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Influencing Change: I Can’t Hear You

A person hears only what they understand.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Change is hard. Influencing change is even harder. Sometimes — when we are trying to lead, or influence, or help someone grow — it can be baffling to see people stuck, unclear on what to do or unwilling to move ahead.

We may explain every way from Sunday and still they don’t get it. They stay stuck.

The reality is, something is clear to us because we understand it. For someone who doesn’t understand, they can’t even hear what we are saying. The words may bounce off of their eardrums, but their meaning never enters beyond. It’s like the voice of the teacher in the old Peanut’s cartoons. Goethe is right, a person only hears what they understand.

Start Small: Reach People Where They Are Now

So, how can you help others to understand the need for change?

Influencing change takes strategy, nuance, and persistence. When working with people, start with where they are. Start with what they understand. It doesn’t matter what they should know, or what they should understand. It only matters what they do, in fact, understand.

This is true whether you’re trying to convince someone to hire you, talk your kids into cleaning their rooms, or persuade your board to fundamentally change how your company does business.

Even though the destination may be clear to you, other people can’t see that far. They can only see what is right in front of them — they can only hear what they understand. Start there, and nudge them forward in the direction they need to go, one step at a time. You may wish that they were further along — that they understood. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Start with where they are.

Creating Change, One Step At A Time

When we see clearly where things need to go, it’s tempting to push for a big change all at once. We like to think of change (and our ability to influence it) as big shifts. But it rarely happens that way.

All change is incremental. All progress is step by step by step. When leading people, get them to take just one step forward today. Get them to take another step tomorrow.

If you keep this up, you will be amazed at how far you can go.

The novelist E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Leadership works the same way.

When was the last time someone asked you to change? Did it work? Why or why not? Share your story in the comments. 

Originally published December 5, 2013 . Updated July 19, 2019.

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