I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how hard ‘change’ is so I decided to write an article explaining what’s going on causing the difficulty. Take heart! Change only seems hard because of the way we’re going about it. I’ve been developing systemic brain change models for decades and I’d like to offer my two cents to explain the reasons there’s so much unnecessary failure.
You see, for new, permanent change to occur (new habits, behaviors, decisions, change management initiatives) it’s necessary for the brain to send out different instructions than the ones that instigated the original behaviors. Current change management/ behavior change models omit making the necessary alterations to the brain circuits.
In other words, we’re seeking change but not developing the new brains commands to cause it. Like expecting your bike to ride itself without you peddling, then blaming the bike.
CHANGE MUST COME FROM THE BRAIN
Because all actions (thoughts, behaviors, opinions, habits) are a result – an output – of instructions received from the brain, without modified instructions we continue doing the same thing and getting the same results. Unfortunately, offering our brains reasons to change (as rational as they might be) doesn’t cause new circuit configurations. Let me explain.
While a known fact in neuroscience, most of us don’t realize that behaviors are merely responses – the outward manifestation, or outputs – to signals sent from brain circuits. Speaking physiologically, there’s no way to change a behavior by merely trying to change a behavior: to get a different output, new behavior or choice, it’s necessary to go directly to the source (the brain) and make the changes in the circuits themselves or create new ones.
Current change models try to fix the symptom and ignore modifying the initiation point they emanate from.
I’m currently writing a book (The How of Change) that goes into great detail about the mind-brain connection and how to construct the specific circuitry to generate the choice we desire. In this article I’ll explain the mind-brain connection so you’ll understand how our brains cause change, and why your attempts at permanent change aren’t more consistent.
Since the topic is far too complex for a short article I’ll put in some links at the end for those seeking further knowledge. And I’m always available to chat about it; I’ve spent my life unwrapping the elements necessary for permanent change, so I’m happy to discuss.
CHANGE ISN’T HARD
Sadly, change gets a bad rap. The perceived wisdom believes that ‘change is hard’ and ‘no one likes change’ because of the resistance that results when behavior-based models are used. When approached from the brain, not so much.
We’re a culture dominated by the mind. Information. Data. Content. Stories. Facts. Our minds certainly need data to think with, to learn from and weight decisions with. But it becomes a problem when we want to make a change. You see, information – the mind – doesn’t cause change. Brains do.
We begin with a flawed assumption: we assume we can effect change because we desire it or work at it. But when we neglect to involve the brain we fail: change is a brain thing; information is a mind thing. Changing the brain is the precursor to changing the mind.
The problem is our brain’s laziness. Because of the way our brains process data they prefer to send incoming content to the most used circuits that carry ‘similar enough’ signals for interpretation – and you end up with exactly what you’re trying to change or resistance.
CHANGE IS A BRAIN THING
Instructing outputs is what brains do: there is nothing we see, hear, do, think or feel that hasn’t been instructed from our brains. We rely on our brains for everything – thoughts, understanding from books, behaviors and activities, organ activity, colors, what we hear (sounds and words).
An easy way to realize this is to think about Alzheimer’s disease. My dad died from it; I watched while he lost his memory first, then slowly lost his physical functionality – muscles and organs failed when they stopped receiving instructions from his brain.
We forget this when seeking change. Using conventional change models – Behavior Modification, Cognitive Behavior Change – we attempt change by trying to change behaviors with mind-based mastery like discipline, regulation, rational thinking, habit creation, practice, and training.
But without specific instructions from our neurology, the mind has no way of carrying out our wishes. Attempts to change behaviors without reprogramming the brain will likely fail, regardless of dedication or will. The numbers concur: Organizational Development fails 97% of the time. Training fails 80% of the time. Diets and smoking cessation fail 97% of the time. Sales fails 95% of the time. Even in our own lives: With all the discipline in the world, we have difficulty making behavior changes permanent. Keep weight off? Get organized? Hard to do. Why?
All behaviors, decisions, habits and choices are outputs, end products, generated from instructions sent through specific, historic circuit configurations in our brains.
WHAT IS A BEHAVIOR?
Since so much of what we want to change is behavioral, let’s look at what a behavior is. This will provide insight into how our brains instruct our choices and the problems involved with the way we’re currently addressing change.
Simply, the mind sends our brain a signal to ‘do something’ (an input) and the brain complies by sending the signals to a ‘similar-enough’ set of existing, normalized circuits that translate the request into instructions for some sort of output.
These signals are mechanical, electro-chemical, and automatic. No meaning or intent involved. Meaning and intent are mind things. Brains, comprised of 86 billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of neural connections and synapses, are unconscious and just do what they’re told via signals; they don’t judge good/bad, right/wrong.
Here’s a simplified explanation of the string of events:
- All incoming words, directions, ideas, promises, etc.
- enter our brains as puffs of air (inputs without meaning!) and
- get transformed into electro-chemical signals that
- eventually get automatically dispatched to ‘similar-enough’ (historic, existing) circuits
- for translation into action (outputs, such as new behaviors, decisions, ideas)
- via our mind.
Again, there is no meaning, no intent, no thinking involved. Mechanical. Electro-chemical. Automatic. Take a look:
Notice that actions are outputs; without inputs, no outputs can exist. So behaviors are a result, an end product and cannot be modified as such.
HOW WE GET RESISTANCE
All outputs that emerge are specific to that circuit: the brain always directs incoming signals/inputs to circuits with matching (‘similar-enough’) signals and will always produce the same output when the same/similar words, directives and thoughts are input. So a machine programmed (input) to make a chair will produce (output) the same chair each time. To make a table you must reprogram the machine.
All this occurs in five one-hundredths of a second. Given there are billions of bits of data coming into our brains every second (most of it unconsciously) our mind ignores, overlooks, forgets, most of it. It only alerts us to obvious changes that are incongruent with our personal belief system.
When we request an action that differs from the similar-enough circuit that receives it, or input wholly new requests that don’t yet have a circuit, we end up getting resistance. It’s why we fail when we try to do something different. Without changing the input we’re trying to turn the chair into a table.
When our brains are asked to do something that they have no circuits to interpret we resist or fail or misunderstand: incoming instructions get converted to a potentially inappropriate existing pathway or get lost in translation, misinterpretation, or assumption.
This is what happens when we decide to go on another diet for example: our brain references the existing DIET superhighway and we get the same results we got previously. Hence the 97% failure rate. We can force the behavior part for a while, and possibly even lose the weight, but we don’t have the circuits to maintain it.
WHY CHANGE ATTEMPTS FAIL
For any action, any change, any new behavior, habit or choice, we need both the mind and the brain: The mind directs requests to, and carries out instructions from, the brain but doesn’t instigate the activity itself. Think of it like a car’s engine: you turn the car on (i.e. the mind) and it moves (the mind) but needs the engine (i.e. the brain) to make it work.
And herein lie the problem. Because our outputs emerge from established circuits (called Superhighways) that have been created and sustained during our lifetime, our choices emerge from whatever we’ve done or believed before regardless of any differences we desire. We do what we do because it’s how our circuitry is programmed, obviously limiting us to choices that embrace our unique histories and mental models and… here is the annoying part… maintains the status quo.
It rules our lives: We live around people of similar political beliefs; our friends share ideas and lifestyles similar to ours; what we read, the TV news we watch, where we take vacations, are largely similar to those in our sphere. Even our curiosity is restricted accordingly. Sadly, we either don’t notice unfamiliar content or have problems accepting ideas foreign to us.
But, in general, this works well for us and keeps us comfortable – until we want to do something ‘different’, or try to change/create a habit, or when we’re involved in a change management process in our companies that requires new activities.
LISTENING AND CIRCUITS
One more bit I’d like to mention: the way brains ‘listen’. The problem begins as soon as we hear requests to change and come up against the way our brains interpret incoming words/sounds/ideas.
The listening process in and of itself causes problems: incoming sound vibrations traverse the same neural pathway as incoming instructions and ideas: the vibrations get turned into signals that eventually get sent to ‘similar enough’ (existing) circuits for translation.
Obviously, this limits what we think was said to what we’ve understood before. (I wrote a book on this and how to fix it.) Our outputs (what we understand or misunderstand) will be skewered accordingly.
Let me say this another way as it’s important. Since words are merely puffs of air with no meaning until our brain translates them, incoming ideas or instructions will be defined by the circuits we’ve used before. In other words, what we think was said is a subjective translation, possibly some degree off the intended message.
Of course that makes communication and understanding difficult: regardless of how carefully we listen, how much Active Listening we use, or how passionately we buy-in to making a change, we listen with ears that interpret what’s said by the circuit configuration that received the input and sort-of matches. And it’s totally, completely, out of our control.
As you know by now, any misunderstanding or confusion that occurs has nothing to do with ‘reality’ and everything to do with subjective, unique brain circuitry. This makes it virtually impossible to understand anyone else fully, especially difficult for those in the helping professions trained to ‘understand’ and advise accordingly: everything Others say and do is received and translated through our subjective filters and circuits. I always suggest people say: ‘I want to make sure I understand you accurately, so I’ll tell you what I think I heard and please correct me where I got it wrong.’
THERE IS NO REALITY
And that brings up another item that causes us to fail: we seem to think there is something called ‘rational’ and we try to do ‘what’s right’. But there is no reality. Basically, our brains – yes, back to the culprit – make up our reality from the lives we’ve lived. As David Eagleman says in The Brain,
“..our picture of the external world isn’t necessarily an accurate representation. Our perception of reality has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain.” [pg 40]
“Each of us has our own narrative and we have no reason not to believe it. Our brains are built on electrochemical signals that we interpret as our lives and experience… there’s no single version of reality. Each brain carries its own truth via billions of signals triggering chemical pulses and trillions of connections between neurons. [pg 73-74] [bold mine]
Indeed, everything we think, hear, decide, and choose is an output, an interpretation made by, and directed from our brains. We’re not in control.
So one last reminder: Since all activity is an output from directions our brains give our mind, you can’t change a behavior (mind) by trying to change a behavior (mind) as there are no accompanying brain circuits to generate new directives for new outputs.
CONCLUSION AND GOING FORWARD
Now that you know exactly why change seems hard, I’ll mention the models I’ve developed to forge a conscious route into the unconscious for permanent and congruent change – great additions to tools given to coaches, docs, leaders, and change agents. It’s taken me decades to identify the elements to include, then create models to apply them.
All of my models hinge on a systems orientation, given we are all systems and systems seek congruence. For any change to occur, for us to do something different and our brain to send out new/different instructions, we must end up congruent (i.e. Systems Congruence and homeostasis). This is how we remain who we are; no matter what want to do, our brains maintain our values. Even our brain’s neuroplasticity is informed by our individual, unique, and systemic norms.
That means any requested change must be at least equal to or less than the cost/risk of staying the same. Too often, when we input directions to make a change, we inadvertently provoke unconscious elements within our systems. This is especially true when change is being requested without collaboration and consultation from initiatives designed and directed by Others.
Here are the models I’ve developed that generate permanent brain circuit change while maintaining our Systems Congruence.
1. Change Facilitation. Often used by sales professionals (i.e. the generic model Buying Facilitation®) this model facilitates the capture and recognition of the appropriate and congruent criteria necessary for new decisions, behaviors, and choices, using
a. Facilitative Questions – A brain-directed facilitation model that uses specific words in a specific order along a very specific sequence to get into the unconscious circuits necessary to recognize the full set of systemic choices for new outputs.
b. 13 steps of change – I’ve unpacked each of the decision stages that all new decision making requires for congruent change.
c. Listening for patterns – Standard listening hears content, but content gets translated into our ears subjectively. To hear what someone intends to say, it’s necessary to listen from a different place in our brain, without the automatic circuits we unconsciously prefer to listen and interpret from that bias incoming data according to existing circuits.
Ultimately, change facilitation is used by influencers, coaches, sellers, change agents, trainers, managers, to enable Others to discover their own answers, using their own criteria, and governing their own systemic change while maintaining Systems Congruence and with no bias from outside.
In sales, my clients close 8x more in half the time using this process as it finds would-be prospects such earlier and serves them around their own change issues rather than through the needs of the sale. I’ve trained Buying Facilitation® to 100,000 sales people, coaches, lawyers, and leaders in many global corporations (i.e P&G, DuPont, KPMG, Morgan Stanley, Kaiser, IBM, GE, ATT, etc.). The model is generic and independent of initiative or product.
Using Change Facilitation in OD and change management, resistance is almost non-existent and the length of the initiative is a fraction of standard change management models as all – all – stakeholders/elements are discovered and included from the start, and systems are set up to avoid potential resistance.
2. The How of Change ™. I’ve decoded the conscious route to getting into the unconscious to either repopulate the internal components of the status quo to enable new/different outputs, or create a wholly new circuit for new choices. It resolves habits people try to break, resistance, and confusion.
I’ve created a 5 session program to lead folks through to brain change and to new, permanent habits and behaviors. Here is a video of the first session with me explaining what the brain does and how it’s possible to get to the unconscious: http://buyingfacilitation.com/blog/courses/the-how-of-change-sample/?lesson=62
The How of Change™ is used by folks seeking to change habits: diets, smoking cessation, routinization (i.e. exercise, organization). I would very much like to get this into healthcare so doctors can use it instead of telling patients what to do (and face resistance and misunderstanding, or non-compliance).
If anyone has interest in designing a model for a change initiative in their company, or licensing the material to train, please contact me.
Here are links to articles/podcasts on change:
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at email@example.com.