You Can't Change Other People

“You can’t change other people. You can only change how you respond to them.” I first heard this life lesson from a mentor when I was a newly minted supervisor 30 years ago. At the time I was struggling with how to manage several very difficult personalities on my team. What I learned in that important conversation with Tiona has served me in many, many life situations.
People are who they are, and you can’t change that. Yet how much time do you spend trying? If you’re like most people, a lot. And you probably find that your efforts, like mine, lead to feelings of anxiety, resentment, maybe anger, and sometimes even guilt. And frustration, lots of that. Because what’s the matter with you, that you can’t “help” them see the “right” way to see the situation, or the “right” way to behave?
There’s nothing wrong with you – you just need to shift your focus from them back to yourself. E.g., What story are you telling yourself? What emotional state are you bringing to the conversation? What is your habitual reaction to how they speak or behave? What would you rather be doing in the conversation?
A story to illustrate: Last week I attended a business-networking event where I met several new and interesting people. One of them, Patrick, is upbeat and full of energy, and we immediately fell into a spirited conversation. We are both into self-improvement and believe in the power of Positive, so we discovered much we had in common.
At one point, Pat spoke of a situation where he’s having problems remaining positive. He owns a small business that employs a dozen people and for which he is the primary rainmaker/sales person. He loves his work – most of the time. His primary contact at the company’s largest customer is a very aggressive (and sometimes almost nasty) manager who constantly seeks to provoke his “opponent” in every conversation. From experience, Pat believes that this client interprets any sign of weakness as a signal to “go in for blood and finish the kill.” Pat figured that going eye-to-eye with this guy was the only way to survive – so when the client pushes, he pushes back. The tactic seems to work, but Pat feels drained by encounters, and dislikes having to behave that way.
“So,” he asked me, “how can I influence him to change?” I smiled. Then I offered the same advice that began this article: You can”t change other people, you can only change how you respond to them.
The story Pat’s telling himself is, “I must stand up to this guy – that’s the only way I can succeed.” Thus he’s approaching every meeting in a mood of intimidation mixed with determination, and his habitual reaction has been to match aggression with aggression, which makes every conversation a battle in which he must hold his ground.
“What would you rather be doing in the conversation?” I asked. Pat said he’d like to get the business but without feeling like he’s been in a fight. So I showed him two simple practices that may help him to succeed in a different way.
First, the verbal skill of Yes, And… This is the foundational language skill we see in Improvisational acting, where the goal is to embrace what comes at you, then build on it to keep the action going. Yes, And is the opposite of Yes, But. Rather than trying to push back on everything this client says, try Accepting it (the Yes) and then Building on what he says (the And…). In other words, let it be a conversation rather than an argument; and notice what happens.
I also taught Pat a quick physical skill to help him shift his presence in the conversation. Pat’s instinctual reaction to his client’s aggression is to Resist. The way this shows up in his body is that he plants both feet, squares his shoulders, and leans forward – sort of like a lineman in US-style football.
The part that works here is his footing – both he and his client need to feel that Solidity. But by always facing off with the client, Pat is constantly “taking a hit,” or absorbing all that negative energy, which is why he feels tired.
So we worked to combine Flexibility with Solidity. I had Pat keep his feet solidly planted, and pull one foot back just a few inches. Then I had him pivot slightly at the waist so that he faced me at an angle. This small shift allows him to deflect the hit, or watch it pass, rather than taking it on the chest.
This physical shift can allow Pat to embody the spirit of Yes, And… as well as support an emotional shift from aggression (solid and inflexible ) to assertive (solid yet flexible). If Pat changes how HE shows up in the conversation, the conversational dynamic will shift even if the other person remains as stubborn as before. And hopefully Pat can emerge from his next negotiation with a contract AND his energy intact!

Do This For Yourself

Is there someone in your personal or professional life with whom you wish to have a different (aka better) relationship? Work through these steps to create a new response for yourself.

  1. What story are you telling yourself about that other person? e.g. Joe always does this… or Chris never does that…
  2. What emotional state does that invoke in you, even before you start? When you acknowledge your emotion, you give yourself more power to change it.
  3. What is your habitual reaction to how they speak or behave? Do you shrink, tense up, get quiet, turn sarcastic, push back, panic?
  4. What would you rather be doing in the conversation? Use your power to choose. Name the feeling you’d like to hold when you are in relationship with that person – in other words, how do you want to feel when you are around them? Confident? Caring? Loving? Valued? Accepting? Calm?
  5. What body posture would match that feeling? How would you stand, sit, or breathe? Would you be leaning forward, or back? Where would your center of gravity land?
  6. Practice the new posture and the new story for awhile, in non-stressful situations, to help your system get used to it.
  7. Then try it in the real conversation, and notice what happens when YOU show up in a different way!

Remember: you are half of every conversation; if you shift, so will that next conversation.

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