Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interview: Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey

I reached out to the authors of Immunity to Change, Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a few questions about their theory on how we can overcome the obstacles to making the changes we want. (Discussed in yesterday's post.) Their responses are even more detailed and insightful than what I read in the O Magazine article. I can't wait to read their book (to be released in mid-February and can be pre-ordered online).

Here is what they had to say:

Q. Please specify the steps you recommend to someone who finds him/herself bogged down in his/her efforts to change.

A. Before suggesting any ‘step’ we want to say that we aren’t actually that big on ‘advice.’ We don’t think we are any smarter than the people we help, so what we’d come up with for ‘what you might try’ is probably no different than what people have already thought of on their own. What we have to offer starts off in quite a different direction: Don’t take any step out of the ‘bog’ at all—until you have a new ‘footing’ for taking steps in the first place! Helping you see your ‘immunity to change’ provides that ‘new footing.’

Now having said that, we suppose we can suggest some first ‘inner steps’ to get you into the right state to develop this new footing. You need to get your head and heart in a good frame — change is hard and if you are trying to change some long held way of operating, it will take time (and concerted effort) to alter that. Too often, people believe they ought to be able to see gains immediately, and then they get discouraged. (And for many people, that discouragement turns into self-disparagement, which then gets them into a negative spiral!).

Another early internal prep is to ask yourself how important your goal is to you. Because change is so hard, you need to really want to change. We use a 1-5 “important to me” scale (1=not very important, and 5=extremely important). Minimally, you need to think and feel that your goal is very important (4). This is what you believe, and not only what others may want for or from you.

Be explicit about why your current change goal is so important to you. What do you hope to gain by making this change? Identify your personal reasons first and only then consider how others may benefit by your accomplishing your goal. This whole step is about clarifying your motivational state (a huge resource for change work).

If all of this is in place (you have a positive frame of mind, a very important goal, and high incentive for pursuing it) and you are stymied, it’s worth asking whether there is some technical reason why you are not making progress: are you trying to accomplish too much all at once? Are you in the midst of some big change in your life that leaves no time, energy or spirit left for this additional change? If you can’t identify any powerful technical explanation, then it’s quite likely that you have an immunity to change around that particular goal. Welcome to the big canoe!

All the next steps we recommend add up to having you understand what your exact immunity is. That’s where the 4-column exercise comes in.

Once you’ve done that, the next steps involve targeted self-observations and learning how to test new actions that can inform your worldview. We describe and give lots of examples of all these steps in our new book, Immunity to Change.

Q. The core of your theory on overcoming the obstacles to change seems to hinge on our ability to identify our buried anxieties. How do you recommend we go about identifying these anxieties if we hide them from ourselves?

A. Our Immunity to Change exercise is designed to do exactly that. Starting in Column 1, we write the important goal we want to accomplish. Then, we honestly answer the question of what we, personally, are doing and not doing that works against that goal. We then use that column 2 information as a resource to identify our anxiety. How? By asking ourselves the question, “Imagine doing the opposite of those behaviors in column 2. What worries or fears come up?” We enter our answer into the top of column 3.

Let’s anchor this in an example: let’s say I have a goal to be more straight-forward in telling people what I really think. What do I do that works against that? I sugar coat my words; I withhold what I really think; I say something once and if the person doesn’t respond, I let it go. That takes me to the critical step: now I need to ask myself to imagine doing the opposite of all that—so imagine saying things directly, and follow-up on that—and then paying attention to what worries or fears emerge. Ok, I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, and that people will think I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m uninformed, maybe even dumb. Or I might worry that I will make people uncomfortable, and they won’t like that or me! Or perhaps my biggest worry is that people will, in turn, be more frank with me, and I’m not sure I want to hear that. Different people, obviously, will answer this question differently.

That’s the worry. Now I need to take another step in column 3 which involves seeing our active relationship to these anxieties.

The core idea behind the immunity to change is that we do not merely have these fears; we sensibly, even artfully, protect ourselves from them. We create ways of dealing with the anxiety these fears provoke. We are not only afraid; we take action to combat our fears. We are actively (but not necessarily consciously) committed to making sure the things we are afraid of do not happen. This is the heart of a third-column commitment. It is a commitment to keep the thing we are afraid of from happening. To follow this example then, I could say I have a commitment to be seen by others as being smart, or easy-going, or likeable. Or that I have a commitment to people withholding the negative feedback they have for me.

Identifying our anxiety, seeing how it has a hold on us and how it gets in the way of accomplishing important goals (our immunity to change) is a crucial step. But that insight isn’t sufficient for us to change. We need to identify the assumptions we are making that keep that anxiety running so deeply. (And that’s column 4). It’s the assumptions we make that hold us back.

The most reliable route to ultimately dismantling the immune system begins by identifying the core assumptions that sustain it. We use the concept of “big assumptions” to signal that there are some ways we understand ourselves and the world (and the relationship between the world and ourselves) that we do not see as mental constructions. Rather, we see them as truths, incontrovertible facts, accurate representations of how we and the world are. These constructions of reality are actually assumptions; they may well be true, but they also may not be. When we treat an assumption as if it is a truth, we have made it what we call a big assumption.

The heart of successful change is learning how to safely test those so that we can generate actual, rather than imagined, data about the consequences of new actions. This is how we can develop a new understanding that the world works differently than we had imagined, that we can still be safe—and even experience more expansive benefits—doing things we never thought possible before.

Q. Do you have suggestions on how we should sort through our anxieties? In other words, how do we individually assess which anxieties are healthy and necessary and which ones hold us back from our potential?

A. We might have to push back a bit on this forced choice. It may be important to start with a recognition that all our anxieties are, in a way, ‘healthy,’ insofar as the impulse to take care of ourselves, to keep ourselves alive, is certainly healthy. We start Immunity to Change with our belief that the usual explanations for why change is so difficult are not very good: ‘Human weakness,’ ‘lack of discipline,’ ‘insufficient incentives,’ ‘the inability for old dogs to learn new tricks,’ and so on. We say that the failure to accomplish important goals is often due to the success we are having accomplishing other goals which are usually out of sight!

The person in the example above is failing at being more courageous in his communications, but he is succeeding brilliantly at staying likeable or protecting himself from other people’s frankness, or whatever is ‘in this 3rd column.’ These hidden, parallel goals are always about protecting ourselves. They are about the way we are handling the fear of our own demise. We need to start with the sense that this anxiety, like a big friendly dog that barks at everyone who comes to the door, is on our side, and intends our good. When we look out the window, and see that all this barking is about the postman, we don’t shoot our dog. We just tell him, ‘Calm down, silly, It’s just Ed, the mailman; relax.” The experiments we describe in Immunity to Change are a way to help us learn to run our big friendly dog, rather than letting our dog run us.

Q. Do you think it's possible to overcome our psychological fears/anxieties without addressing real life sources that engendered those fears/anxieties in the first place?

A. In most cases, yes. The problem for most of us is that our assumptions about the dangers we face are Big Assumptions, that is, they may be correct in some cases but we over-generalize them. We all have a particular ‘door’ where we see all approachers as dangerous intruders. So we then need to protect ourselves all of the time. At some earlier point in our lives, we may have learned that speaking directly and honestly is dangerous. Whether we learned that indirectly, e.g., we witnessed scenes between our parents, or directly, e.g., we got slapped, literally or figuratively, for saying what we thought, these are powerful learning events. Where we get into trouble is when that learning extends beyond that situation and shapes our understanding of how the whole world works and how I therefore need to operate all of the time. As we discuss in the book, some people we work with make very explicit connections between their now-visible, anxious ‘parallel goals’ and things that happened to them years ago, sometimes many, many years ago. It’s often a powerful and helpful experience. Making that connection is one kind of fuel for overturning the immunity to change. But many people make no such connection, ever, throughout our work together, and they also make big progress. Happily, there are many sources of ‘fuel,’ and our process tries to make them all available to people.

Q. For those in your workshops who failed to change as they set out to do, did you notice any common thread(s) in what went wrong?

A. The most common threads are these:
  • the original goal gets seen in a brighter light (through the immunity to change) and the person concludes that it’s just not as important as he or she thought it was. They drop their change goal, at least for now. That may be because they now understand what would need to change and that feels too scary or risky, or because they see the various trade-offs and conclude that the status quo is good enough, or they realize what’s involved in tackling the change and this is just not a good time in their lives to take it on. (None of this means that the person won’t eventually feel otherwise; “readiness” to change is a real phenomena)
  • the person gets pulled into trying to change by going only at behaviors, and ignoring the underlying mindset changes that also need to change. (Sometimes the opposite happens, where the person gets too drawn into the psychology dimension and isn’t willing or able to risk testing assumptions).

Q. Have you noticed any common personality types or backgrounds (i.e., difficult life experiences, etc.) among people who are more resistant to changing despite their own goals?

A. The kind of change we are talking about here doesn’t occur for personality types who want quick and big results.

Q. Have you worked with many attorneys in your workshops? If so, have you noticed any common trait(s) among attorneys and their resistance to change?

A. Yes, we’ve worked with many attorneys. In general, they seem to appreciate the logic behind the 4-column exercise and are surprised at how quickly it gets to real issues.

Q. Do you still offer workshops on change at the Harvard Graduate School of Education? How do we sign up?

A. Yes, our next workshop is scheduled for Saturday, March 28th. For further information feel free to leave any message on our website,, or call us at 781-254.4541.


Wow, lot to chew on... I hope you find this as helpful as I do.


  1. It was very thoughtful of you to share this. Thank you.

    On another note, I think you are bound to have a bright and fulfilling future. You are asking yourself all the hard questions that many people don't have the courage to even formulate.

    All the best to you. I was going to say "good luck", but I don't think you need luck.

  2. TO ANYONYMOUS January 9, 2009 8:29

    I really hope Shinyung does not delete your post.What you dare to say on public forum is beyond amazing. Actually, if you had the guts (which you obviously don't), you would use your real, full name -- I would perhaps have more respect for you.

    The truth is that there are MANY people like you in this country, and in this world. Just yesterday, I came across a blog (a well-travelled one, I may add) that promoted the killing of Moslems by Jews. I won't give the exact title, as I don't want to advertise their nonsense. But life goes on.

    Your racist, sexist, and possibly Amero-centric talk is a reality. It can't be silenced. It can be ridiculed, and brushed aside - like dirt.

    Thanks for being the coward that you are.

  3. I don't know if you are a Christian but I read this book called "The Life You Always Wanted" and the author talks about this topic a lot too! I found the way he described things SO SO SO true and I felt like he was reading my mind or in my brain.

    It's cool that these two authors took the time to give such thoughtful answers to your questions.

  4. It's not a law-related blog until there's an illogical, bitter, and racist troll posting.

    I agree with the deleting. Troll bait posters don't deserve a forum.

  5. Thanks to all for commenting and speaking up against idiocy (I love the power of deletion!). Mary, thanks for the book recommendation!