A 4-step Process To Communicate Successfully About Change

“On average, two in five projects do not meet their original goals and business intent, and one-half of those unsuccessful projects are related to ineffective communications.”

~ Project Management Institute (PMI) Pulse Report

Ineffective communications are often at the heart of failed change because the plans do not take into account the critical component of shared understanding between audiences and leaders.

Too often, change communication plans center on delivering information to an audience. We tell people what we want them to hear in a way that we hope advances our causes. What we don’t realize is that we need to understand the perspective of those we seek to change. That’s what creates buy-in – the audience knows the leaders took time to understand their concerns and adjusted their plans accordingly. If the plan could not be changed, they need to understand why it was not possible to do so.

In this post, I propose a simple, 4-step process you can use to talk about change in a way that ensures success. First, though, let’s look at the word, “communicate,” because few realize that this verb actually has two different meanings that play into how we develop our change communication plans.

By devoting time upfront to understanding the two meanings of “communicate” and agreeing on how to distinguish between them, project teams can lay a strong foundation for successful project implementation. This brief investment of time at the beginning of a project can make the difference between a communication plan that sets your project up for success versus a plan that contributes to failed change.

2 Meanings for 1 Verb: “Communicate”

There are two types of verbs: transitive and intransitive.

A transitive verb describes an action done to someone or something, while an intransitive verb describes a process between people or things. In essence, you are either doing something to people or you are doing it with people.

Communicate: verb, transitive 1. To convey knowledge or information about. 2. To cause to pass from one to another. ~ Miriam-Webster

An intransitive verb also describes a doable action, but in contrast, the action is not done to someone or something, as there is no direct object. In this sense, the verb describes a process between people or things. For example, “After the announcement, the project team communicated with residents to hear their ideas and input.”

Communicate: verb, intransitive 1. To transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received and understood. 2. To open into each other: connect. ~ Miriam-Webster

2 Meanings of “Communicate” = 2 Types of Communication Plans

The first and most common type of communication plan is built around the first definition of “communicate,” in its transitive form. It involves delivering knowledge or information to a target audience and is better described as a marketing or public education plan. There is nothing two-way about it.

This type of plan is inappropriate when there is the potential for serious misunderstanding or strong emotions, which is often the case in change initiatives.

However, in certain situations, this type of plan is perfectly adequate:

  • During minor or limited duration changes, for example, street closures during an event or disruption caused by painting an office building. • Toward the end of a change, after stakeholders have moved through the early stages of awareness, understanding, and engagement, it’s perfect for communicating factual details like dates and topics of upcoming change-related activities.

The second type of communication plan revolves around the intransitive version of the verb “communicate.” This plan is actually a 4-step process intended to “transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received and understood,” an essential component of successful change based on audience buy-in.

A 4-Step Process to Communicate Change Successfully

Following these simple steps as you develop your change communication plan will set you on the path to success:

  1. Party one shares information about a change. 2. Party two (those affected) responds with clarifying questions, comments, and concerns. 3. Party one clarifies questions and uses empathic listening to respond to comments by asking questions to better understand party two’s responses. Repeat steps 1-3 as needed. 4. Party one and party two close the feedback loop by stating what they learned from the exchange of information, and what (if anything) has changed as a result.

Steps 3 and 4: Listening and Closing the Loop

Many meetings with stakeholders omit the empathic listening component of step 3 and closing the feedback loop of step 4. When these steps are omitted, meetings that were intended to engage and include stakeholders actually end up inflaming resistance.

It is vital to close the loop after people give feedback; they want to hear how their concerns were understood and what, if anything, you’re going to do differently as a result.

I have used this 4-step, evidence-based process in my work with groups to achieve outcomes such as dropped lawsuits and resolved misunderstandings that were blocking progress. My approach is based on empathic listening techniques that, while simple to learn, take practice before they become second nature.

What happens when something other than this 4-step communication process is used to communicate with concerned or unhappy stakeholders? Eventually, nobody cares about the information that is sent or presented. Worse, people may openly challenge or quietly undermine the very changes you are trying to promote.

Efforts to derail change are commonly labeled as “resistance,” and “unreasonable stakeholders” are seen as the cause of the problem. In truth, the problem lies with using a marketing or public education plan, or an incomplete engagement plan, to do the job of a 4-step communication plan.

Curious to read about the 4-Step Process in action? Click here for case studies.

Putting the 4-Step Communication Plan Into Practice

Because a plan based on a 4-step communication process is central to successful outcomes, I propose giving it a name that clearly distinguishes it from other types of plans. Instead of the generic term “communication plan” or the still ambiguous “two-way communication plan,” how about calling it a “4-step communication plan?”

I encourage you to adopt this 4-step communication process and experience for yourself how it naturally engages stakeholders and builds buy-in.

But what about situations where there are already resistant stakeholders?

Stakeholders can forgive and move on if you acknowledge that previous communication efforts were flawed and invite them to hold you accountable for keeping your promise to engage with them in a new way. Then take time to fully understand their concerns and what would alleviate them. Tell them what exactly what you will do differently as a result of your new understanding.

Action Steps To Take Now:

  1. Plan to talk with your team about the different meanings of the word “communicate.”
  2. Decide how you will distinguish between the different types of communication during team discussions.
  3. Review communication and engagement plans to ensure they include the full 4-step process when the topic may evoke strong feelings.
  4. If stakeholders are actively expressing resistance, acknowledge mistakes that were made, explain how things will be different going forward, and then follow through.

Further reading:

Riordan, Christine. Three Ways Leaders Can Listen with More Empathy. Harvard Business Review, January 2014

Gillian Haley specializes in building strategic alignment for complex change. Currently, she works with community initiatives that seek to solve social challenges related to homelessness. Whatever the project, Ms. Haley puts people at the center because understanding and looking out for the interests of others is the key to success. Ms. Haley is an alumna of Accenture’s Process Excellence and Change Enablement practice where she worked in Fortune 500 companies implementing global, multi-year, digital transformation projects.