How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Everyone has something they would like to change but have trouble doing so. It can be individually or corporately, but all of us want to make changes.  The last few months I’ve read 3 great books on research-based change practices that have worked in a variety of settings.  I’ve found them well studied and presented and have added some great tools to my “change” tool box.

In this article I want to give you a quick overview of the main insights from the best-seller SWITCH: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.  What excellent teachers do is take complicated materials and make them easy to understand and the Heath brothers definitely fit that mold.  They encourage us to focus on 3 main areas to facilitate or cause change to take place.

  1. The rational aspect, which they call “The Rider.”
  2. The emotional aspect, named “The Elephant.”
  3. Clarity of action, which they call “The Path.”

What is very important to note is ALL 3 OF THESE PRACTICES NEED TO TAKE PLACE AT ONCE. The rational, emotional, and path all need to be worked with or the odds of desired change drop significantly.

The Heath brothers got the word picture from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt who wrote The Happiness Hypothesis.  They write, “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.”

That is why in our minds, we can know what we should do and still have a great deal of trouble doing it. If our emotions don’t get on board with our rational side, we just end up frustrated.  We have all experienced this many times: overeating, procrastination, not working out, not controlling our words, etc.  We know what we should do but that big ole Elephant is just too strong.


Next time I’ll give you the main points on how to work with the Elephant and Shape the Path, but for now here are 3 ways to work with the rational rider:

  • Follow the Bright Spots. Look for those who are doing better than everyone else, learn what they do and then build that into your practices.
  • Script the Critical Moves. Don’t give broad directives like “do a better job” or “listen better.” Give specific steps or measures.
  • Point to the Destination. Give people a clear and inspiring vision of where you are going and why.

Our logical/rational side loves this kind of stuff, so give it to the Rider and you are 1/3 of the way there.

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