How to Change People


How to Change People

It may not always seem like it, but fundamentally we all change in the same way. Ideally as children, our parents let us experience an appropriate amount of uncomfortable consequence when we ‘acted out’. By experiencing this discomfort, we identified our own specific reasons why the behavior (or misbehavior) was not in our own best interest. Ideally, again, this mechanism works the same for adults as for children.

We can only change our self. People or life can present uncomfortable circumstances. But we alone make the choice to change or not. This observation is not new, but its wisdom is can be much easier to accept when considering the preferred method of our own change, rather than that of someone else. Objectively we can know that brow-beating is ineffective, but how many of us can still get worked up about at least a few things – from exasperation with ‘lazy’ children or coworkers, to political beliefs of a strong left or right slant?

Pushing someone to change is not much different from physically pushing them. The analogy can be extended to a useful point. Imagine a wrestling match. Which tactic would be best for moving your “opponent”? Pushing with all your might against them when they can easily dig in their heels and brace against you, or embracing your opponent and moving with them? All things being equal, the second option would be far more effective. In persuasion or influence too, it is much easier to make efforts to create an ‘alliance’ with someone before ever attempting to move them in any direction.

Firm, fair and consistent. That is the ideal for our side of interactions with others. That’s the best we can do to truly effect any change we want to advocate. But it is significantly harder to maintain that stance if our experience with our primary caretakers was not firm, fair and consistent. Providing children with an ‘appropriate’ amount of consequence requires a precise balance of consistent affection and consistent rule-setting.

If a parent ‘let us get away with a lot’ or ‘held grudges’ when we acted out – the effect can be twofold: as adults our willingness to tolerate an ‘accurate’ amount of consequence may be lacking, and we may have a hard time being consistent in our dealings with others at home or at work. This subject can, and likely will be the subject of its own post. But for now I’ll leave it at this: if your pulse quickened in anticipation as you read the title of this post …honestly ask yourself ‘were you hoping to improve your influence with, or control of, other people?’

It is a common and understandable wish that we can swoop in and fix a person or situation, or help others ‘see the light.’ But if we’re feeling too strongly about influencing others: 1) we probably won’t actually be very persuasive, and 2) it’s likely that the urgency of our need to influence, save, or fix others, is a distraction we may find more attractive than confronting a change that deep-down we see is needed in our own lives.

Shame and judgment are obstacles to lasting change for anyone. This can be a good reminder to harness our attention and direct our energy into the most useful areas of our lives. It can take a lot out of someone analyzing, arguing or cajoling, and investments of this energy rarely pay dividends. An investment in yourself should always be the first priority. When we are at our best and feeling genuine confidence and esteem for ourselves, then we have the necessary reserves of goodwill to begin making inroads with those we’d like to help.

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