In the last few days I’ve been almost haunted by realizing how often we want others’ behavior to change. We may want to see change in some small, annoying behavior that our child does, or a major harm created by the CEO of a transnational corporation. It has recently dawned on me that no matter the person or the behavior, creating change in another’s behavior is, in essence, a monumental task. And then again – why am I so surprised, when I know how difficult it is to create change within ourselves when we actively want to create such change? When, on top of how difficult creating any change is, we add the extra challenge that the other person may not want to create the change that we seek, it’s no wonder that we so often don’t manage to create the outcome we want outside ourselves.
I now believe that we can create change outside ourselves only if one of three conditions is in place. One is that we have enough resources at our disposal to stop the behavior that want to see changed, or to deliver such unpleasant consequences to the person doing it that they would choose to change. Another possibility is that the person recognizes a need of their own that motivates them to create the change we seek. And the last path is that through dialogue the person chooses to create the change because of care for our needs, or because of trust in our intentions for their well being. As someone who is committed to being a change agent, it’s quite humbling to recognize this. Humbling in particular because in my appetite for supporting change I am prone to attempting to stretch people into creating change beyond their own capacity to integrate it. If I truly take in what I am discovering, I may choose to change how I work for change, and, most certainly, my approach to working with others to support change in happening. I am early enough in my explorations about this that I don’t quite know yet how my work will be affected. For the moment, I am drawn to embarking on the exploration of what these conditions mean in three realms: personal relationships, organizational change, and social structural change. Given the bigness of this topic, I plan to focus, today, only on personal relationships, and come back next week to look beyond the personal.
Within our families and circle of friends, our clearest path to change is likely to be dialogue. I have long believed, and have experiences of it with several colleagues and my own housemate, that when two people have sufficient trust in their care for each other, a conversation about change in behavior can be relatively easy. The key is to be open to inquiry. If you do something I don’t like, there is no automatic formula about what would happen. I want to explore with you what it is that bothers me about the behavior and what it is that leads you to engage in the behavior. It’s only then, when we have that understanding deeply settled and trusted, that we can decide, together, whether you will change the behavior, I will adapt to it, or we will find a creative solution that transcends the either/or terms we began with. One of my little sorrows is knowing just how few people have experienced the magic that happens in such conversations when the goodwill is intact and the heart skills are there to support the flow of communication and connection. It’s not about having no conflict; it’s about having conflict that leads to more understanding and more satisfaction.
Here’s an example a couple recently shared with me at a workshop. Pat and Alex (imaginary names) use matches instead of air purifier in their bathroom. Pat was getting irritated and confused about why Alex sometimes accumulated them on top of the matchbox without throwing them out. Pat raised it with Alex, early enough to prevent resentment from mounting. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that, in certain moments, Alex simply cannot find the inner energy to take the extra step to put the match in the garbage can. That was enough for Pat to let go completely, because understanding how Alex’s life is so full of effort, it was simple and easy for Pat to accept and adapt. So long as the solutions don’t always go in the same direction, I trust that Pat and Alex can sort out such conversations with ease.
Lest you think that dialogue of this kind can only work between adults, this basic and simple approach is the guiding principle in my sister Inbal’s family, persisting well into years of her dealing with cancer. These dialogues include their 14-year-old son, and have been an ongoing feature of the family since he’s been a small child. Recently, a friend gave their son and me a ride, and was in awe at how we negotiated a sudden awareness that we miscalculated the timing, and one of us was going to be late for where we were going. He and I ended up finding a solution that worked for both of us and was neither of our exact preference in terms of where we would be dropped off and when. Our goal, not even articulated yet clearly present, was to minimize the effect on both of us, and we succeeded. This is life in heaven, as far as I am concerned. It’s how all conflict in that family is addressed.
So many parents want so much of their children’s behavior to change, moment by moment and overall. I have often been around families in restaurants, shops, or even in their homes, and hear a constant stream of instructions from parent to child. The younger the child, the more those instructions are simply an ongoing collection of prohibitions. Much as the culture is rife with images of the “Terrible Twos” who say no to their parents, they learn it somewhere. They are continually told what not to do, to the point where I sometimes wonder why parents take their small ones into restaurants to begin with.
Later, too, I see how much children are generally put in positions of being expected to change their behavior because the adults in their lives believe it’s in the best interest of the child to create change: eat less sugar, stop watching TV, use different language, do homework, see or not see certain friends, and the list goes on. In particular, I am struck by how often this behavior change is elicited through subtle or blatant use of threats, restriction of access to resources, limiting of options, or outright negative consequences and punitive measures delivered for continued engagement with the behavior.
I can easily see why a parent would choose to go that route. The child is rarely motivated to create this change by themselves. In fact, the child is quite happy with the choices they are making. The food is tasty, the TV is entertaining, the language is cool and gives them access to their company of peers, homework is a nuisance, and their choice of friends is totally fine for them. At the same time, few of us have any role models or even a positive image of the idea of being in true dialogue with a child. The notion that it is adults’ responsibility to tell children what to do is deeply ingrained. That a parent might willingly back off from something they want from a child because of hearing the child’s experience, or that a child might sometimes be the one to come up with solutions that work for everyone, is a foreign notion to many. Such flexibility, and the creativity on the part of everyone, including the child, that are generated in such dialogues, can only come about when the child’s needs and experience is fully respected and heard with an open heart, exactly the way one would want to listen to an equal. It’s clear to me, with tenderness, that when the capacity for dialogue, overall, is not cultivated in a culture, and in addition to that there is no expectation that children would be active participants in decision-making, few paths are left to the parents.
Because of how deeply I am identified with the child’s perspective, it’s so easy for me to see the devastating cost to children, and ultimately to all of us, when change in behavior is achieved, if at all, through coercive, punitive means. This is not to say that I am asking parents never to use force. Rather, I would love to believe that more and more parents can come to see that force is necessary only in a rare minority of cases, when imminent danger is in place, and even then it’s used only protectively and without any punitive intent or action. Even when deeply concerned about a child’s behavior, I would want parents to engage in dialogue, to be open to listening and truly understanding the child’s perspective, and to seek solutions that address everyone’s needs.
If you want to get a taste of what the child’s perspective is when growing up in this way, I invite you to watch my interview with my nephew from when he was twelve.
In those rare instances when force is absolutely necessary to protect something dear, it’s even more essential right afterwards to engage open-heartedly with the profound loss that such an experience is for the child.
Otherwise, when children are primed from early on that their parents want their behavior to change and they themselves can only resist and defy, or obey and suppress themselves, they cannot come to know their own values and choices, and are unlikely to identify a clear inner motivation for any change. The result is what we all see in ourselves. I am not at all surprised that it continues to be so difficult for us to find deep motivation for change, to engage in productive inner dialogue, or to be kind to ourselves when we don’t like what we do.