Finding A Common Language For Change

August 14, 2013


Amelia Friedman ‘14 is a Starr Fellow working on the Student Language Exchange.

Anyone who has ever spoken to me for over 5 minutes knows that I’m a language geek. So, when asked to talk about what I’ve learned over the course of this summer, of course I’m going to talk about language.

Per the suggestion of Starr mentor Deb Mills-Scofield, I read Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard at the beginning of this summer. Chip and Dan use a unique analogy for change:

1) Direct the Rider

The rider is our rational side. She is logical and holds the reins for the elephant. She’s the voice that says, “If I start studying today, I will be able to do well on next week’s exam.”

2) Motivate the Elephant

The elephant is all emotions and instincts. She is capable of overpowering the rider. Her voice argues with that of the rider, saying “But I really want to go to that party tonight!” And, if we listen to our elephant, she can easily take us off-course.

3) Shape the Path

The rider is easily paralyzed by too many options; she overanalyzes the situation. If we want change to happen, we have to tell our rider and our elephant where they’re going. We can plan our study schedule with breaks (for the elephant to go for ice cream with friends) and an end goal (so the rider will know how to get an A on her exam).

This is an oversimplification of a must-read 300-page book. But why am I telling you this?

This book revolutionized the way that my team communicates.

When we talk about instigating change, we all come from completely different places. Our experiences color our understanding of how to make change happen (as they should!) often resulting in a disconnect between how we interpret one another’s ideas. (We already have enough difficulty there when Fiora dips into her colorful Scottish dialect.)

Switch gave us a common language. We still carry our divergent perspectives and we often disagree, but now we understand one another: We can communicate about change.

In fact, we use the rider-elephant-path analogy all the time! We use it when we talk about individual responsibilities (why we’re doing it, how we’ll keep ourselves motivated, where it is leading us) or when we discuss successful delegation (motivating people to get stuff done) or even when we talk about dating (the Heath brothers could host a pretty successful dating show).

There are other books (Managing to Change the World is a big one) or blog posts (another shout out to Deb for her “I-thou” post) or TED Talks or family adages or personal refrains that have shaped our conversations. With each shared point of reference, we understand each other better: We get things done faster with stronger collaboration.

The Student Language Exchange is all about finding common ground between diverse cultures and different people. Language is key to getting the conversation going.

Now, we make a point of sharing— books, blogs, articles, videos, and infographics— partly because they’re interesting, but partly because shared knowledge is a jumping off point for innovation, organization and appreciation.

Looking to improve communication in your team?

1) Direct the Rider

  • Find bright spots! Find out what people are already reading, and share those with the rest of your team.

  • Sell the vision. Why is this integral to a more productive conversation?

2) Motivate the Elephant

  • If we do this right, we can build teams where ideas are understood and appreciated. Appeal to the desire of your team members to be heard.

  • Send bite-sized bits of material. Maybe it’s a book per week, or perhaps it’s a blog post every morning. Don’t let the elephant get discouraged.

  • People don’t like to read dry, unexciting articles. Make it interesting! Send material that is fun, and let your team see reading as a break from other tasks & responsibilities.

3) Shape the Path

  • Build a schedule of regular learning so that the rider isn’t overwhelmed. Make it part of every team members responsibilities.

  • Reference reading or common vocabulary when you hold meetings. Build time for reading into the workday. Envelope continuous learning into your organizational culture.

Make the Switch: It all begins with a shared language.