Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Addressing personal triggers. A virtuous cycle of confessions and resolutions. Part 4

“As far as inner transformation is concerned, there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot transform yourself, and you cannot transform your partner or anybody else. All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Water pouring into a pitcher, isolated on the white background, clipping path included.

We left off the last post with a project scenario, a discussion of some of the dynamics in the project team and a resolution to work on creating space to process personal emotional triggers properly and build the “muscle” to operate in real time.

The weird thing

On a good day I begin with a calm and objective assessment of the situation.  I remain centered and effective.

I can review whether our plans and execution were appropriate and effective, and can develop mitigation strategies if necessary.

I can consider that others are triggered and the level of their emotion is likely exacerbated by change fatigue, absorbing the emotional energy of their team, etc. and I can hold space for them.

Some days tho I second-guess myself and become defensive.  Why is this?

The #1 Challenge – triggered personally

As an agent, I know I am not personally targeted by the changes.  I know I don’t have to learn new processes and systems or build new relationships to get the work done.  Furthermore, intellectually I understand exactly what’s going on here.  I know that people are under pressure and dealing with their own emotions through the change.  And I know that, as a serious career professional, I am pretty competent at this work.

So I can tell myself not to take it personally.  Yet sometimes I do.

My blood feels like it’s racing and I catch myself running all kinds of scripts in my head (scenarios, rationalizations, projections). On some level I know that the response I want to give is inappropriate, maybe even counter-productive, and I find myself split between what’s happening in the room and what’s happening in my head.

Flow is gone – there is no logical next step, there is only distraction.

This can take many sneaky forms.  It can be as straight forward as almost overwhelming self doubt (as in “what if I am wrong about this assessment?” or “what if I don’t know enough to help this client successfully through this change?”) or as complex as old neuroses that prompt an out-of-proportion reaction.

Don’t get me wrong, some self doubt is required.  Humility is ours whether we operate this way or whether the universe sees fit to remind us.  However, this is different in that it is temporarily debilitating.

So, if I know that am I triggered, why can’t I control it better? This is not an easy answer to unpack and even once I think I know, it is still pretty difficult to dial back to objectivity.

The Change Practitioner Stance

It would probably be helpful to clarify my own going-in mindset about the appropriate stance for a change practitioner:

  • The role of the change practitioner requires us to be almost clinical about the change – to understand its criteria and dynamics, to plan and execute somewhat impersonally
  • We are committed to the success of the endeavor but it is not our endeavor – it belongs to the leader and the “business”
  • We are “agents” of the leader – we advise, sometimes represent and act on behalf of the leader. Often we are acting in the background preparing the leader to lead change.

Our role requires equanimity: “Equanimity is a state of mind that is reflected in a state of being. It is an evenness of mind, neither elated nor depressed, and it is experienced as being in the presence of someone who is not emotionless, but who does not become emotional; someone who is deeply caring, yet is not immobilized by painful decisions or actions; someone who is aware of all that is going on and all that must be accomplished, yet remains reasoned and controlled in working to get it done.” Conner Partners

Having said all that …

We are not immune

So we’re humans too and we are subject to the same neurological reactions to change as everyone else.   I have come to accept that understanding it intellectually is great but it only helps so much.

We may manage it better than others.  Sure we know that we should foster our resilience habits and we may have more tolerance as we work these “muscles”.

And, even so, most of us have our own insecurities, our own “internal critic”, that can be woken up and make us defensive – a state that can blind us to the needs of the work, and of our colleagues and sponsors.  If we’re very lucky (and practice helps) we might become self aware enough to know when this happens and take some action.

Holding space

In “Mindfully Holding Space” Daryl Conner describes a technique for creating room for reflection for our clients. Seems to me that we should use this for ourselves first, much like applying the oxygen mask to ourselves in case of an airline crisis.

What does this “holding space” mean? Here is his definition:

“The purpose of this kind of space is to provide the client with a safe learning environment in which to examine presenting circumstances and potential responses without the pressures and impediments that typically exist when these kinds of explorations take place.”

Such space allows the client to feel:

  • “Dissatisfied with their status quo
  • Neither judged nor criticized
  • Accepted and cared for
  • Pensive and self-reflective
  • Curious and open to experimentation
  • Challenged but safe
  • Vulnerable but protected
  • Assisted but accountable
  • Somber but hopeful
  • Stretched but whole
  • Prudent but courageous
  • Unsure but tenacious
  • Careful but open to examining the unfamiliar
  • Respectful of what has worked but eager to learn what is new
  • Open to new possibilities”

Holding space for yourself

It’s hard to do this for ourselves, especially in the moment.

At my best, I can muster a “Let me look into that and get back to you” to buy myself some time.

However, it helps to establish a “buddy system” or take on a coach.  To be clear, it’s not easy but it helps. Let’s be honest it is damn hard to say to someone you respect “I think I’m in trouble here.”  “This is not going well.” … “I need help.”

This is a place of some reputational risk and we need people who we trust enough to be vulnerable with.  It has feel safe – it has to BE safe.  It’s not enough to find someone who can maintain confidentiality or who has more experience.

What we also need is someone who will invest in us enough to have some difficult and probably uncomfortable conversations.  Not someone who will “save us” rather someone who will help us find our own way out.  Someone who will say “Look this work is damn hard.  It has chewed up and spit out any number of people but I am with you.  We will figure this out together.

How can your buddy help facilitate your reflection? A little more on the “universal attributes” from Daryl Conner:

  • “Providing information and cognitive input, or depending more on discussing experiences and lessons learned
  • Engaging in cutting to the chase, or demonstrating unending patience and compassion
  • Coming forward with gentle observations, or applying explicit “tough love” feedback
  • Allowing the person some time alone to think things through, or engaging him or her in challenging dialogue
  • Beginning conversations with blank-slate starting points, or with a POV that serves as a straw man
  • Approaching him or her with probing questions, or jointly developing alternative scenarios
  • Using metaphors and stories, or relying more on concepts and analysis

Finding your triggers

Well, this is the hardest part and there are no magic blog posts of top ten lists for you here.

This can come through reflection (the 5 whys are helpful) but mostly I have found it comes through conversations.

I have come to rely on many like-minded practitioners in my network for whole-hearted, deeply honest and vulnerable conversations about why we do what we do.

The best I can do at this point is encourage you to pursue this.  It is the way to tune the instrument.

Wrap up .. for now

This brings us to the end of this series … but not the end of the endless journey.

Did any of this resonate for you? How do you manage your triggers – any tips for me?

Really appreciate your thoughts, feedback and exchange.  And if you’re getting something out of this please do share it on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Post Note:  After I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to come across this post from Heather Plett  “How to hold space for yourself first” – the 7 tips are excellent!



[1] “How do People Learn to Adapt to Change”, Change Thinking, Daryl Conner, Conner Partners, Nov 2010

[2] “How Resilient are You”, Change Thinking, Daryl Conner, Conner Partners, Feb 2010

[2] “Mindfully Holding Space”, Daryl Conner, Conner Partners, Nov 2010

Related Posts:

Creative Commons License
Change Whisperer by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi Gail,

Thank you for this thoughtful, detailed, and authentic post. Reading this brings to mind how much work managing personal triggers has been for me first in uncovering them and second, in mitigating their vibration in my everyday personal and professional lives. I think self-managing can be difficult for us as organizational change professionals because we need to do it throughout our day sometimes, and over time, if our self-care is not up to par, we feel it much more than on other days. And, let’s face it, it is hard to be on planes, trains, and automobiles as well as telephones and Skype while maintaining focus, managing our energy levels, managing our clients, and then finally managing ourselves.

You asked if anyone had any tips for you? One question that I ask myself before I am trying to hold space for a client is, “Am I able to hold a peaceful space for myself?” If the answer is “no”, then I often tell myself, “That’s okay, what is the smallest action or thing I can do to acknowledge this for myself?” Sometimes it is simply finding a word or phrase that I can write down to have in front of me. One time before a group facilitation, I placed a green dot in the center of my right palm (in marker, not a sticker) ☺. What that thing is really doesn’t matter because in any case, I can acknowledge that I have “addressed this with myself first”, and that may be all I have time for prior to “holding space” for my next client activity.

One book that I am currently reading, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being – April 9, 2013 by Linda Graham, is proving to help me see that many of my “gremlins”, “inner tapes”, or personal triggers have actually been lodged into my brain by some of my own neurochemistry and coping skills that may have gotten stuck a bit from “way back when”.

The neuroscience behind how one’s brain is actually changing due to current thought patterns is very relieving. For many of us, we hold ourselves what I call “over-accountable” for not addressing these triggering thoughts “better” or “more effectively” (as consulting is such a profession for perfectionists), and once we can see that there is actually a neurobiological aspect for why these thoughts are hardwired into our brain, we are able to relax a bit and take a break from being so “over-accountable”. For me, learning more about the neuroscience has helped some of my triggers to tamp down and for more “safe and quiet space” to come to the fore. The amount of time my conscious brain was spending on managing triggering thoughts was much more than I’d realized!

My last point is about having a “buddy”. If you can find one, it is truly wonderful, and, I find that for me, having my own personal coach is the best. Most of my friends are professional coaches and consultants and they can help me through my stuff at work. But my inner “stuff” is simply better handled by a personal coach who is expert in change and neuroscience. My stress levels have gone down at least 30% by having a one hour meeting each week on the phone. It makes me better for myself and better for my colleagues. I also feel that it helps me to retain my relationships better with my buddies so that they aren’t burdened by my “stuff” because for some of these triggers, we need to go deeper and longer into them in order to free our souls from them. Oops, there’s that spirit and business stuff — thought I would be able to write a thoughtful comment without going there, but then maybe that is just another trigger? 🙂

Thanks again for your contributions to this line of thinking for change management professionals — we need to ensure that we support each other and take our own personal time to build our muscle to hold space for others.

Best regards,

Theresa Moulton
Change Management Review™
800-510-3574 | ext. 501 |
1950 Lafayette Road, Suite 200, Portsmouth, NH 03801
[] [] []

Comment by theresa790

Wow Theresa, you added so much to this conversation – I don’t know where to start. Much to reflect on here. Thank you.

Comment by Gail Severini

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s