How do I tell them? Five steps for thoughful communication in transformation processes

When organizations have to change or respond to change, communication needs to be precisely designed and managed. Often the leading actors themselves are under pressure, they might have to make difficult decisions and have their own feelings and fears.

So how can effective and empathic communication be structured in such an emotional situation?

Below is a five-step design process which we use in transformation projects. It can be implemented as a workshop in about 2 hours and in our projects it is often the conclusion of formats in which strategic decisions have been made that need to be communicated to the organization.

  1. Building empathy

    When a board of decision makers has just spent hours or days weighing options for action, it is often difficult to get out of the vortex of arguments and options. For the design of empathic communication, however, it is essential to “forget” for a moment what you know about the facts of the matter and to engage with the perspective of the recipients. My recommendation is to first assemble an unsorted list of recipient groups: Who will our communication reach? Recipient groups can be based on departments, but even more on their relationship to the facts of the situation: people who are strongly affected by change, eternal optimists, naysayers, already frustrated people…

    In the second step, a detailed examination of the presumed needs, concerns and questions of each individual group is recommended. Quotations are a practical way to capture these: What would the group say about the topic at the moment? Fictitious examples from a restructuring project:

    All: “Will there be layoffs?”
    Heads of department: “Do I have to give up employees?”
    Department X: “Are we getting a new boss again?”
    Team Y: “Can we still complete our project?”
    Manager Z: “Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier?”
    Parents: “How am I supposed to handle this as a family?”

    This analysis often reveals patterns that influence the design of communication, especially in terms of content – are there groups of recipients who are very similar? Or special cases that tick differently than the majority? This step is about identifying needs and feelings that need to be taken into account in communication, not about addressing the respective groups separately.

    This analysis often reveals patterns that influence the content design of communication – are there groups of recipients who are very similar? Or special cases that think differently than the majority? This step is about identifying needs and feelings that need to be taken into account in communication, not about addressing the respective groups separately.
  1. Collect messages

    Good and transparent internal communication is based on clear messages and, at best, should not leave any questions unanswered. In consideration of the needs of the recipient groups, it is advisable to collect all messages that should or need to be considered in communication. In a first step, these can initially be more messages than the communication can cover. It is important that no relevant points are forgotten.
  1. Sort messages

    The unstructured list of messages can now be sorted, with the following criteria playing a role:
    Recipient groups: Which messages are really relevant for all? Which groups or people must be addressed separately?
    Prioritization: Which are the really relevant messages? In a live communication such as an all-hands meeting, a maximum of three core messages on one topic can usually be covered. Everything else should be recorded and made available via a format like an FAQ.
    Order: The order of messages should not be random. The following applies: No long explanations for answers to questions that are burning under the nails of recipients. Instead: Preempt the core message – connect it to the explanation – repeat the core message.
  1. Develop formats

    If a message is supposed to reach as many employees as possible simultaneously, it is usually not enough “just” to call a large meeting. As soon as someone is ill, on emergency duty or only virtually connected, you create an information imbalance; making further communication messy and potentially causing irritation within an organization. Based on the sorted messages and the recipients to be reached, it is therefore necessary to develop suitable communication formats and fill them with the prioritized messages.
    The following applies: Redundancy is better than forgetting someone or perhaps not reaching them. It is also important to prepare for dealing with questions or feedback: It’s easy to say: “We’ll end with a Q&A” – but the questions that may arise must be prepared just as precisely as the rest of the content. In addition, a confidential channel for feedback must be established in case employees do not want to share their concerns with everyone. That way individual topics are given the necessary space without developing a momentum of their own that displaces the core statements.
  1. Plan a test run

    Change messages need feedback. Misunderstandings can arise from single ill-chosen words or intonations. If communication is live, there should be a dry run with an honest and diverse feedback panel, in which the situation at hand is simulated as realistically as possible. Written communication should be counter-read by critical eyes. Again, it is worth taking a look at the identified target groups: How could different groups of recipients receive what is being said? Which misunderstandings or irritations could there be?

With stringent facilitation, this planning process can be carried out in two hours for critical decisions and, in our experience, leads to precise, empathetic communication in moments of transformation.

This article first appeared in German on medium.com.