I’m intrigued with that hard-to-describe, ever so powerful moment when we decide to act differently than we usually would. That moment when we break out of our usual routines of thought or action; when we, in a sense, set aside nearly everything that has made us who we are up to that point. Why do we sometimes choose or allow these shifts, what makes them happen?
For me, that isn’t just a peripheral, mind-games question, but one that has profound impact on my work. If I’m working with a group on how they approach conflict, talking with a work team about collaborative processes, working with trainers developing workshops, facilitating a group meeting, or designing interactions related to social justice and -isms, all of that work is by necessity predicated on the idea that my intervention may have an impact … that some external stimulus may prompt a change for the people I’m working with. And because I have the privilege of a fairly high degree of control of my own work and because I tailor each activity to the people I’m working with, I have to think about what may have the most impact for each particular intervention.
I’m no expert on the science of these shifts, but what I’ve noticed, and what seems to be backed up by research, is that lasting change usually comes from both cognitive (thinking) and emotional or subjective processes … being introduced to something new that logically “makes sense” is only part of it. It seems we’re more likely to change our habitual patterns and behaviors …
- If people we like or who have influence or power over us adopt the “new” attitude or behavior,
- If we believe that the “new” attitude or behavior either is intrinsically rewarding (now or in the expected future) or that there would be heavy costs to not changing,
- If we believe that the “new” attitude or behavior fits in in some way with our values and our image of ourselves.
(See more on motivation in What if … we were motivated to collaborate?.)
So part of what I’m doing when I work with groups is trying to create a setting that both encourages, challenges and supports participants to consider how new ideas fit for them. How would what I offer change their perceived rewards or costs, how does it work with their existing beliefs and patterns, how does it fit with what others around them might say or do?
Figuring out whether what I do may have the impact I intend isn’t a mathematical equation whose answer I can predict. What motivates one person or organization to change won’t be the same as what works for another, and I can’t be an expert on whether or how what I have to offer may fit for someone else. There has to be a certain kind of humility in this work. To try to force a shift to happen, to manipulate people into un-chosen change, or to insist that the miracle take the form and timing I think it should is hubris – and disrespectful.
Which is why I feel such awe when I’m able to witness a moment where one of these shifts takes place. There is in that moment a mysterious miracle, a moment when the balance shifts – perhaps in part inspired by something I did (or didn’t do), but most certainly born from some internally created and nurtured seed that has burst into bloom. A moment when all that had been stacked up against change suddenly tilts, an opening appears, and consciously realized or not, our motivational equations add up differently. Marvelous, isn’t it?