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.
When We Want Our Loved Ones to Change
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.
Engaging in Dialogue with Children
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.
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 (embedded below, though the blog software is glitchy, and viewable here).
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.