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InfoQ Homepage Articles How Emotional Connections Can Drive Change: Applying Fearless Change Patterns

How Emotional Connections Can Drive Change: Applying Fearless Change Patterns

Key Takeaways

  • Leaders of change must do more than simply communicate information about a new idea. In order to help people care about the information, you must connect with more than logic.
  • When you recognize how people are feeling during times of change, you are creating an emotional connection.
  • There are a variety of Fearless Change techniques that leaders can use to connect with their listeners on an emotional level. Hometown Story, Imagine That, and Wake-Up Call can help people listen with their imagination rather than simply their ears.
  • One-on-one conversations are important for understanding what key stakeholders are thinking. Personal Touch, Fear Less, and Shoulder to Cry On are among the patterns that will help individuals understand how the change will affect them.
  • People resist change for a variety of reasons that manifest fear. This can cause the leader of change to fear the resistors. But resistors can even be helpful during times of change. The Fear Less and Champion Skeptic patterns show us how they help us find the things that may not be going well.

When trying to bring innovation into an organization, communication is important. It is vital to share information in a clear and logical way but it is just as important to understand and accept how people are feeling about the innovation. To do this, leaders can make use of strategies that help them create an emotional connection.


When you have an idea you want to introduce into your organization, you know that you will likely spend a significant amount of time trying to persuade others to accept it. We typically begin by communicating a lot of information about the innovation as often as possible to anyone who will listen. And when we think others are not understanding us, or believing us, we tend to give them even more information. Most of us are good at this - we’ve been taught this in school and we continue to improve our skills in our professional lives.

However, the practice of providing information is only the first step in trying to persuade people. We want them to understand what we are saying, but we also want them to take action.

People react to new ideas in a variety of ways - some will be interested, while others may pretend they are listening, push back and argue, or just ignore us. When we simply provide information, we are assuming our listeners are logical beings.

But humans are complex beings with complex emotions that often stand in the way of making a change happen. Therefore, in addition to communicating the information, we need to tap into how they are feeling about it. When we recognize and accept these feelings and connect on an emotional level, we will begin to help our listeners care about what we are saying.

Creating an emotional connection

There are a variety of Fearless Change patterns you can use to create an Emotional Connection, to connect with others on an emotional level. For example, rather than simply conveying all the facts about an innovation, try the Hometown Story pattern. To do this, list the points you want to communicate as well as the main point you hope to leave with the listener - then create a story that joins these together. The purpose is to bring together a collection of disjointed information into a format that is more interesting to hear and easier to remember.

People like to listen to stories. Rather than a collection of bullet points, people can "feel" a story and may even share it with others. An effective story is something others can easily relate to. The content includes desires, struggles and a lesson. Most of all, it has a storyteller (that’s you) who is willing to be authentic and perhaps a little vulnerable. Stories can be fun to write. Think about how you can help others connect with it - when you do this, your listeners will begin to care about the information you are sharing in that story.

Another technique you can use is the Fearless Change pattern called Imagine That. To do this, guide people in imagining a new world by first prompting a discussion about the present state of things. For example, "How would you describe your work in our current software development process?" People will likely bring up problems, which gives them a Wake-Up Call (this is another Fearless Change pattern, which is described on the website). Then, prompt a discussion of new possibilities with a question such as, "What would things look like if we did <this>?" (<this> is the new idea). A group discussion with the Imagine That and Wake-Up Call patterns help people feel the current problems and feel the potential world with the new idea - this is because they are using their imagination rather than simply their ears.

These two techniques work well in a team but a one-on-one conversation, with the Personal Touch pattern, is among the most powerful strategies a change leader can use. People take change personally. While we may be talking about the value the new idea will bring to the organization, each individual is likely thinking, "How will it affect me?"

Therefore, change leaders can discover great value in taking time for personal conversations to discuss how the new idea will affect individuals. It is the best way we can truly understand what others are thinking and, more importantly, what they are feeling. These conversations can be time-consuming in your busy schedule, so you may want to begin with Early Adopters, which are people who are seen as the opinion leaders in the organization as well as the Connectors, which are people who are good at connecting with others.

One way to conduct a Personal Touch conversation is to peel the onion - begin with a question such as "I’m curious about what you think about <new idea>". Once the person answers, ask your second question based on the response to the first. Ask your third question based on the answer to the second, and so on. When you do this, you will peel away the surface logic and reveal how this person feels about the <new idea>. These are the feelings that often obstruct efforts to make change happen.

Another way to have a personal touch conversation is to listen, truly listen, to a person’s story about all the things that led up to what they are thinking and how they feel about the change initiative. Then you can share your story and compare the two stories.

An example of Personal Touch on a large scale can be found in One Small Step at National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States. This project brings together people with vastly different political views to talk one-on-one, not just to blast information at the other person, but to tell their stories in order to help each participant understand why the other person believes the things they do. I was one of the people selected to participate at WHQR public radio. I didn’t leave my conversation agreeing with the other person, but I did understand their point of view. (For more information on One Small Step, see What we learned taking one small step.)

What about the skeptics?

When using a personal touch with stubborn skeptics, you are likely to encounter some additional challenges. They are resisting because they may be tied to the present reality and are concerned about the inevitable uncertainty during the process of change. They may be anxious about how the change will affect what they do, what they will lose, and the new skills that will be needed. These are reasonable feelings but they are among the reactions that build fear in the individuals you are trying to persuade. In turn, you can’t help but have some fear about their resistance.

The Fear Less pattern suggests that you can appreciate their opposition. Ask for Help from the skeptic because they see the innovation in a different way than you do - therefore, they may be able to provide useful information you haven’t considered. You will learn from them and, in the process, they may begin to shift from the act of resisting to rethinking.

You may not be able to convince them and trying to do this will likely take more time than you have. But you can seek the places where you agree and, perhaps, create some unique ideas that begin with those points of agreement. Most importantly, when you ask for their thoughts on the upcoming change, they will begin to become involved in the initiative, rather than simply complaining on the sidelines. They will recognize you care about what they can contribute and, as one of our Fearless Change readers pointed out, it doesn’t make it as much fun for them to complain.

You may even want to seek out some skeptics to become a Champion Skeptic, taking on the official role of pointing out flaws and challenges at strategic points throughout the change initiative. Look for people who don’t simply complain to complain, but honestly complain because they want to make things better. These people can be the start of a challenge network that can help point out flaws throughout the initiative with the goal of continuous improvement.

Change involves loss

Whether or not an individual is a skeptic or not, it’s important to recognize that while we are talking about everything the organization will gain from an initiative, individuals will think about what they will lose. They may lose their identity, what they are accustomed to doing, and their valuable time in learning the new ways. Therefore, the Shoulder to Cry On pattern encourages leaders to acknowledge what people are losing during times of change. You may not have the power to make everyone happy, but taking the time to discuss their struggles will go a long way towards sending the message that you understand how they are feeling.

Even when you’re communicating good news about progress during a change initiative, others may not be as pleased with all the progress. So you may wish to start an ordinary meeting on a positive note by including some food. The Do Food pattern is one of the most recognized strategies in the collection. People have long realized the importance of building community by breaking bread together. Just like many of the other patterns, this simple act helps people see that you accept them as humans with feelings - in this case, a feeling of hunger.


All the patterns shown in italics allow you, as a leader of change, to move past the act of simply giving information to connecting on an emotional level with those you are trying to persuade. This will allow you to uncover how people are feeling about the innovation because this is what often stands in the way of making change happen.

We know that humans are not completely logical. They do not make decisions simply by evaluating what they think about an idea - they also consider how they feel about it. Although it’s rather easy to give information, this is not always effective. You may see polite listening but little action.  

Therefore, a "fearless" leader who is realistic about human behavior will need a variety of emotional connection patterns. When others see that you care about them, they will be more willing to consider taking action. They will not only connect with an innovation in a logical way so they understand it, but also connect with it emotionally so they care about it.

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