How to Talk About Change So That Everyone Will Listen

An adaptable organisation is one that to talks about change honestly – and humbly. Here’s how to do it right.

Choose Your Words with Care

Transformation. Strategic shift. Re-engineering.  Renewal. Revolution. When your company is going through change, how do you talk about it? Do you call yourself a ‘change specialist’, navigator, guide or advisor?

Some IT professionals may choose to use terms like ‘change management’ rather than ‘configuration management’ as it deals with helping individuals transition to a new way of doing business with new processes and procedures. Other organisational leaders prefer to use the term ‘transforming the organisation’ rather than ‘change management.’ As for advisors, they should be called ‘transformational managers’, to emphasis how they embed change and enable people to achieve things.

The trouble is that the term ‘change management’ isn’t something about business value. It’s about delivering results or enabling projects or strategic initiatives to deliver results. It is about how to get to a destination, the process rather than the end result. It is about a strategy, rather than a business transaction.

It seems that professionals in change management and business transformation have started to recognise that some of the language they use does not hit the right buttons that the executive team needs to hear. Change has emotional connotations, it is vital to be aware of how people’s feelings can be triggered.

A manager may not how her department works needs to go through an evolutionary leap – she knows that change may well mean – difficult conversations, emotions, stress, late nights to make it work and so on. ‘Change’ will probably just set her off.

According to Quinn Price, (SOURCE:, he sometimes uses terms like “change readiness” or “change leadership” when past practices have tainted the term. “Change ‘leadership’ provides me an opportunity to talk about how to lead change rather than manage it,”  he says. “Change ‘readiness’ tends to get people thinking about training and other readiness activities, a bit tactical, but it depends on where you want their thinking to go.”

Don’t Let Fear Fester

Indeed, while we don’t yet have the winning word, but we can choose to talk about where you are now and where you would like to be. This generally gets people to think positively about the results, before they start to think negatively about all the ‘difficulties’ they will need to overcome to get there.

Coming to grips with change is hard – mentally and emotionally. We need to help and accompany people through the transition. Oftentimes, there is a divide between how leaders and management use the same straightforward, concrete language to communicate. This divided view of “change” complicates things. Both leaders and managers all need to understand the basic elements and principles of strategic communication — in other words — they need to learn how to craft a message that will resonate with others and they need to learn how to deliver that message effectively. The emotional baggage of the word “change” is often associated with failure, fear and frustration and that can overshadow the idea of adaptation to changing contexts.

It is therefore important to adopt an honest approach when talking about change and not just choose synonyms to try to sugarcoat things as people will feel hurt, and the message of how to manage change will be lost.

Consider using terms such as “business readiness”, “business transition” or “organizational readiness” which tend to resonate well with various companies and cultures. Think about the use of pragmatic and effective activities that help people and the organizations to move to the new world.

Visualize The Journey of Change

At the heart and soul of successful business transitions is the creation of a change culture and buy-in from all staff. Without engaging people’s heart and souls, and value them for their contributions to their company, the term “change” is neutral, how well it resonates and motivate all depends on what we do with it. What’s vital is that the company is completely rejuvenated from within and one way to achieve this is by going deeper than traditional organizational change management.

William Bridges, who wrote Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, to help individuals cope with the difficult, painful and confusing periods in their lives, speaks of “transitions”. According to his website, this seminal book proposed that individuals experience change in three stages: first as an ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, and then followed by a new beginning. Frequently, people do not spend enough reflecting and learning about themselves in the second period, before they jump into a new beginning with great enthusiasm. This three-step process is important as one navigates change. Change is situational, while adaptation to change takes a series of psychological transitions. (SOURCE:

Using “transitions” to talk about change to the haggard manager is more palatable than the idea of “transformation”. It can create a far more positive impact as well, as it suggests the leaders of the organization are with the manager.

Some companies have used the term “change adoption” rather than “change management”. The aim is to focus on engagement and motivation, instilling in individuals the desire to personally adopt new ways of working rather than as “managing” suggests. It is not about pushing change from the top down. It is using Bridges’ transitions approach and the personal transitions people need to go through to adopt the change. People seem to be able to be more personally receptive with this concept. Building empathy, using communication and development are really key elements to a successful environment.

Tackling ‘change’ head-on instead of sugar-coating it can prevent it from being such a feared word.

Get your staff to visualise the positive outcome with words like “transition period”, “conversion period”, and refer  to  teams as the “transition team”, “conversion team”, “upgrade team”, “extension team” and “development team” and so on, so that people relate to the nature of the outcomes, rather than the change process itself.

A change manager’s humble heart is an important asset when escorting others through change, so being humble and present with your staff will help them to transition.

Helena Ma brings with her a wealth of experience and a truly cosmopolitan perspective, having lived and worked in Shanghai, China; Gothenburg, Sweden; and London, UK. Her stints in Europe and China has armed Helena with a potent blend of ancient Chinese wisdom and contemporary Western knowledge which she incorporates into business management and client project