[This is the 6th (and final) installment in our series, Language Matters. If you missed the others you can find them here, and here and here and here and here.]
I want to let you in on a little secret: almost everyone is resistant to change. Even when we know the change could be helpful or beneficial. Sometimes, we continue to do something in a familiar way out of habit, because it’s what we’re used to, or because we don’t think change is possible. And we’re often most resistant to change when someone else suggests it.
We are so resistant to change, in fact, that there is a whole profession dedicated to “change management” to help companies navigate big changes with minimal fallout. Change is hard.
But there’s one linguistic switch you can make to instantly make change easier for yourself and to help others get on board: Use the language of experimentation instead of the language of change.
Over and over I find that lots of people push back when faced with a potential change, but most people are open to experimentation.
Put another way: everyone’s resistant to change, but no one wants to be the jerk who’s unwilling to experiment.
Why? Well, I think it’s twofold.
First, change implies permanence, while experimentation is temporary by definition. We’re more open to trying something if we know it’s not forever. There’s a less inherent risk in an experiment.
And second, an experiment gives us agency and control. A “change” is happening to us and around us; it’s something we must deal with. An experiment puts us back in the driver’s seat; an experiment is something we do. Drilled into us since childhood is the understanding that the point of an experiment is to see what happens, what works, and what doesn’t. Inherent in experimentation is analysis and reevaluation. So, most people are much more open to an experiment than a change.
With an experiment, there’s almost only upside: either we learn that something doesn’t work and can continue to experiment, or we learn it works better, and we can keep doing it. An experiments effects change more gently and incrementally.
So, how does this work in practice? Let me give you some examples:
Moving a meeting to accommodate your schedule
Would you be open to trying out this meeting at 10am instead of 8am for a few weeks? If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the current schedule, or try out another time that might work better for both of us.
Quite often my clients are scheduled into meetings that conflict with their optimal schedules. Yet, many are hesitant to suggest a change either because they worry they’ll be inconveniencing others, or that they’ll come across as selfish/self-serving, or because the meeting involves multiple parties and they are not the organizer. The nice thing about the language of experimentation is that it’s softer than the language of change. If you phrase it as above, it comes across as collaborative instead of pushy.
Changing a process that’s “always been done this way”
If you’ve ever worked in an organization that’s set in its ways or worked with folks who’ve been in their roles for decades, you may have encountered resistance to improving a process just because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. If that happens, try this:
I think I may have found some tweaks that could make process X more efficient. Could we try out this alternative version of the process for a month to determine if these updates could improve the existing process?
Negotiating bedtime or screentime with your kids
Ever been in a power struggle with your kids? (If you have kids, I know you have!) Use data to your advantage! Experiment, analyze the results together and then experiment again until you get to something that works well for everyone.
I get it, you want to stay up later. Let’s push your bedtime back by 30 minutes for the next 2 weeks, and if you are still able to get up when your alarm goes off, we can make a more permanent change.
Let’s try a “no screens” day once a week for a month and see how we like it. After a month, we can discuss in the family meeting whether it was overall positive or negative for our family, and we can then make adjustments.
Now, the above are all examples of how to use the language of experimentation with other people, but you can use the concept and language of experimentation with yourself as well.
Change is hard. Finding the right processes and practices for you can be hard. But experiments are a bit easier. There’s a little less pressure. And the reality is that it often takes a fair amount of experimentation to find a process, strategy, habit, or method that works well for you anyway.
Let me give you an example.
While I’m a little (a lot!) embarrassed to admit it, I’ve had a heck of a time across my life building the habit of consistently flossing my teeth. I don’t know why this habit has been hard for me to build, but it has. When I was younger, I have to admit that I didn’t try very hard to build this habit, because when I went to the dentist, I never had cavities. But as I’ve aged, especially after I’ve had kids, my teeth aren’t as resilient. And the last time I went to the dentist I had 2 cavities. So I figured I’d better get to work trying to build this habit.
First, I experimented with simply adding it as a recurring task in my task system. I got better, but I wasn’t 100%. I needed to experiment a bit more. Then I added a reminder to the item on my task system, so that I’d be reminded around bedtime to floss. That worked pretty well if I was still up and puttering around the house, but if I was already in bed, it was really hard to convince myself to get up to floss. So I experimented more. Finally, I put the floss on my bedside table, and this final experiment proved to be the one that worked. Now I have no excuse. When the reminder goes off, even if I’m in bed, all I have to do is reach my arm over to grab the floss off my bedside table.
It took multiple experiments, but now I’m at about 95% (good enough for me…and I hope, my dentist).