Changing Ourselves and Changing Others

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I think we can see our lives from one point of view as adapting to and influencing others. Yet insistence builds resistance — demanding that someone change will likely bring about the opposite.

The More Things Change…

It is a truism to note that change is constant. Life is about process, and process is about ‘things’ changing. To sustain our lives we take in food, use what is health promoting and discard the rest. Our friendships evolve over time. Our ability to use our native language changes throughout our lives. All this seems obvious to me and beyond disagreement: change is constant.

Perhaps there are different kinds of change — or levels of change. I think this is what the saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” may be referring to. The phrase asserts that there is some change that is a delusion or illusion — something appears to be change but ‘really’ isn’t. The place I have seen this kind of sentiment expressed most is in relation to fashion — the up and down again movement of the hemlines of women’s dresses for instance. (It does seem to me that there is a 20-year cycle of fashion — due to the age of new entrants to the industry?)

Value Judgements

The idea that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is making distinctions among the changes that occur. It suggests that some changes are trivial (like the height of the hemline on dresses). The suggestion is that there are deeper levels of reality or experience that perhaps don’t change. Perhaps in clothing fashion the unchanging aspect is the need for clothing to help us deal with the weather.

It seems to me that there are some aspects to my experience that are quite constant. For decades now I have expressed my understanding verbally rather than visually, physically or musically. It was a delight to me to discover mind-maps — I found that I can explore a subject visually as well as verbally (and this has remained true for me for the last couple of decades). These things are relatively stable parts of my experience.

Taking a longer term look at my experience (from birth), very few things about me have remained constant. It took me years to learn my native language (English) to the point where I could express myself in it with some precision. What is there that hasn’t changed about me since birth? Very little — perhaps my DNA code.

I do have the sense that “I” am the same person who was born and has continued in the same body all these years. I do have the sense that my identity has remained constant; in this sense there is a part of my experience that has remained the same.

Adapting and Learning

I have the sense that who I am has continued from birth. I also have the sense that who I am changes somewhat depending on where I am and who I am with. At the beach on a summer’s day I behave differently to when I am in a church service to when I am chatting with a friend I have bumped into in a shopping mall.

This kind of change can be quite subtle and below our level of awareness. We begin to adjust our posture when we see our friend. During a conversation, those involved make quite fine adjustments to their body language and verbal language.

While adapting can be quite ‘automatic’ there is also deliberate change. When we set out to learn something we wish to bring about a change in our awareness and skill. This occupies a great deal of our early life and some of our adult life.

Others Change Too

I think people are mostly quite social. What is most important to most of us is our relationships. We are affected by others’ behaviour toward us and what they say about us. We adapt to others and they adapt to us. We develop a way, or ways, of relating to others in different situations.

I think we can see our lives from one point of view as adapting to and influencing others. My voice affects your eardrums; your handshake compresses my hand. I will usually adjust my posture according to how close you stand to me; I may learn something of great importance from you or impart some information that is helpful (from the nearest shop to how to fix your car).

You Can’t Change Somebody Else

It is often said that “you can’t change somebody else”. This is obviously untrue in some ways: I can use my voice to change your eardrums; I can be quite aware that my handshake will change your hand — and perhaps your impression of me (some people attempt to give the impression of being definite by giving a firm handshake, for instance).

I think that “you can’t change somebody else” also contains an important truth. This truth is that insistence builds resistance — demanding that someone change will likely bring about the opposite. Arguing with someone’s deeply held beliefs or values will likely lead to their defending these beliefs and values.

To Change Behaviour, Change the Environment

There is a management nostrum to the effect that the best way to change behaviour is to change the environment. This means what behaviour is rewarded (lead generation, sales completed, the length of reports permitted at meetings, the welcoming of new ideas or ability to analyse others’ ideas and so on) and also using unconscious cues — arranging desks and seating to encourage conversing or solitary work, introducing a swear jar to encourage courtesy and so on.

This kind of behaviour management, on the whole, seems pretty effective. It seems that it is possible to get people to adapt, although this may leave untouched the deeper things that remain relatively stable — like our preferences to process information verbally or visually, for instance. It is possible that when people say that “you can’t change somebody else” they are referring to the deeper and more stable parts of our lives. I think that “you can’t change somebody else” and “to change behaviour, change the environment” can both be true.

What Change Do We Want?

When we are frustrated, we want change. I think it is helpful if we can be aware of the kind of change we want — whether it is change to ourselves or to others; whether it is momentary and behavioural or longer term and deeper.

If we can be clear about the change that we want then we can investigate our motives for wanting it as well as the method to best achieve it. I think that having clarity about the kind of change we want can make our lives much easier.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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