Embracing the Denial Curve

Most people are naturally conservative with a small ‘c’ – they really find it very difficult to change.

For nearly 30 years after leaving academia, I spent a lot of time helping organizations be better at managing their enterprise information and retaining knowledge. Many skills are required to help such aspirations to be realised, and not merely technical ones; as I discussed in The Zeitgeist of the Coder.

As always, techies would run around thinking they had a silver bullet that would make people adopt new practices, simply by installing the software and with a few hours of training. Time and time again I would find that an organization that claimed to have made a big change hadn’t. They had changed very little because no real effort had been put into the changes in behaviour that are required to ensure that the claimed outcomes of an enterprise system rollout would actually transpire.

Old habits die hard.

In my large tool-box of diagrams I used when consulting is the following figure, which originates from the field of ‘business change management’ (I have been using it for many years; long before I became active in climate change).

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 13.57.23

The denial (or change) curve is just a name for the grey path from Denial to Commitment, with each stage described as follows:

  • Denial – people do not believe that the change is needed or will really happen, focusing on business as usual and not engaging their own feelings.
  • Resistance – people now know change is coming and engage their feelings of anxiety, anger and rejection. The focus is personal resistance, not the wider organization. It can be disruptive and even counter to one’s interests.
  • Exploration – a switch occurs whereby people recognize need for personal change and start to explore new ways of working.
  • Commitment – people gain mastery of new ways of working and the focus moves from the personal to the organization – and participating in helping to make the change a success.

The denial referred to here is the regular kind of denial we are all prone to, and is well known to psychologists. In the business context I worked in, it was an illusion to imagine you could get staff to jump en masse from Denial to Commitment.

Denial is more characterised by folded arms and non-communication than by argument or engagement; denial of this kind is a shutting out of the possibility of change, not arguing against it.

Resistance is different. The resentment and anger that comes with Resistance is almost a necessary part of the journey; finding reasons why the change won’t work, and using active measures to frustrate implementation. This can be loud and angry.

Only when the benefits of at least the promise of change start to become appreciated, does Exploration begin, and while there will still be arguments, they move from destructive ones (“It can’t work”) to constructive alternatives (“I don’t see how it can work, but show me”).

Commitment follows, and those that have made this journey are much better at helping others tread in their footsteps than an external consultant. Personal journeys get transformed into communcal ones. There is a tipping point, when enough people are reinforcing the positives so that everyone wants to join the party.

Of course, getting action on global warming and decarbonising our economy is much tougher than getting a large organization to adopt new practices, but maybe there is a lesson here.

For one thing, there is nothing wrong in using the word ‘denial’. Some claim that this is being conflated with ‘holocaust denial’ and is therefore an outrageous slur on  ‘contrarians’ (it is always contrarians that make this claim and merely, I would argue, because they wish to deflect criticism and adopt a posture of victimhood, whereas they are the aggressors).

In any case, I am not so much interested in the tiny percentage of politically motivated contrarians, or ‘ideological denialists’ as I would prefer to call them, even though some are in highly influential positions.

We have to find ways to work around them, rather than give them too much of our time (although it has to be said, I am frustrated at how much airtime these people get on Twitter; and maybe that is a problem with Twitter itself as a platform). Their attention seeking behaviour is self-reinforcing and will not be a path to change (ask a psychologist), and it is wasting time that should be focused on the conversations that really matter.

The great majority of people fit more easily into the standard psychological meaning of the word denial; they are blocking their eyes and ears hoping it will go away.

La la la … la la la.

We are all in denial in some sense and to some level; otherwise we’d be seeing a rebellion wouldn’t we?

It is surely unrealistic to expect it will be a smooth and easy (psychological) journey, from Denial to Commitment, and that we can convince people with a few graphs. We can show all the data in the world – on the efficiency of heat pumps; the health benefits of low meat and EV buses; the falling costs of renewables; the ecological impacts underway; or whatever – but until this becomes internalised as the way we think and act, every day and in every way, it will not lead to measurable outcomes.

We have to pass through The Denial Curve – the pain and anger of the ‘loss’, for what we assumed was forever. That high consumption, limitless travelling, throwaway culture, and our infinite planet, with a mode of consumption that we have somehow slipped into sometime in the 60s or 70s. We have to shake ourselves out of a kind of consumerist trance.

We need to make so many changes at so many levels that the change is bound to create huge anxiety and then, of course, Resistance.

If people are resentful at feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place – between the  terrifying consequences of inaction and the trapped-in-the-headlights ‘conservative’ preference for inaction  – then that is entirely natural. Yet this is exactly the ‘tension’ that needs to be explored, and ultimately, needs to be resolved in each of us, and in our communities.

I sense that there is already a growing number of people who have moved from cross-armed denial, to resentment and hence Resistance. This is to be expected, and we should expect it to get a lot louder. We’ll need strong leaders and ‘counsellors’ amongst us, to help guide people on the journey; despite the noises off.

I would argue therefore that we should embrace The Denial Curve, rather than get stuck in the loop of raging against denial per se (that’s what the ‘ideological denialists’ want!).

If we can reassure people and find ways to help them transition from Resistance to Exploration, then that is the hardest part. Commitment will follow.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

 

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