Leadership coach Nadine Powrie considers how internal communicators can apply the principles of change leadership theory to get into the mind of leaders.

14th May 2019

Language shapes thought and thought shapes actions. What if the language you are using is making it harder to bring about the difference that you want to see – the change that is needed from the C-suite?

Business strategist Tony Robbins states that “according to Compton’s Encyclopedia, the English language contains some 500,000 words. Yet the average person’s working vocabulary consists of 2,000... And what about the number of words we use most frequently – the words that make up our habitual vocabulary? For most people, it averages 200-300 words.”

This is astonishing. It implies that the language of change that you have been using may be more limited that what you previously thought.

John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School and world-renowned change expert, introduced his eight-step change process in his 1995 book Leading Change.  In each step, communication is key. How about exploring where you are with the language of change and what you could do to expand? I invite you to do four exercises. They are simple and quick to complete.

The first is about understanding your favourite words related to the language of change when you have conversations with leaders from the C-suite – “favourite” in this instance means that you are using those words all the time by default, without necessarily thinking or choosing your words. You are almost on ‘automatic pilot’. What do you notice?

Exercise two starts with reflecting on exercise one. Look at the words you have written. What impact would they have on your C-suite colleagues when you use them as part of your key messages and conversations? Classify those words as positive, negative or neutral and count how many you have in each column.

Now you know not only the words that you are using when talking about change, but you also know the emotions that they create and the likely impact they may have on people. Are you accidentally raising your C-suite colleagues’ stress hormone (cortisol)? Or are you increasing the production of oxytocin – a feel-good hormone that elevates their ability to communicate, collaborate and trust colleagues by activating networks in their brains’ prefrontal cortex? Do the words in those three columns bring about the difference that you want to see with your C-suite colleagues?

Thirdly, now that you know about the emotional impact of the words you are using, if they do not bring about the change that you want to see, change your habitual vocabulary. Spend the next 15 minutes on thesaurus.com and make a note of the new words that you would like to use and add them to your repertoire.

Exercise four is about comparing the words that you have chosen from thesaurus.com with those such as direction, hope, outlook, probability, promise, scope… which might offer you even more possibilities. What do you think?

When you talk about change with your colleagues from the C-suite, how do you adapt your language to offer different possibilities? The key word here is possibilities as you are asked to think about the words, sentences and questions that you will use to talk about change. Replacing a change word with a synonym, perhaps a more specific one, can improve how you communicate your ideas. Synonyms may prevent the desensitisation that comes from the repetition of words. They carry different emotional weights, or signal specific registers, or indicate different attitudes.

What tools and processes do you use in your conversations to promote change?

Tool 1: Your awareness

Self-awareness is being conscious of what you’re good at while acknowledging what you still have to learn. This includes admitting when you don’t have the answer and owning up to mistakes. You must be aware enough of your business landscape to recognize that a need for change exists. Anticipate the unexpected and take proactive steps to provide solutions for a changing terrain, magnifying your vision from being traditionally linear to a circular 360-degree vision. Ask good questions and solicit feedback.

Tool 2: Your timing

As an internal communicator who is managing change, you are selling change. This requires impeccable timing. You need not only to be aware of when to make your pitch, but more importantly how to sell change, knowing that regardless of what type of opportunity or innovative idea you are selling, it is likely to lead to resistance from your colleagues.

Tool 3: Your communication skills

Articulate clearly (simple words in your writing and speaking skills) how you will be able to connect the dots of opportunity that were previously unseen or unrecognisable. You might decide to assemble a diverse team that can help you execute and sell the change all the way through.

Tool 4: Your mental toughness

To withstand the obstacles and resistance from those affected by the change you are selling requires mental toughness, also called resilience. Mental toughness is a must when you are selling change, because you are dealing with adversity and crisis during a process that can be draining. You should become mindful of how best to manage the consequences of the change that you are selling. 



1 List the words you use regularly when talking about change, and consider the emotions they create and likely impact they may have on people.

2 Sometimes, the simpler word just sounds wrong, and you need something else to fit the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph.

3 Be aware of your business landscape, so you can recognise when change is needed. Admit when you don’t have the answer and own up to mistakes.


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