can enjoy the journey. Your choice.
Overcome the Fear of Change
“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” — James Stephens
Conquering the fear of the unknown is not simple, but it’s not complicated either. Empathy can reduce emotional resistance.
Walk in other people’s shoes. Rather than putting all fears in one basket, learn to discriminate. Out of the seven fears described above, which one is affecting your team right now?
Don’t let fear paralyze you. Being afraid is natural, but it shouldn’t prevent you from embracing the unknown.
Your life is like a movie. You neither want to watch the same over and over nor anticipate what will happen. Intrigue and surprising turns keep audiences captivated. The same applies to your life. Be open to unexpected scenes.
Build on successful experiences. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Look back and reflect on everything you or your team have achieved. That’s the positive side of change. Things and people that were once unknown are now favorably familiar.
Promote curiosity. Learn to ask better questions rather than look for the perfect answer. Go with the flow instead of trying to anticipate events. Avoid thinking about what you can’t; let life surprise you with what you can and would.
Start small and build momentum. The Ten Percent Advantage is about focusing on small everyday progress. Achievement is the cumulative culmination of incremental improvements. Build momentum — small wins will make you want more.
Your fears are yours — understand your emotions and work with them, rather than against them. You are in charge.
Marcus Aurelius said: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Don’t be afraid of being afraid. That’s how you conquer the fear of the unknown both in yourself and in others.
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