Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Speak To The Heart To Lead Change


The following is a guest piece by Dianna Booher.

“I’ve sold millions and millions of dollars during my 30 years at IBM, and it never occurred to me that people make their buying decisions based on emotion first, and then justified with logic,” John said to me over dinner a few weeks ago. “But you’re right. As I think back about the various client deals, I can see that. I definitely can see that.

Another case in point.

But more formal, rigorous research shows overwhelmingly that people base buying decisions on emotion, and then support them with logic. In a business setting, a logical argument is expected, of course. Just don’t count on the logical argument to win people over to your way of thinking.

In “The Heart of Change”, John Kotter and Dan Cohen discuss a study they conducted with Deloitte Consulting about the nature of change. The study involved more than 400 interviewees from 130 companies in the United States, Australia, Europe, and South Africa.

Their interpretation of the data? Even in large corporations that focus on very logical approaches to strategy, culture, and analysis of data, change happens because the leaders find a way to help people see problems or solutions in ways that influence their emotions, not just their reasoning.

In my own research for “What More Can I Say: Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It”, executives told me the same things over and over: To lead change, influence others, and gain commitment, speak to the heart.

So what does that mean exactly?

Deal With Emotions First
People cannot hear logical reasons for change in an organization until their leaders allow them to work through the emotional issues surrounding that change: fear (of the unknown, of job loss, of lost identity and self-esteem, of lost friendships, of working with new and difficult people), inconvenience, blame for errors or lack of growth, discomfort in relearning, embarrassment, loss of respect, loss of privileges, upheaval in family schedule and daily routines. The list of emotional upheaval goes on.

People cannot focus on potential problems to be solved or projects to be accomplished until their leader addresses the emotions they are likely to feel in any given situation. Only after listeners know that their leaders understand their emotional turmoil do they turn their attention to the related logical issues.

Consider Your Approach and Attitude
Employees make their own quick assessments of how their leaders feel about any given situation, based on four touch-points:

  • The basic message
  • The phrasing of that core message
  • The personality and character traits of the leader (arrogant, humble, humorous, apologetic, confident, negative, positive, casual and comfortable, formal and arrogant, flexible, inflexible)
  • Their interactions with the leader (personal conversations, online interactions, large-group meetings, and so forth)

Your communication style conveys your own attitudes and emotions. And employees absorb and react this data almost subconsciously. The results? Either increased or decreased credibility.

Choose the Right Metaphors and Analogies
Metaphors and analogies matter a great deal. Refer to a problem as a “cancer” that’s eating away at the compassionate culture of your team, and you’ll likely cause people to focus on what’s wrong with their team spirit and attitude that employees exhibited in the past.

But call the team-spirit problem a “blimp on the radar” of their normal compassionate culture caused by “technology hiccups” that have momentarily diverted their attention and you’ll likely have them pulling together again as a team.

People don’t think in a void. Their leaders control their thinking with appropriate metaphors and analogies that evoke emotional reactions they want to encourage.

Become a Masterful Storyteller
When terrorists strike, when the weather wreaks havoc, when the economy nosedives, the media doesn’t just report how many people died, the impact on the Richter scale or the economy, or the total inches of snow, rain, or flooding.

Instead, reporters find the people stories. They put a face on the tragedy by telling you about the single mom who ran back into the burning building to save her four-year-old screaming for help from an upstairs window.

But storytelling is not just about sensationalism.

Researchers have discovered that even judges and seasoned attorneys prefer story briefs to logo briefs (those built totally on logical argument). An empirical study on the power of story determined that stories are persuasive to experienced lawyers and judges because they evoke emotional responses that make the legal claims of the parties more credible and elicit empathy in their judicial thinking. (i)

Structure is to storytelling what framing is to a house. Without it, you just have a heap of supplies on a vacant lot.

Leaders master this basic skill of storytelling as a first step to move people emotionally.

Use Their Backstory as Context
Consider the backstory as the context for your communication—whether you’re announcing change, layoffs, recognition, or feedback.

According to Webster, the backstory is “a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot.” Novelists create backstories (or background stories) that are events in the characters’ lives leading up to the primary plot.

Your employees, your executive team, and your customers have backstories. Using other people’s backstory as a frame for your message can be a powerful way to unlock hearts quickly and move them to action. Disregarding that context can be disastrous.

For example, if you’re talking to line workers about how to cut costs, make sure your examples demonstrate that you understand what line workers can—and cannot—control. If you’re emailing an executive vice president about a “challenge” that needs to be addressed, make sure you state that challenge in terms that relate to the EVP’s stated initiatives for the year.

Context, context, context. Personalize your message. Forget the platitudes. If your company lost a big contract that you should have won and you know why, level with your team. If you fouled up, say so. If you learned a lesson early on in your career, be specific about it.

Specificity, delivered with sensitivity, builds credibility and commitment.

To sum up: Take advantage of emotional triggers that influence others to change their mind or their actions. Never depend on logical explanations alone to persuade. Influence works quickest when it hits the heart.

(i) Kenneth D. Chestek, “Judging by the Numbers: An Empirical Study of the Power of Story,” Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors 7 (Fall 2010), 1–35.

Dianna Booher is the bestselling author of 46 books, including her latest “What More Can I Say: Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It” and has been featured on numerous media outlets including Fast Company, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Good Morning America. To learn more about Dianna’s work, visit her website: www.BooherResearch.com.

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1 Comment » | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | March 17, 2015 by |

One Comment
  1. On March 17th, 2015 at 8:08 PM Rodrigo said:

    The well-known saying "win the hearths and minds", is relevant for the title of your article. It establish the adequate order for change management, which is feel and think, not the other way around.

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