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The Way We Breathe

Control, change and - the way we breathe

  • 16 August 2013
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Last June, I guided the Culture, Change & Leadership workshop in Zwolle, the Netherlands. We shared 3 inspirational days while we practiced with the WHAT, the HOW and the WHO of change...
What struck me again is our tendency to cling to control. Even as conscious consultants, it is not always easy to be fully present in the moment and to respond to what is emerging - if that differs from your own “WHAT”: your pre-suppositions, goals and expectations. While the real magic in change happens when you go with the flow...and trust the process: the HOW. But for that to happen, you need to be WHO you are.

Control: proceed as planned!

During the workshop, we practiced what we preached. So we worked with a real case and created a change circle with dialogue, democratically acknowledging all view points. That was easy with this group of seasoned fellow consultants, most of whom were very open, smart and confident. But reaching consensus on the best way to move forward with the case, was not always easy. People prefer to have things their own way - and consultants are no different.

Being a change facilitator requires great awareness. You have to be conscious of your own preferences, goals and behaviors. The minute I start pushing toward my desired outcome of the dialogue (“Let’s conclude to abolish some procedures to stir innovation in this case”) - the others feel the pressure and start to push back in one way or another. The free flow of information and inspiration that is vital to successful change circles is hindered by language and behaviors that are not neutral, open and permissive. An emotional charge enters the room, safety is at stake immediately, defense mechanisms come up - some get annoyed and debate my solution, others withdraw.

It is essential that I remain open and fully present in the moment. As a change facilitator, I should not favor one outcome above the other. I should let go of attachments and expectations and targets. I must be aware of anything that happens: verbally or non-verbally, and respond adequately, thus creating a safe space for the others to fully contribute and take ownership.

The interesting thing is that we find it hard to let go of our preferences and trust the process completely. How can we rely on something that is not specified in an excel sheet or schedule? We can’t be freewheeling through our valuable time...! We need results!

While this is essential: a good process leads to good outcomes. A bad process, where there is repression, fear, defense, fake consensus or hoarding information - will lead to bad outcomes (paper tigers and worse...) To stimulate a good process in a change - is to let go of the WHAT during exploring new possibilities and to focus on the HOW within the change circle and, moreover, the WHO.

The WHO (the change facilitator) facilitates the HOW - the change process that emerges and the outcomes, the WHAT.

WHO we are

I have learned that we must be fully present and let go of our arrogance (to assume that we know best - “I’ve seen so many change projects before and I expect...blabla”) and let go of perceived control (“We must find 3 key behaviors for the new culture before 5 PM”). We might not make the target - and get everything done today. But we might discover essentials to this typical change process! We might stumble upon the one thing that makes the difference somehow - IF we trust the process.

That takes faith - and working on the WHO. It takes persuasion because our clients want an outline, they want to know where they will be at 5 PM and in 6 months time. So we explain that we’re building the bridge while we walk it. Guiding change, especially culture change (that deals with meaning, beliefs, values and daily habits) is pure process work. Even though we try to keep it in a neat box, defining it, structuring it with some analytic tools - there is no 100% control. Welcome to reality! Let’s enjoy the journey and develop together.

The WHO, who guides change (the CEO, the leaders, the change facilitators, the people working together in change circles) makes a difference to the HOW, the change process, and thus to the WHAT.

During the workshop, I saw once again how we tend to hold on to the planning, the box, the structure and our own view of the world. At some point, all of us tend to believe we are right and everyone should think like us. We try to achieve the planning as promised (thus cutting short a question that might have been relevant...). We are thinking about goals without observing that someone in the group starts to withdraw - leaning back and no longer engaging. We reside in our analytic minds - losing contact with the here and now - the vibe in the change circle, the energy charge associated with the change plans - and we might miss the point where people hesitate to take ownership of the change. We might push - thus favoring compliance, politeness and another change program that is paper bound...

One small act to improve yourself as a consultant

One small act will help you get back to reality, perceiving and sensing what is happening right now: relax and exhale three times. Use your body to get back into the moment and pick up the flow.

WHO we are as consultants and change guides and leaders: it matters. Are you present in your body? The body is the instrument to enlarge your awareness and become more sensitive to reality out there. The body is our vehicle on this earth and it is THE check point to connect to others, to change and to reality. This may sound strange and “not done” because we have been trained to use our brains foremost and not our bodies.

We use our bodies to transport our brains to the next change project. But what if we used all of ourselves consciously? You can feel in your body (gut feeling) whether a group is really engaging or not, for instance. You can connect to reality any time, if you exhale and let go of tension, expectations, “musts” and more. If you exhale, you simply become present in your body and you open yourself to observe what happens.

We practiced this during the workshop. We all have a body that breathes. But we rarely do it consciously. Doing so, was awkward. Some were reluctant, some embarrassed. Some people don’t want to feel what they feel - but if you do and you get to know yourself better, you become the powerful WHO that you need to be to guide magic processes: the HOW of change that matters more than the WHAT, eventually.

But it means you need to let go of some (perceived) control... And maybe some social norms (“Come on, we’re not going to sigh together...! We look like fools.”) And that’s what we’re not used to!

Anyway, this was a great exercise in change for us consultants: how awkward you feel when you do something you’re not used to do, something new... So check back regularly - to feel if you’re still present in your body, facilitating the right process to change! Don’t worry, you’ll have fun breathing!

Checking our awareness is essential to developing the workers, the workplace and thus the world. It may be a challenge but there’s nothing more important than to co-create positive, inclusive, engaging change this 21st Century.... So let’s keep working on the WHO, HOW and WHAT of change.

PS: Check out our YouTube channel on Culture, Change & Leadership.

PS2: You can enroll here for the November workshop, Early Bird until September 1!

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