Should You Try to Change People?

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People change, but not because you tell them to.

I have a friend who I’ll call Emma. Emma used to drink soda every day. This really bothered me. I cared about Emma, and I wanted her to be healthy. So while she cheerfully sipped a sugary monster, I made my case:

Me: “Hey Emma, you should stop drinking soda. It’s really bad for you.”

Emma: “Yeah maybe. But one soda is not that bad.”

Me: “Perhaps, but soda spikes your blood sugar, which means you experience a temporary high before a big crash. That might be why you nap so much. Plus, over the course of a year, one soda a day adds up. That’s over 55,000 calories.”

Emma: “Sure Cal, but there is nothing more refreshing than a soda when it’s hot. You just can’t beat it.”

Me: “I’ve always found water to be pretty refreshing when it’s hot. It hydrates you and allows you to feel good throughout the day.”

Emma: “Cal, I like soda. Why are you being so annoying about this? It’s my life.”

Me: “I just want the best for you Emma.”

By this point, we’re both frustrated. Emma is irritated that I’m nagging her about something she enjoys and doesn’t see as a problem. I’m upset that my good intentions and logic didn’t convince her to make a healthy change. We’re both worse off after this conversation.

If you’ve ever tried to change someone or had someone try to change you, you’ve probably had a similar experience. No matter how good your intentions or your argument, trying to change someone does not work. In fact, it often makes things worse, especially if you make many attempts. The initial irritation quickly turns into deep frustration and resentment. And eventually, you end up with a messy divorce, failed business partnership, or friendship-ending saga.

You look back and wonder how the hell everything escalated so quickly. Ironically, this destructive process often starts with good intentions. You approach a friend, stranger, or lover with advice to help them improve their lives and be a better human. But instead of successfully motivating change, you end up holding a bottle of wine and three tubs of ice cream wondering if you’ll ever overcome the anxiety and regret from the mayhem that just ensued.

If you’re like most people, you won’t even realize the role you played in causing the destruction. Instead, you’ll blame the other person for being the stubborn fool who didn’t see or appreciate how helpful, generous, and caring you were to point out their flaws. One day, the ungrateful bastard will appreciate what you did.

Meanwhile, the other person is cursing you for your constant criticism and non-acceptance of who they are. They wonder why you spent so much time and effort trying to change them when you have at least ten obvious flaws of your own to work out. With the exception of divorce lawyers and therapists, everyone loses.

So does this mean that we should shy away from giving advice or encouraging someone to change something that may be harming them? Is trying to change someone always a bad idea? Not necessarily. Unless you’re a psychopath, it’s natural to want to help others improve. So for most of us, this desire will keep hanging around.

And instead of ignoring it, we should learn how to appropriately channel and act on it. We need to change our approach to motivating change. To do so, let’s first explore what happens when we try to change someone through my attempt to get Emma to stop drinking soda.

When I tell Emma that she should stop drinking soda, I’m basically saying “Hey Emma, what you do is not okay.” I’m passing a judgment on her behavior. Even if my advice is well-intentioned and logical, I’m directly challenging her way of being. Naturally, this will make Emma defensive. And from a defensive place, no one is going hear what you have to say, let alone change their behavior.

To add fuel to the fire, not only am I telling Emma that her behavior is not okay, but I am also projecting my personal beliefs about health and how someone should live onto her. I’m assuming that my beliefs are rational, correct, and also best for Emma. That’s a dangerous assumption. Psychologists call this naive realism. Essentially, it’s our natural ignorance and arrogance that keeps us sane, but also blinds us to the fact that the world is not exactly how we see it. Emma is a different person.

Her values and beliefs stem from her unique perceptions and life experiences, and my attempt to change her ignores that in favor of my own values and beliefs. Finally, even if Emma buys into my argument against soda and wants to stop drinking it, she needs to confront the challenging reality of change. Change is hard. To change, you need to shift your beliefs, overcome your fears, and experience pain. In this case, Emma will have to break her old habit and build a new one.

Every time she wants to grab a soda, she will have to instead go for an alternative that she believes is less good. That’s not easy. Even with a big reward on the other side, the comfort of inertia and anticipation of pain will stop most people from changing.

At a minimum, my attempt to get Emma to stop drinking soda has rejected her way of being, assumed that I know what’s best for her, and asked her to go through the painful process of change. No wonder this approach didn’t work.

And we’re just talking about soda. Imagine how hard it is for someone to change a life-long behavioral trait or a multi-decade addiction to cigarettes or alcohol. No chance. So given what we now know, how we can improve our approach to motivating change?

Take a humility pill.

When you feel the desire to change someone, first understand what’s driving that desire. Is this change really better for the other person, or is it better for you? Does it align with their values and beliefs, or does it align with yours? Caring for your friends is noble, but telling them how they should be based on your beliefs is dangerous and egotistical.

Reframe what you are responsible for.

You are not responsible for changing other people. You are responsible for being a good person. If someone crosses your boundaries or violates your values, you are responsible for communicating how and why their behavior had a negative impact on you. And that’s it. If they decide to change, great. If not, great. Either way, you did your job and can sleep easy.

Can you change your response?

No matter what happens in your life, you are in control of how you respond to that event. So if someone’s behavior is bothering you, see if you can you find a way to change your response to that behavior instead of trying to change the other person.

Why is the person doing this?

You can better help and accept someone if you understand what drives their behavior. If your new lover is scared to be vulnerable because his last three girlfriends cheated on him and not because he’s a stupid man who’s not in touch with his feelings, you’ll probably feel differently about his behavior. Before you judge, seek to understand the other person.

Modify your approach. Telling people what they “should do” never works. People hate being told what they should do. They get defensive. Instead, try these techniques:

  • Listen, don’t talk. Instead of providing lectures, ask questions and listen. Learn why the other person does what they do, why they believe what they believe, and what their core values and motivations are. With this knowledge, you can tailor your advice and communicate in terms that motivate the other person. When you listen and ask the right questions, you can often lead people to the best outcome for them without telling them what to do.
  • Provide resources, not prescriptions. Let’s say I have a friend who wants to identify her “passion.” One approach would be to prescribe things that I’m confident will work for her, like making a bucket list. She may or may not do it. A better approach is to provide her resources (e.g., books, articles, or videos) that will lead her to the conclusion that she should create a bucket list to identify her passions. People are more motivated by their own ideas, so if you can provide resources that lead them to ideas that will help them, you can better motivate change and action.
  • Build, don’t break down. Instead of trying to change people’s flaws, identify and cultivate their strengths. If your friend is amazing at connecting people, point out that strength. Help them nurture it. Building their strengths will increase their confidence and effectiveness. It will help them operate more effectively without putting them on the defensive.

None of these approaches solve the inherent problems with trying to change people, but they help, especially if the other person is ready to make a change and seeks your advice.

If you use them wisely, you can better avoid the unnecessary resentment, communication failures, and broken relationships that often come from trying to change another person. A month after our first conversation, my friend Emma stopped drinking soda.

After three or four tense and ineffective attempts to get her to stop drinking soda, I decided to change my approach. I asked Emma if she wanted to do a 30 day health challenge. We would both give up one unhealthy food habit and hold each other accountable. She accepted and decided to give up soda. I gave up bread.

Instead of being about Emma’s “bad” desire to drink soda, this challenge was about two friends embarking on a collaborative journey to be healthier. Not only did Emma conquer the challenge of not drinking soda during those 30 days, but she decided to keep going.

It’s been nearly a year, and she still hasn’t had a soda. Her change has nothing to do with me or what I care about. It has to do with how she felt after the challenge and the habits she wants to build to live the life she desires.

People change, but not because you tell them to.

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