You Can’t Force Other People to Change – But You Can Help Them

Do you have a teen who just won’t get off his backside and do anything? Is your brother deeply in debt? Have you got a friend whose romantic life is a series of disasters which she never seems to learn from? Are your parents severely overweight? Is your partner a smoker?

The chances are, there’s someone in your life who you believe is in need of change … but they’re not making any progress. If you’ve devoted yourself to change, perhaps making great strides in your personal and professional life, then it can be frustrating to see others – friends and loved ones – remaining stagnant.

So what can you do about it?

In one sense, nothing. You can’t force other people to change. Sure, you can nag, threaten or cajole someone … but if they’re really going to change in the long-term, that impulse has to come from within them.

The first thing, then, is to recognize that this person is an individual and, unless they are your own child, an individual with responsibility for their own life. You can’t tell them how to live their life.

Let Them Know You Value Them

However much your friend, relative or colleague’s behavior might frustrate you, focus on what you do value about them. When we feel unappreciated and unloved by the world, it’s easy to fall into apathy or despair – feeling that nothing will really make a difference.

Those kind words to your friend over lunch (even if it means biting your tongue when she tells you the latest disaster story), or that note to your parents saying how much you love them, can have far more effect than any number of discussions or rows about what you perceive to be their problem.

Listen to What They Want

Sometimes in the personal development sphere, I see people getting hooked on their own experience of change – and promptly evangelizing about it to everyone in earshot. Great, you lost 30lbs and got fit and toned: that doesn’t give you any reason to look down your nose at people who are perfectly happy with a different body shape. Or perhaps you work on your small business every weekend – don’t knock those who prefer to spend that time partying with friends, or simply enjoying a non-paying hobby. Keep your own agenda out of it.

If you are committed to helping someone make positive change in their life, you’ll need to listen to what they really want. Don’t project your own ideas onto them: they may be enjoying what is, to you, a “dead end” job because it gives them the time and energy to paint at the weekends.

When a friend or loved one expresses a wish to change – perhaps making comments about their physical fitness, their financial situation or their family life – then be supportive. Encourage them to talk more, and always proceed with the assumption that they will be capable of making the changes that they want to. This should be obvious, but it’s never going to help to say things like “Well, the last five diets you went on were a complete failure…”

Ask How You Can Help

When someone does open up to you, perhaps confiding a dream or goal that you’d never realized they had, don’t start offering advice straight away. Ask “What can I do to help?” Give them control over their own change. If it’s a situation that you’ve had personal experience of, and you want to share that, tell them your story – but offer this simply as an example, rather than telling them “So you should do it just like this…”

In many cases, what might be helpful for you won’t necessarily help someone with a very different temperament. Perhaps you get spurred on by competition, whereas your friend needs gentle encouragement. Maybe you like to be enthused and supported, whereas your brother prefers someone who’ll keep him firmly accountable.

When we’re committed to changing our own lives, it’s easy to get carried away into trying to change the lives of those around us. Of course there’s nothing wrong in being moved by someone else’s struggles – but ultimately, the greatest kindness we can do is to accept other people for who they are, and to accept that their path in life is not going to be the same as ours.

Let your children, your siblings, your parents and your friends find their own way. Your role isn’t to be a tour guide, it’s to be a companion on the route, perhaps pointing out dangers and helping them over rough spots – but ultimately letting them choose their own direction.

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