Promoting Change When People Prefer Familiarity

Virginia Satir once said, "People prefer familiarity to comfort."

In a recent conversation on the Extreme Programming mailing list, that phrase came up. Alistair Cockburn, an influential change agent in the software development industry, said, "I don't know about you, but that phrase, besides ringing true, frightens the bejeebers out of me."

My initial reaction was that it doesn't frighten me at all. But given how frequently I advocate one change or another, I wasn't sure why it didn't frighten me. So I pondered.

I think it doesn't frighten me because my persuasion style includes ways to make change familiar to people. I never thought about the things I do in those terms until I read Alistair's message, but as I look at how I encourage change, much of it is about making the unfamiliar familiar.

For example, an HR executive named Susan once sought my help with some resistance she was encountering. I asked her a few simple questions, and that was all she needed from me. Though I wasn't advocating any particular change in that situation, my questions had the effect of framing Susan's problem so that it was suddenly very familiar to her. And once the problem became familiar, she knew exactly how to solve it.

Another example: Paul, an executive at a company that builds people's dream houses, wanted my help with a customer relations problem. As I talked with Paul about the situation, he suddenly realized how he could solve the problem. As I look at that story now, I see that Paul's epiphany was largely a result of casting his customer relations issue in a familiar light. Once the problem was familiar, he knew what to do.

In those examples, though I wasn't advocating any particular change, familiarity played a key role in the changes my clients made.

When I'm promoting change, I do a number of things that have the effect of making change familiar. For example, I often work hard to find safe ways for people to try whatever I'm advocating. A small demonstration, maybe, or a "toy" situation to practice on, where failure doesn't matter. Making it safe for people to try the new idea in a small way invites them to get a teeny tiny bit of experience, from which the new idea becomes a teeny tiny bit more familiar.

Also, I often tell stories, like the ones I linked to above, which can help to make new ideas more familiar.

I suspect that much of my persuasion style is about familiarity, though I never thought about it that way until recently. This gives me an idea for becoming a more effective change artist: What if I attend purposefully to familiarity, and the ways in which familiarity influences the way people respond to change? What new ideas does that give me for how to encourage change, and how to respond to resistance?

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