Don’t fear change

For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that there is so much change <em>these days</em>, but ‘these days’ of change have been going on for a long time now for them to be seen as something new. Perhaps a better way to look at it is to acknowledge that there has always been a lot of change, but when we look back over earlier days, it is often the things that stayed constant that we now remember most. And there always will be much that stay constant. You will often hear people say that ‘change is the only constant’, but that simply isn’t true. Think about your own life now. For every thing that is in the process of change, there is much, much more that is staying the same (for now). Our attention in the present is drawn to what is changing (understandably so, because change presents elements of both threat and opportunity), and we tend to lose sight of what is staying the same. But, when we look back over the past, it is often what persisted over time that is to the fore, thereby giving us a slightly distorted picture of the role of change and constancy.

The more complex reality, of course, is that, wherever we look – past, present or future, there will be elements of change and elements of constancy, and the two will be interacting in complex ways. For a long time now there has been a tendency to adopt an oversimplified view of change and not see the fuller picture.

Eastern philosophy can help us make better sense of change, especially in terms of the concept of ‘impermanence’ which refers to the idea that we should not assume everything will stay the same – we should be more tuned in to the fact that change is part and parcel of being alive. If we adopt the expectation that everything should remain constant, then we will be disappointed and possibly even fearful when things do change. This can then create a sense that change is some sort of enemy.

I am certainly not suggesting that we should go to the opposite extreme and adopt the position of some in the management field who seem to think that change is by definition a good thing and something to be promoted uncritically. I remember running a leadership course once from which one of the participants benefited very little. This was because he arrived with the idea that leadership is basically about change management, and he left with exactly the same idea, having filtered out everything I and the other participants said to the contrary over the two days.

Change can be positive, but it can also be negative, catastrophic even, and so we are right to be wary of change. This brings us back to the idea of realism. Optimists like to focus on the positives and are thus likely to see change in positive terms. Pessimists tend to focus on the negatives, and are thus likely to see change in terms of threat. Realists are the people who acknowledge both, who are realistic about the positive potential of change, but are also tuned in to the negative potential too – not fearful, but alert to the possibilities, and thus better placed to take advantage of any opportunities presented by change, but also to guard against any harm that change may bring.

So, when the question of change comes up, beware the danger of oversimplifying it and recognise that approaching it in a spirit of realism will work much better than automatically fearing it or uncritically embracing it.

Make your feelings known

A much-used literary and dramatic device is for it to be apparent to the reader or viewer that someone has strong feelings (of love, for example), but is not expressing them and is losing out in some way as a consequence. As the plot develops, the feelings eventually become known and they all live happily ever after, or not, as the case may be.

But, outside of the world of fiction and drama, the question of when and how to express feelings is a significant one. Some people can go to the other extreme and blurt out their feelings inappropriately, leading to embarrassment for themselves and others. So, the two extremes of ‘Keep your feelings to yourself’ and ‘If you feel, it say it’ are not helpful.

This is where the idea of emotional intelligence comes in, having the ability to ‘read’ situations in such a way as to be able to work out when it is appropriate and helpful to make our feelings known and to be clear about what is the best way of expressing them in those particular circumstances. For example, when we are feeling anger, letting it gush out in a rage is rarely going to be helpful and could cause significant problems. But, this does not mean we need to keep it to ourselves. It may be more helpful to allow the situation to calm down and then say something like: ‘I start to feel angry when X happens’ (with X being whatever was provoking the anger). It can then be followed up by a constructive suggestion, such as: ‘So, it would be helpful if you did not …’, or whatever it takes to move the situation forward positively. How can we realistically expect to improve the situation if the people who are angering us are not made aware (in a non-threatening, constructive way) that they are doing so?

But it is not just negative feelings that are better out than in. Many people seem to find it extremely difficult to tell their loved ones that they love and appreciate them. Perhaps they make the mistake of assuming that they know and it therefore does not need saying. However, whatever is causing it, what is highly likely is that it is causing difficulties in a high proportion of cases. In both my personal and professional lives I have come across numerous examples of relationships that started to falter because feelings of love were not expressed; they were taken for granted and therefore not reinforced or revitalised when they needed to be.

Being human is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that we are both robust and fragile at the same time. Expressing our feelings and receiving reassurance, validation and affirmation can make a huge positive difference, while finding ourselves in emotionally barren and unsupportive territory can undermine our confidence and well-being. There is therefore much to be said for making our feelings known, provided that we are tuned in to how to do so in helpful ways.

Another paradox is that we are both rational and emotional beings. While many people focus on the rational side and play down the emotional elements of being human, it does not alter the fact that feelings are a very powerful influence on our behaviour, our thoughts and how we relate to one another. If we neglect the emotional dimension and see feelings as things to be kept under wraps for the most part, we are doing ourselves a disservice and working on the basis of a very limited understanding of what it means to be human.