6 Steps for Translating Your Experience into Better Change Messages

I want to open with a powerful quotation.

“There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community and communication. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing.”

– John Dewey

Dewey is suggesting several powerful thoughts in this quotation and I don’t have space here to unpack it all. I encourageexperience you to apply what I am going to share, but also to think more fully about the applications of his thoughts in your leadership life. My jumping off point is the idea that our experience is important in our communication and that our experience changes with our exploration and communication of it.

One of the most common questions I get from leaders is how to communicate change more successfully. My answer is, in part, here for you today. It relates to the Dewey quotation, and that means you must think about more than the change itself. You have to think about the experience of change. The fact is that everyone has experienced much change, and all of that experience isn’t positive.

Yet many leaders communicate change from the position of how great it is, and all those rainbows and roses aren’t selling when people are seeing change through their less rosy personal filter. So how do we connect better, creating the commonality and community Dewey speaks of?

It’s a good question, so read on. I have six ways for you to do just that.

  1. Review your past positive experiences. Think about times when change was a good thing for you. How did it feel? Sometimes it didn’t feel great at first, but ended up being a great thing. Other times you just needed a bit of time to see the value. Sometimes it was hard, but was a big win in the end. Recognize that any or all of those feelings and experiences might help you communicate about the new change you are considering.
  2. Review your past negative experiences. But they haven’t all been good, have they? And sometimes, the changes you experienced were painful. Remember that may well be what your folks are thinking about as they hear you introduce a new change. Use these experiences to recognize their potential concerns and to help them think through how to not repeat those experiences with the new change.
  3. Put yourself in other’s shoes. With the thoughts and feelings from your past experiences, you are in a better position to try to understand where people will be on the change in front of you. What do you sense will be their fears, concerns and worries? While you won’t necessarily be right, thinking about this and considering their positions will definitely make your communication more effective.


Now (and only now) are you ready to start the communication process about your change. If you start before these steps, you run the risk of selling change and making it much harder to create that very change.

And when you start, I want you to start differently than you may have in the past …

  1. Introduce the change (briefly). People need to know what the change is, why it is coming and the basic implications of it. Resist the tendency to give them the full blown PowerPoint presentation — it is too early. Besides, if you do that, the thinking from the steps above is largely wasted. Introduce, then stop and move on to step 2.
  2. Ask people what they are thinking (and how they are feeling). Yep. You have given them the basics and the outline, now you want to hear from them. What are their questions? What don’t they understand? What are their immediate concerns and fears? Giving them a chance to talk gives you information, engages them, and to our point here, starts to change their experience with the change itself. Be patient here and give people time and space — and don’t be surprised if there is resistance (this is where your reflections on your past experiences will pay dividends …).
  3. Talk about experiences first, then the change. Based on their input, you can now build common ground and community (thanks Mr. Dewey) around the situation and the change. Acknowledge their fears. Share your past change experiences as a way to build this commonality.

This process won’t take away all the issues and lead everyone to jump on your change bandwagon immediately, but it will speed understanding, belief and acceptance; which was your goal anyway, right?