Friday, September 14, 2012

The Extraordinary Challenge of Wanting to Create Change

by Miki Kashtan

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.

When We Want Our Loved Ones to Change

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.

Engaging in Dialogue with Children

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 (embedded below, though the blog software is glitchy, and viewable here).

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.


  1. Dear Miki,
    I deeply long for all parents to hold themselves compassionately in order to be present to their children and to TRUST that they will grow in their consideration of others.
    Thomas Gordon said that there is something about becoming a parent that makes people forget that they are persons." (My son who is sitting on my lap right now just mentioned to me that "Thomas Gordon" is also the name of a fiction character in Batman :)
    My experience is that becoming a parent truly confronted me to my social & childhood beliefs & pains and my understanding of what power truly means.
    I learned it can be inclusive (hold everyone's needs), compassionate and loving as awareness kicked in. I was able to taste how parenthood can lovingly *powerful* and compassionate through connection and trust. It is a path and process I grow into with my children.
    This is what stirred in my as I read you. I am grateful for the acknowledgement of my path and the clarity of its purpose i read in your post.

  2. Thank you, Miki, This is my first time back to your Fearless Heartedness in a couple of months of travels--where I was confronted again and again with how disconnecting my passion for justice {being right, changing people, etc.) can be. Am appreciating this reminder to meet others in inquiry.

    Have been nudged also by Rita Herzog, et al about how at the heart of nonviolence and maybe all well-being is freedom-in-connection.

    Am feeling challenged/confused about how to be in NVC consciousness AND to be fully truthful about how injustice/life-damaging actions horrify and TRIGGER me. (Like starvation death of prisoner at Quantanamo this week.) Screaming in giraffe is part of the answer...but there's still the demand energy of real urgency for life.

    So I'm still feeling frustrated and confused, wanting to push the NVC envelop for more passion/courage/confidence in working for a world of eveyone's needs matter.

    Am playing with idea--would love to invite you to join me--of a "Jackals for Justice" Recovery Group and/or a new NVC mascot, the "Girakal" modeled on the Hebrew Prophets who spoke their truth with love.

    Looking forward to what emerges next from your deep work for the world, Louisa

    ( only lets me sign in/contribute under old, discontinued blog idea...although I'm obviously still working on this too...)

  3. "The result is what we all see in ourselves." It is indeed. Had my parents known that years ago, I'm sure they would have done things differently. So it's my deep desire to do things differently myself with my son (who is about to reach the so called "terrible twos", even though I don't notice any signs yet and am convinced that it has to do with the nonviolent upbringing I'm consciously trying to give him). This article has given me strength and confidence that I'm on the path that best works for everybody in the family. Blessings, Miki.

  4. I find myself thinking about what it means to be a "change agent" -- and looking at the question of whether others want to change in the way I want to see them change. What if I want to be a change agent for someone who is having trouble finding their voice? Or dealing with depression? Or taking action about a situation at their workplace that they have spoken about for months? It goes back to: What would be the motivation in them to change? And do I have permission to offer something in support of change? What if I don't -- do I follow my own impulse to contribute? Is that meeting "my" need or "our" need or "their" need? I recognize that at a deep level, it is a false duality to think like that, and yet on another level it seems crucial to take responsibility and ownership of my own needs that motivate me to want to change something or someone. I find myself wondering what needs of yours or mine are met by thinking of ourselves as change agents at all. And yet when I think of accepting everything and everyone just as it is, I notice a deep mourning in me, b/c there is something in me that interprets that as giving up or giving in -- something that says, "The world can be better, and I'm here in part to contribute to that." There's some paradox here that goes back to the idea of detaching from outcome, I think. Surrendering to the mystery of that. Somehow accepting what is, without any agenda for changing it, and yet part of that which I'm accepting is that I come with a desire to change and contribute! Noticing that my father wanted to change me, out of love, except I heard it as coming from anger and fear and lack of acceptance. The tragedy of it is that so often the fear and lack of skill cover up the love that is underneath all this desire to change, whether it's interpersonal, organizational, or on the level of social structures. Big topic!

  5. Miki, in some sense, change is always taking place, as we are always experiencing the joys and sufferings life offers, whether consciously or unconsciously. These are generally the motivators for seeking change. It seems that we don’t change during this motivational stage because to is so imperceptibly gradual, like the growth of our physical forms. It takes a big picture perspective to perceive this change.

    We each function in our thoughts, speech and actions from age-old habits while under the illusion that we are freely choosing our behavior. One freedom we can embrace is that of replacing a present habit with a new one. This process is well-stated in a program I recently viewed on PBS called Happiness Advantage. Among the most important concepts this program offered was scientific proof that happiness is something we choose (“Life is happening in me not to me.”) Deciding to change happens early in the changing (or learning) process. Thoroughly incorporating it into our thinking and desire selves takes time and practice. It is a becoming.

    I can recall suggesting to my son and daughter when they were teens, and would still do so today, to experiment with life and see what happens, although I did caution not to try things that had a high risk of causing permanent damage. I am pleased that they seem to have taken this suggestion to heart.

    I really appreciated your and Yanni’s inspirational reminder of the importance of holding in one’s heart the other person’s needs. Among the mystics of the spiritual path this practice would be likened to seeing, loving, and serving the Beloved One in all.

  6. YES YES YES! I am uncovering within myself all the old beliefs and conditioning that has given me the "right" as a parent to impose my will on my child "for her own good." I KNOW sugar is not good for her, vegetables are good as a simple example. My daughter has gifted me with her unwillingness to be forced into any behavior, good for her or not. Thus she is supporting me in looking at my assumptions and question all the parent/child relationship "rules" passed don to me for generations. I can witness the more I try to force her to do what I perceive to be good for her, no matter how basic- wear a coat in snow, for example- the more she "defies" me. Again, it woke me up to the underlying assumption that I have the right and obligation as a parent to "make" my child do what I perceive is good for her. The more I surrender my need for her to comply, the more love and intimacy that develops and the more she CHOOSES to do things that I consider healthy- back to less sugar, more vegetables. Can I be surprised she values freedom and autonomy more than she values my imposed rules for health? Those child rearing practices left me frequently unable to recognize how to make my own choices that lead to greater well being because I was often forced to comply with my father's will. Why would I want to do the same to my daughter? Awakening from the cultural trance has not been easy but oh so gratifying to develop a genuine relationship based on trust, equality and intimacy rather than force and fear. To hear how often my daughter is willing to share her innermost feelings and needs is a priceless gift. Not surprisingly then, she so often is concerned with my feelings and needs and eager to cooperate. Ah, such love that arises from that place.