On The Peril Of Trying To Make Other People Change
I’ve known the cost of trying to make other people change in relationships. I’ve blown friendships, relationships, and even business relationships by saying things intended to get the other person to change. I’ve done the gotchas, the accusations, and the ultimatums. In every case, I lost or degraded a relationship with someone else.
So I strenuously avoid making statements that I wish I would not have said before. I try to avoid the unnecessary comments, the inuendos, the veiled threats that “if you don’t do what I ask, then I’ll do X”. Love and force are incompatible. They can’t exist in the same room. The terms of coexistence and cohabitation require freewill. That means no power games, no mind games, no manipulation, just to get one’s needs met.
I am a believer in clear and open communication. I let my family know that they can talk to me about anything, anytime. I want them to know that if they made a mistake, they can talk to me about it and that I will work with them to fix it. I don’t punish anyone for their mistakes.
If I’m unhappy with someone’s behavior, I look to myself first. I change my behavior first. I change my approach to them. I change my demeanor. I check my language before I speak. I ask myself, “Is what I’m about to say, is that a statement that demands another person to change?” If so, then I acknowledge that such a statement would be a transfer of personal power from me to them. Then I consider my words until I can make a statement that doesn’t require another person to change but still expresses an unmet need or desire.
When we live together, we do so as an effort in mutual cooperation for our mutual survival and prosperity. When we combine our efforts, it's easier to get our needs met together. We are purpose-built for cooperation, so I make a point of formulating my language so that I’m making requests, not demands. I know what it is like when someone makes a demand of me, so I’m careful not to make demands of other people.
When I make a demand of other people, I give up my power. When I make a request, I’m seeking collaboration to get our needs met together. I accept that if I make a request of someone, and they refuse to honor my request, I must make the change I want to see. I accept the possibility that I may have to get my needs met with help from someone else.
In most cases, when we make demands of other people, we tend to fail to consider the possibility that those other people lack the capacity to meet our demands. They may even lack the will to meet our demands. So I frame my needs as requests. I have learned to accept when another person says no. I have learned to change my behavior.
When I’m working with my kids, I’m mindful that I may make requests of them that they ignore. I assume that they lack the capacity to respond. I assume that they may not be able to respond. I assume that it is not their job to make me happy. In fact, I assume that it’s nobody else’s job to make me happy, for I never want to give anyone that much power. Besides, no one can make me happy. They can do everything that I ask and I can still decide to be unhappy. So I have learned to find my own happiness, regardless of what other people do.
I have made this practice of finding my own happiness a habit. That habit is so strong that I can avoid ultimatums. I can avoid manipulation. I never have to take anything personally again. I assume that my happiness is my responsibility.
If my kids are upset, well, they can only be upset for so long and then they get tired and they stop. I don’t have to make them be quiet. I can wait it out. I can talk them through their upset and model calm for them. If my wife is unhappy with me, well, I know that her unhappiness will pass and she will find something else about me to be happy about. I let her know that it’s not her job to make me happy, that I will find my own happiness, and that I like to share my happiness with her when I find it.
I’m prone to mistakes, so I err on the side of peace. I really do try to err on the side of peace. When people make mistakes, I try to see how to make the best of the situation rather than to antagonize someone for their mistakes. I try to help. I de-escalate whenever and wherever possible, for I know well the cost of escalation.
In every case of discomfort that I have seen, I have been the one to make the changes. I model the change I want to be for other people because people are great imitators. Really, they just can’t help it. My kids imitate me all the time. They do what I do, not what I say. The same is true for adults. They echo my posture while they’re in the same room as me if they agree with me. They reflect back to me what I’m thinking and feeling.
So instead of trying to change others, I make an effort to do and say things that I would like them to do. I model the behavior I want them to do. I’ve done so with great success. My kids learned to walk by watching me. My wife learned to talk with the kids differently by watching me. A stranger will smile at me when I smile at them.
You can’t really change people. I’ve tried that and failed. But I have found that if I model the behavior, they do tend to imitate me. I can influence them. And that is a lot more satisfying and a lot less costly than confrontation. So be the change you want to see and see if anyone else does what you do. You might just be on to something.