Understanding Change – A 3 Part Blog Series – Part Two

To make systemic changes across organizations, we need everyone on board. By addressing hidden conversations people have, we resolve concerns and diminish resistance to change. Using web-based tools online to talk openly and listen actively restores power for an individual to address their concern and play a role in the bigger change.

Part Two: “Recognizing the Existence of Background Conversations”

Take-aways from Part One: “The Future of Learning and the Need for Change
  • Our first blog in this series sets the context for employers, educational providers, government agencies and donors to seek out multistakeholder conversations to Shape the Future of Learning. People from different professional backgrounds or disciplines may have diverse ways of understanding and interpreting information. For example, a finance professional may approach a change proposal from a financial risk perspective, focusing on cost implications, while a marketing professional may emphasize the potential impact on brand reputation.
  • People are used to doing things a certain way therefore changes are adopted at various rates. When people and organizations see that the benefits of change will outweigh the hassle, they begin to replace old habits with the point of view of others.
  • Using web-based collaborative tools in a virtual convening permits a greater number of iterative cycles of interaction which speed up mutual understanding of different perspectives. People interpret meaning differently based on their individual role in the bigger picture. The facilitator understands resistance is natural and they engage with everyone’s’ concerns, creating a “collective thinking”.

Changing the background conversation involves recognizing they exist.  With that awareness, one can allow a facilitated process to bridge diverse points of view.  Organizations and groups of organizations want collective buy-in to accomplish systemic change, but uncertain how to achieve it.

A background conversation is an implicit, unspoken “back drop” or “background” against which explicit, foreground conversations occur; it is both a context and a reality.  Background conversations are a result of our experience within a tradition that is both direct and inherited, and provide a space of possibilities that will direct the way we listen to what is said and what is unsaid (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Harré, 1980; Heidegger, 1971; Winograd & Flores, 1987).

Types of Background Conversations

There are three types of background conversations that lead to resistance: complacency, resignation, and cynicism.

  • Complacency comes from past success and the belief that change isn’t necessary.
  • Resignation comes from past failures and feeling internally powerless to make a difference.
  • Cynicism comes from distrust and skepticism of factors external to oneself.

A person with a complacent background conversation uses their belief that they will keep succeeding because of what worked before. They attribute success to personal or group abilities. Change is seen as unnecessary.

A person with a resigned background conversation uses self-blame to resist change. People believe they lack power, skills, or support. This mindset creates a sense of hopelessness, leading to inaction and resistance against change proposals. They view their situation as unchangeable and resist attempts at improvement.

A person with a cynical background conversation attributes the cause of failure to external factors, other people, or groups.  This mindset expects disappointment and lack of authenticity due to shortcomings in others or the world. Conversations often involve feeling let down, deceived, or betrayed by powerful figures.

Background ConversationAbout ThemselvesAbout Proposed ChangeFacilitator’s Question
Complacent Background“I’ve been successful using these methods before, so I’m confident I can handle any challenges that come my way. No need to try anything.”“Our approach has brought us success in the past, so there’s no reason to take a risk with something different.”“What are some specific ways we can use the successful decisions from the past, while also experimenting with different ways of making choices to create an even stronger path for an uncertain future?”
Resigned Background“I just don’t have what it takes to make a difference here. No matter how hard I try, things never work out, and I can’t seem to change that.”“It doesn’t matter who tries to lead or make changes; this organization never supports anyone. They’ll just face the same roadblocks and lack of progress that I have.”“How can we team up to make decisions in a better way, leaving behind past mistakes and finding new paths to success?”
Cynical Background“I’ve seen it all before. No matter what I do, things always go wrong because the world is messed up, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.”“Why even bother with this so-called ‘change’? It’s just another futile attempt by clueless people who think they can fix the unfixable.”“How can we work together to lead us to better outcome

Shifting Background Conversations for Change

Creating new conversations that support change involves fostering a positive and open environment where people experience motivation to embrace change. A nonbiased facilitator understands the backgrounds that foster resistance, but instead of seeing resistance as a problem, they design a process to create new conversations that support a process to innovative solutions collectively.

WebStudy Foundation conducts virtual convenings that uses design + facilitation + web-based tools to generate a process for CHANGE. The methodology developed over 25 years, is both a science and an art. We adhere to these principles:


  1. Safe Space: Design an environment where people feel safe to express their concerns without fear of judgment. Openness promotes honest dialogue.
  2. Feedback Loops: Design several feedback loops where people can share their thoughts and suggestions on the change using digital tools virtually. This demonstrates that their input is valued.
  3. Inclusive Participation: Design activities that engage a diverse group of people to discuss and interact with each other about the change. Encourage them to share their insights, concerns, and ideas, creating a sense of ownership and involvement.


  1. Open Dialogue: A nonbiased facilitator leads a virtual discussion where people type their input, provide responses to inquiries, reflect on the different answers/perspectives to those inquiries and ultimately challenge their own preconceived ideas. This helps dispel misconceptions and fosters a sense of collaboration.
  2. Active Listening: A nonbiased facilitator partners with a theme team to actively listen to what is being said, and synthesize the feedback for everyone to reflect upon. The facilitator interacts with participant input so the design is dynamic and responsive to people’s concerns and objections regarding the change. Participants have their feelings and thoughts acknowledged, creating an internal shift regarding their resistance.
  3. Empowerment: A nonbiased facilitator empowers individuals to take ownership of the change process by involving them in decision-making and problem-solving. This sense of control replaces their background conversation with a renewed commitment for a new future.


  1. Small Wins: The client and the participants break down the report from the convening into manageable steps. Individual, groups and organization possess a celebratory attitude, experiencing small successes along the way. Positive reinforcement builds momentum for ongoing cross-sector communication and collaboration. Resistance to change is now replaced with enthusiasm for larger changes.
  2. Storytelling: Word of mouth stories of personal experiences related to change spread organically. Participants, themselves are inspired to continue to shift their perspective, replacing the background conversation of resistance with examples of allowing change to benefit them.
  3. Highlight Benefits: The individual, groups or organization implementing the change communicate the benefits and positive outcomes with those planning the change.  This becomes a new virtuous cycle replacing the vicious one that didn’t work.  Individual and collective goals are achieved.

Preview of the Third Blog

Look for our third blog in the series, “Acting on the Relationship between the Future of Learning and Our Resistance to Change.” When we conclude this blog series, you will be able to create important next steps. Background conversations are like the thoughts and ideas that fill your mind based on things you’ve been through. Instead of just looking at things from the outside, you see them through the lens of what you’ve been through before, your constructed reality. It’s like your own personal way of understanding the world around you.  But the objective reality may differ. If these three types of background conversations were constructed by the accumulated response to success and failure over the history of time, what next steps will you take?  How can you and your organization replace the past with new conversations about the future? What is possible in the face of these (constructed but not permanent) realities?

References include:

Ford, J. (1999a). Organizational change as shifting conversations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 12: 480-500

Ford, J. D. (1999b). Conversations and the epidemiology of change. Research in Organizational Change and Development Vol. 12. W. W. Pasmore, R. Greenwich, CT., JAI Press: 480-500.

Ford, J., & Ford, L. (1995). The role of conversations in producing intentional change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20: 541-570


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