Can People Really Change? Part I: Seeing is Believing – Literally Can People Really Change? 

Not long ago, while consulting in a very complex and high-stakes three-company merger process, my colleagues and I walked into a room with people representing different work levels from the three ‘legacies’ involved. On arriving, participants appeared wary of each other, some were even angry about being there, and interactions were short, stilted and ‘professional’. You could cut the tension with a knife, as we used to say in Virginia. Two days later those same people were working closely together in cross-legacy teams, planning the roll out of a ‘Ready for Change’ session to be facilitated by them for all 3,000 colleagues back at their workplaces. As one of them said, ‘Look at what has happened to us! We came in here not really wanting to be together with “them” and mistrusting each other, and now here we are acting as if we had been together for years. Someone walking in right now would think we all worked for the same company!’

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What happened? SOMETHING inside people changed – or was transformed. I have been curious about and engaged in the process of change ever since I can remember. In many years of working with leaders and their organizations, I have witnessed many people experience fundamental changes in the way they view a colleague, a group of co-workers, a spouse, or even life itself. This series will explore the question: CAN people really change? And if so, how does it happen?

Change: Our Touchstone to Reality

Given the state of our international economic crisis, we all must become more fluent in the language and process of fundamental change, the key, among other things, to creating a world that works for everyone. Since the time of the Greek philosophers (and before that in Asia and Africa) observers have noted the constancy of change. ‘The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself’ – Democritus, ca. 400 BCE. Our capacity to allow the world to change – and to be able to allow ourselves to change – is now mission critical. It is also the way we keep up to date with reality. If everything is changing all the time, we should be able to see a changing world around us continuously. Nothing would appear exactly the same from moment to moment. But this would drive us crazy. So our mind creates a picture of ‘the way things are’ and then holds onto it for dear life. We make people and events into something that makes sense to us and then live as if they ‘are’ that way. The good news is that we are able to create the illusion that things are staying still; the bad news is that, as life continues its ebb and flow, we can’t hold the illusion together anymore and have to let go.

Where We’re Coming From Determines Where We End Up

I have come to the conclusion that what changes when things truly change is beyond thoughts, judgments, perceptions or feelings, which are relatively easy to change. In fact, they are changing all the time, without any effort on our part. What changes when things really change is where these came from – our operating system. Where we’re coming from determines where we end up. The world we see does not exist outside ourselves. Of course there’s something out there. But whatever is out there – everything that’s out there – is filtered through senses uniquely our own. What we ‘see’ is a product of our own private and instantaneous interpretation which is based on our history. In a sense, when we look out at the world, we are seeing our own history! Let me see if I can prove this bizarre concept.

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Each of us operates with a uniquely-created ‘operating system’, our own personal ‘black box’, which becomes our mind’s core beliefs about ourselves, others and life. Our operating system’s roots go back to our early family life. Based on the lessons and ‘programming’ we received from those around us, our early ‘faculty’, it evolves into the rules of life and the way we make sense of what happens to us. ‘Growing up’ is learning what everything ‘is’. The restless mind can’t stand having an experience without knowing what it ‘is’. For a fleeting nanosecond, however, each and every experience is just raw data, ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But then, as we ‘see’ it, we are actually labeling it. Internally, we say something to ourselves about it – and that virtually instantaneous process actually names it and becomes our ‘seeing’ it. In the Biblical creation story in Genesis, Adam is walking around the Garden of Eden looking at everything, and says to God, ‘What is all this stuff?!’ God says to Adam, ‘Whatever you name it, Adam, that’s what it’ll be. . .’ And, as the next line goes, ‘Whatever Adam named it, that’s what it became.’ The big question is, What was all that stuff before Adam named it? My answer, which is only partly facetious, is ‘God only knows.’ Just as the objects in the story of The Garden were without useful reality to Adam until he named them, so it is with the world around us.

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At the moment of experiencing our experience (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, thought) we name it; we convert our experience into a concept – judgments, feelings, reactions, associations, reflections, all labels of our own creation. In a way, we are naming (labeling) machines, walking around ‘seeing’ everything, not as IT is, but as WE are.

X Is Yet Another Example of Y

So long as those labels remain in place, life occurs for us not as simple experience, but as a cluster of well-known and well-worn interpretations. This pantry of labels in our operating system instantaneously replaces the sensory experience as it travels through our mental process. Once we know (say to ourselves) what an experience means, we tend to go out and find it again and again. You could say we are a set of interpretations looking for data. A formula which we carry goes like this: ‘X Is Yet Another Example of Y’. Whenever X happens, we ‘know’ what it means: it’s yet another example of Y (what we all know to be the case around here). In the workplace, for example, this labeling/naming process can go something like this: Marty, the hard-working, effective and productive woman (X) is seen as yet-another-example-of ‘a great support person who is doing quite well for a woman’ (Y). Meanwhile, Marius, the hard-working, effective and productive man is seen as yet-another-example-of ‘a possible executive- in-the-making’. Or, to return to the merger example we started with: ‘Here come those arrogant, predatory people from _. . . Yep! There it is again! See, we told you so!’ When something happens that doesn’t exactly fit the theory, we hold on to the theory and ‘see’ the data in a way that makes sense INSIDE the theory programmed into our operating system. Once when a boss came back from a Leadership Development Intensive and started truly listening to his people and being interested in what they had to say, many around him saw it as a trick. ‘He’s manipulating us!’

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