“I can write my name!” – The skills needed to move from information to effecting change

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We have all seen the pride on the face of a small child who has just learned how to write his or her own name. The sense of accomplishment is palpable. It is also an important step forward in the development of the self. Being able to write your name means possessing your own unique identity a little bit more than before. But I was struck last week when chatting with Andrew Hennigan, by the realisation that we often confuse KNOWING HOW to write it and BEING ABLE to write it.  And I realised that this has implications for the work of professional communicators and change agents: we need to move from thinking we are trying to just create understanding to realising that we are in fact enablers or facilitators.

Andrew was telling me about how his three-year-old son sends text messages with ease, but the boy still has troubling writing. It makes perfect sense: controlling a pen or pencil requires a high-level of manual dexterity that three-year-old hands have rarely gained. Yet he understands letters and their abstract meaning. Imagine the frustration of knowing what you want to say and not being able to reproduce it! Yet this child is able to gain a head-start of several years compared to earlier generations because keyboards and mice are ubiquitous in his world.

This made me think about organisational communications. it is commonly stated that communications either intends to inform, to change attitudes or to effect specific behaviours. I think that these three steps of communicating require three different layers of skills that we rarely think about consciously:

INFORMING — Providing information is a publishing function. The required skills therefore relate to collecting and compiling information and to the technical production of publications (whether paper or electronic).

CHANGING ATTITUDES (PERSUASION) — People rarely change their minds because they are exposed to new information. First, they need to be receptive to the message, and if it is in opposition to beliefs they are already hold, strong resistance mechanisms are likely to be in place. Changing attitudes requires an understanding of the neurological and psychological conditions that affect how we perceive and assimilate information. It also requires an ability to build bridges, negotiate and frame issues in ways that people understand their own interest in adopting the new belief. However, creating understanding is not enough to trigger an action.

CHANGING BEHAVIOURS (TRIGGERING) — To take a classic example, if someone understands that a habit is bad for them, why don’t they change? Changing behaviours entails a wide range of factors that are outside the core message and the medium. In the case of addiction, these factors may include physical and psychological addictions. In other case, environmental factors may be decisive. So changing behaviours requires analytical skills, an understanding of the specific environment (the business sector, workplace, social network, cultures, etc.) and an ability to move levers in the system in order to achieve the desired results. This role is more an enabling role than a strictly communications role.

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