“Action has meaning only in relationship, and without understanding relationship, action on any level will only breed conflict. The understanding of relationship is infinitely more important than the search for any plan of action.”

This quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti nicely summarises the latest revelation in my life as a change agent: change conversations are really not about the change.

What I’ve learnt over the course of a clutch of interactions with a recent client is that change conversations must first and foremost be about managing the client’s emotional state. The substance of the change is secondary. Whatever the change being discussed – in this case re-shaping a programme to become more iterative and more devolved – the first responsibility of the Change Agent must be the client’s wellbeing; the Hippocratic Oath as applied to consultants.

Why? Because if someone is angry with you, if someone feels distant from you, then the trust starts to falter. Very quickly the change conversation becomes no longer viable. If you’re now seen as the cause of your client’s stress, if you have impinged on their wellbeing, you’re the object of their ire; you simply can’t do your job anymore.

This brings me to my title ‘getting close’. My blind spot in these interactions was my lack of appreciation for my client’s emotional condition. I was less interested in ‘staying close’ with them, staying connected, staying trusted. I was more interested in the content of the change in hand. I wasn’t focussed on them, I was much more interested in my grand vision for a ‘better organisation’.

I was asking myself ‘where do we need to get to?’ ‘How far can we push this?’ ‘Where’s the limit?’ I wasn’t asking ‘how is this person feeling?’ ‘What is this person about?’ ‘Who are they?’

I asked a close colleague with a gift for managing relationships why he’s do successful.

‘I watch them closely’ he replied.

‘What, in terms of their tone?’

‘Yes, their tone… also their hands, their expression’

Then a penny drops for me. He explain for my friend: ‘that’s right, sometimes I see his face tighten.’

‘Yes, it can be his face,’ my colleague agrees. Then he offers his own observation: ‘sometimes his hands sometimes curl up.’

‘So, it’s about monitoring where they’re at over the course of the conversation?’ I ask.

‘Yes, sentence by sentence. It can change in an instant.’

And for me it clicked, as much as the ‘test-and-learn’ approach can be applied to change in general, so it can be applied in the moment, in a conversation, instant by instant.

Paul Ekman’s micro and subtle expressions training is a great resource for this. It’s great empathy practice, forces you to try and work out what people are feeling.

But, as I discovered through several sessions with my therapist on this topic, the foundation for this is not skills, it’s values. My task is to begin to value relationship – getting and staying close – to an equal, or possibly greater degree than the desired change.