How to Overcome Denial When Dealing with Change

If you want to make a change then you need the active support of everyone involved. To get that, you’ll first have to get people past denying that anything needs to be changed. Here’s why that’s true and what you have to do.

In an earlier post, I showed the kinds of processes that will let you get to a genuinely good idea. But an idea is only interesting if it’s implemented. The problem is that implementing your idea will run into roadblocks and disasters. Your idea will need tweaking and enhancing as you implement it in order to get past those roadblocks. For your idea to succeed, you need everyone involved in implementing the idea to provide those tweaks and enhancements. In other words, you need the people involved to be committed to making the changes required by the new idea.

Getting people committed to the required changes won’t happen by accident.

The Change Process

The good news is that the process that people go through when faced with change is well enough understood that there’s a model for it: The Change Curve. In Learning Tree’s strategic thinking course, we summarize the four phases in the curve with the acronym DREC:

  • Denial
  • Resistance
  • Exploration
  • Commitment

As you can see the first phase isn’t resistance to your idea — it’s denial that the change will happen. In real life, people don’t start actively resisting change until you convince them that the change is actually going to happen. Ignoring the denial phase or attempting skip over that phase (or any of the others) will not work. Change (as MindTools points out) is like grief: People have to work through each phase before they can effectively navigate the next phase.


In terms of this cycle, your goal is to get to the third phase (exploration) where the people involved start discovering what in the change is for them. It’s in the exploration phase where people will start applying those tweaks and enhancements that will, in the end, allow your change to succeed. But you won’t be able to get there without first getting through denial and resistance.

If you want to implement your idea, therefore, you need to help people move through each of these phases in a way that prepares them for the next phase. If you don’t handle denial well, you’ll end up spending too long in resistance. When a process spends too much time in the resistance phase, anything/everything that goes wrong will be blamed on whatever idea is driving the change — and, since things will go wrong, your idea will gather a lot of blame. The result is that a perfectly good idea will end up looking like a very bad one. In fact, if the resistance phase drags on long enough it can prevent the change from occurring altogether.

Getting through denial well is essential to your idea’s success.

The Importance of Denial

The reason that the first phase is denial is because people’s first reaction to change is shock. One of the symptoms of shock is disassociation: People try to distance themselves from the events around them (the “this isn’t really happening” feeling you get when you hear bad news). As a result, the usual first reaction to change is not “I won’t do that.” Instead, it’s “Oh, don’t worry, that won’t happen” and “People are always talking about changing this but they never do” and “We’ve been doing it this way since forever and there’s no reason to change.”

The bigger the change, the bigger the reaction. That initial shock can, for example, easily lead to immobilization (as described by LaMarsh Global) where “Information about the change doesn’t sink in for [the people involved].” Immobilization is, effectively, people putting their hands over their ears so they don’t have to hear about what will happen to them. Immobilization is dangerous because, if information about the change doesn’t sink in, people may never move on to the resistance phase, let alone to exploration or commitment.

Dealing with Denial

There are several techniques that you can use to get through to those who are immobilized but the first and most important tool is repetition: You simply can not repeat often enough the message that change is coming (for more tools, see the BrightHub site’s post on dealing with resistance, denial, and ignorance) .

But you also must describe the reasons for the change in ways that make sense to the people involved. To make sense, your message must first be consistent — discrepancies in messages from different sources will cause people to lose trust.

However, “consistent” doesn’t mean “single”: You’ll need to tailor your message to the different kinds of people involved in the change. Some people will have a commitment to the team or the organization: framing the change as essential to the organization or team’s continued existence will work for them; others will be swayed by arguments around success or excellence: framing the change as critical to making the team “all it can be” will make sense to them; others will be interested in how the change will give them new opportunities to grow or develop: framing the change as a growth opportunity will cause them to listen — provided, of course, you repeat all of these messages often enough.

Opportunities are Better than Threats

You might think that positioning change as a way for people to keep their jobs would, all by itself, be compelling. However, targeting people’s survival with threats often increases denial/immobilization rather than decreasing it. Faced with a very large shock (like losing their job) people are more, rather than less, likely to withdraw.

Even worse, suggesting that people’s jobs are at stake may drive people away. I worked for one company where we considered a fairly drastic change: Closing one of our branches. We didn’t share this possibility with the branch’s employees but it wasn’t because we were afraid of resistance; We didn’t share the information because everyone (including the employees) knew that our employees could get another job in the area in two or three weeks. If we had shared the information about the potential closing we might have lost all of our staff in a few weeks (by the way, in that case, denial would have been the correct action: In the end, we didn’t close the facility).

In general, you’re better off presenting the upside of the change rather than deepening people’s gloom by emphasizing potential disasters. Furthermore, by consistently delivering multiple, consistent messages, targeted to specific audiences you will not only get through the denial phase, you’ll also have laid the groundwork that will help get everyone through the resistance phase. I’ll talk about that in a later post.

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