Change Mastery

How to handle change during unpredictable times

Change is hard. It’s true. We love predictability and routine, everything is going along smoothly and then life throws a curveball at us and it’s like we have no ground. Covid is a perfect example of how hard change is for all of us. This has been a collective experience of change that none of us saw coming and it turned all our lives upside down, since then we’ve been trying to find ways to adapt and struggling to find the resources to deal with such profound change. 

Most of the time we operate under the illusion that things are stable and constant. We plan our calendars accordingly and believe that everything will more or less be predictable. And often it is, but the nature of life is change and unpredictability. It’s an actual law of physics. And so what matters is our approach and how we handle change, not whether or not it will come or exactly what it will look like. In fact, learning to deal with change is probably one of the most important capacities leaders and their teams could develop. 

Kevin Cashman in his book, “Leadership from the Inside Out”,  calls the ability to effectively deal with change, change mastery, which is “the ability to learn, adapt, and apply ourselves in constantly changing conditions”. Rather than feel somehow tricked by the universe, we can learn to surf through change by becoming more fluid and agile. We can learn to let go of our attachments to how things are and allow the constant unfolding of life. Many of us who are parents have been learning this lesson the hard way during Covid as we’ve had to quickly adapt to having our children home 24/7 and be both parent, teacher, and worker. It’s almost impossible but developing change mastery is crucial to navigating these unforeseen changes. 

One way to work with change is to develop congruence between our inner and outer lives. When there is no congruence we tend to have an outward focus on the external circumstances, we start to think the problem and the solution are out there. The truth is, the stuff we can see-our behaviors, the actual data of the situation, is only a small percentage of what’s really going on. It’s like trying to solve our complex health care crisis or the public school challenges by analyzing data, that’s part of it, but no change is really going to happen until we address the source of these challenges, that is, the inner place from where we’re trying to fix the challenge. Otto Scharmer calls this our “blind spot” and states, “we cannot transform the behavior of systems unless we transform the quality of attention that people apply to their actions within those systems, both individually and collectively”. 

How do we do this? We turn the mirror back on ourselves. We become aware of the quality of our attention as we’re dealing with problems and communicating and moving through our day. Sometimes this means pausing or resetting by taking a few deep breaths and coming back to our present moment experience. In Buddhism there is a saying, “keep your mind like the sky and your actions like sesame seeds”. This is one way to hold present moment awareness-focus on your actions, in fact, be totally present with whatever you’re doing. At the same time, have a large sky-like awareness of the atmosphere (both inner and outer) within which the actions are taking place. This takes some practice but it can really help when dealing with change. 

Ultimately, the more we trust ourselves the more effectively we can deal with change, and the more we develop this skill of paying attention to the inner place from which we’re operating, the more we can trust ourselves.  We’ve already decided that change is inevitable so the question is not when or if change will happen but more, how we’ll work with change. The best way to do this, as I’ve described above, is to turn the mirror on ourselves and look at our own minds and the “quality of our attention”.  Change is inevitable, but the quality of our inner lives can be more stable and in this way we begin to trust ourselves and our own minds that we can handle what’s coming our way. 

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