Can You Change Other People?

Blog by Tracy Butz, CSP

Whether at work or at home, most people experience times when they desperately want to change how another person thinks or behaves. Maybe you need a colleague to follow through on project expectations because his procrastination is causing you delays. Perhaps you can’t stand the late hours your spouse puts in at work, which is taking a toll on your relationship. Or maybe your best friend incessantly whines and complains with a never-ending negative view of life and you just want her to stop. You likely realize that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t change other people. Period. However, you can, though, positively influence someone to change.

If you find yourself faced with needing or wanting to influence behavior change, here are four strategies I have used with great success:

Identify the specific behavior. Pinpoint the exact behavior that you want this person to change. If you want the person to just “be less annoying” or “call more often,” you will not get the results you want. Pinpoint the exact behavior you want to see change and note exactly how you want it to change.

For example, rather than saying that you want her to “be less annoying,” plan to say that you want her to “stop interrupting conversations she’s not part of.” Or, instead of wanting him to “call you more often,” you could prepare to ask him to “call you every Sunday.”

Obtain and acknowledge perspective. Determine what their concerns, fears and assumptions are regarding the change. Doing this will definitely help you counter some of their concerns, and you’ll also better understand their perspective by valuing their opinion and incorporating them into the conversation. Even though you may not agree with their point of view, acknowledging that you understand and appreciate their perspective is a great way for you to confirm that you heard them and their point is valid. 

Explore motivations without pushing. The other person often already knows that s/he should change a specific behavior. And if you try to present one side of an argument, s/he will feel compelled to push back. When trying to influence people who need motivation, but not more information, ask questions that allow them to explore their own motivations without feeling pushed. Some examples include:

“What makes this behavior worth changing?”

“If this change was easy, would you want to make it?”

“What makes this behavior change hard?”

“What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”

“If you’re able to successfully change this behavior, what would be different?”

Highlight benefits for him/her. Based on the individual motivations uncovered, subtly highlighting why changing could benefit this person can offer illuminated advantages that answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” For example, my young adult sons are glued to their phones—texting, snap-chatting, watching videos, viewing or posting on Facebook, etc. Because I live in Colorado and they reside in Wisconsin, when we visit one another, spending quality time together is our shared focus. Sometimes, though, daily routines prevail and it becomes a bit more challenging to disconnect to reconnect. Since recommending a digital detox wouldn’t work for them or me, I usually offer one or two reminders of how limited our time together is, and that’s usually enough to re-engage them.

With the above point in mind, laying out the advantages in a specific order also helps heighten the level of persuasion: start out emphasizing a strong advantage, share another pivotal benefit, and then bring commanding closure by underlining the most important reason for him/her.

Everyone faces instances when positively influencing another person’s thoughts or behavior is advantageous. Rather than impeding success, choose to offer assistance by understanding another’s perspective, exploring their motivations and encouraging commitment to change. When your intent to help is positive and genuine, your level of influence is endless and can truly make a difference. Influence—the true measure of leadership.

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