This article is part of a series involving Angela’s son, Hamish. Hamish has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder which means that he has particular difficulty dealing with change. Angela has learned many lessons about change from Hamish, and she is sharing them through these articles. See the list at the end of this article for more in the Hamish series.
The following Top 10 Tips for communicating during change have been hard-won lessons learned in the parenting battlefield. These communication tips are equally applicable to you as a leader, in getting your people through business change.
Hamish’s Top 10 Tips for Communicating During Change
1. Get Their Attention. You need to break your audience’s concentration from what they’re already doing, and focus it on your message. You could do this by calling an extra special meeting—holding off-site can be good—where everyone must attend. With Hamish, this means saying his name and getting him to make eye contact, even if it means standing in front of the TV. Another way is to reinforce the message pictorially; pictures can cut through where words can’t.
2. Repeat Your Message. Important news bears repeating. Repetition of your message also increases the chance that it will be heard. Repeat your message at regular intervals, and if you think that you may have said it once too often, repeat it again but in a slightly different way or even through a different medium.
The following sequence is not uncommon in our household in the morning when getting Hamish dressed: I usually start with something like “Hamish, please get dressed”, followed five minutes later by “Hamish, are you dressed?”, then “get dressed now Hamish”, and finally ”put your clothes on Hamish…Yes, undies first”. If none of this works, I show him pictures of what he needs to do.
3. Give Notice. Give your team plenty of notice of the expected change. Don’t leave it to the last minute and expect people to get on board. You have to allow time for the message to sink in, and for people to start processing it. The year before Hamish started school, I started talking to him about what he would be doing the following year.
4. Be Brief. Keep your key message brief and to the point. You can always provide follow-up information for those that need more details. Too much information can mean the take-home message is lost. For Hamish, too much information can be as simple as explaining why I want him to do something. The best chance of getting my message across is to be directive and succinct. The simple phrase “Hamish, get in the car” usually works. The more extended “Hamish, get in the car because we need to hurry up and get to school” is not so successful! Of course, if he does ask, I will explain.
5. Be Clear. Clear, basic language is the best. Don’t use fancy words. Don’t use jargon or descriptive language. A good rule of thumb is to minimise adjectives (words that describe nouns) and cut out anything ending in “ly”. The phrase “stop hitting your brother” is fairly clear. On the other hand, the phrase “stop aggressively and forcefully making injurious contact with your brother” is not so clear.
6. Confirm. You must confirm that your message has been heard. Communication is a two-way process. In a meeting this can be as simple as getting people to ask questions, or even testing understanding by asking questions yourself. I often ask Hamish to repeat something back to me in his own words.
7. Personalise. Tailor messages to help connect to the people they are meant for. One way to do this is to address your audience’s motivations and concerns about the change you are proposing. Another way is to use people’s names, teams, departments, or regions. With Hamish it is to allow him visualise the change, for example showing him pictures of his new school.
8. Schedule. Tell people when things are going to happen and who is going to be involved. Keep the schedule on display. Because Hamish responds better to visuals, we do this for him in pictures.
9. Count down. As time ticks away and milestones come and go, tell people. One of the worst things we can do with Hamish is to not remind him that a change is getting closer; it always seems to come as a terrible shock! The times that we have not counted down a change have resulted in tears, tantrums and a point-blank refusal to co-operate.
10. Prepare. Be ready to act when said you would. Not keeping to your schedule is inefficient and creates anxiety in those that are relying on you to implement the change. Are you going to go ahead? Aren’t you? What’s happening? People will fill a vacuum in action or communication with their own thoughts. With Hamish, if we aren’t prepared to go ahead he will throw a wobbly and then won’t listen the next time.
Like any young boy, Hamish doesn’t always listen to his mum and doesn’t always do what I want. But by following the top 10 tips above I can at least give it my best shot, and so can you.
Other articles in this series: