You Can’t Make Me!

you can't make me

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Ok, it’s a corny joke, but still it is true: no one can force another person to change. People are not software; we cannot try to consistently upgrade them to work out their bugs. We cannot reprogram them to be someone that they are not. It is also not our role to change them. That is their prerogative.

Even when we hold great power over another, that person still retains final autonomy. Just ask anyone who tries to force a toddler to potty train or to eat one more bite of vegetables how incalcitrant a two year old can be. So, in addition to change being the liberty of each individual, it is also silly of us to believe that we have as much power as we sometimes think.

What we can do, however, is to influence change in another.

So how do we effect change in other people?

Well, if at all possible, try not to have to do so. Sure, you may be able to teach a duck to climb a tree, but you are better off finding a squirrel in the first place.   Allow people to use their strengths instead of trying to develop their weaknesses.   A big picture thinker stuck in a detail-oriented job is not likely to be good for anyone.   Get the right people on the bus, put them in the right seats, and away we go.

But that is not always a viable solution. At the heart of what parents, teachers, coaches and managers do is to direct the learning and behavior of other human beings.

The first option we go to too quickly is to apply a penalty to bad behavior. And yes, we can and sometime need to apply consequences when standards are not met or when rules are broken. But, the truth is, punishment is relatively ineffective. Not only does it breed fear, aggression and avoidance, those punished typically don’t learn to stop the behavior. What they do learn is how to not get caught.

If a true definition of ethics is how we behave when no one is looking, punishment is clearly not the way to go.

There are more effective and subtle ways we can encourage, influence and support change in the people we love, we teach or with whom we work. Many of these concepts are drawn from two of my favorite books, Influencer and Switch, both of which are well worth the read if you are in the business of changing peoples’ minds. (And aren’t we all?).

Make it their idea. See if you can get the person to want to engage in the behavior. Reverse psychology is a useful technique. When I suggested to my teenagers that by each of us cutting our discretionary spending (read: I am reducing your allowance) we could hire someone to come and clean once a week, they suddenly began loading and emptying the dishwasher without reminder. Weird, huh?

Make not changing logically painful. Different than punishment, logical consequences help change because they link the behavior to the discomfort. For instance, if your child is constantly failing to get his backpack organized and as a result forgets his homework or his lunch, let him suffer the consequence of no recess or being hungry (trust me, he won’t starve in the three hours between lunch and getting home).

Make clear where the change is going and why it is worth it FOR THEM. When you (changed behavior) then you can (have good thing). “When you wear big girl underpants, then you can go to school with your sister” was the magic sentence that potty trained my physically ready but uninterested preschooler.

Make what is working the cornerstone of change.  Called finding the bright spot, by focusing on what is going right you can build on that behavior. For example, if an gymnast is working hard on one event but slacking off on an other, pointing out the energy and enthusiasm she brings to beam is great and that you are wondering if she can being that same energy to bars.

Make the steps tiny and doable. How do you eat the elephant? One bite at a time.   Telling your child to “go clean your room” can sound like an overwhelming proposition. Asking her to put her clothes in a hamper and then her toys in the toy box shrinks the project into a manageable size.

Make a mantra part of your family’s/team’s/workplace’s identity. At JAG, we do good things for kids. We say this over and over in our communication with our staff, at meetings, when we make decisions and sometimes just because. We say it so much that it is a given that if you work at JAG you are expected to do good things for kids. If any behavior contradicts that mantra, it is easily pointed out as “not good for kids” and therefore inconsistent with our identity. A little brainwash-y? Maybe, and I am okay with it.

Make peer pressure your ally. Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing.   Peers can set good examples. One of my favorite teaching techniques is to point out, by name, all of the kids who are doing the right thing. Saying “I love the way Samantha is standing in line, and Jacob is standing in line and Sarah is standing in line” often drives Jack, who is not standing in line, to get on board.

Make reward systems that reinforce positive behavior. The power of the sticker chart or the allure of the M&M is a technique as old as the hills for a reason, it works.

Make the process scripted for them. A morning checklist has saved many a parent’s sanity in getting kids out of the house. Instead of the constant refrain of “did you brush you teeth?” “Did you feed the dog?” “Did you put your lunch in your backpack?, a posted checklist can help remind kids what to do.

Make the environment support the change. We can “shape the path” by creating the environment so the making a change is easy.   For instance, putting a large basket in my family room has helped my kids to remember to put their shoes in it so no one trips and so they can find their shoes.

Make new habits, slowly. Fast food to homemade organic meals? That’s a big leap and one that is likely to fail fast. Fast food to microwave meals? That sounds way more doable.

Make yourself a role model. A young mother came to Ghandi and requested that Ghandi tell her young son to stop eating sugar. Ghandi nodded carefully and asked the woman to bring the boy back to him in two weeks. Two weeks later, the mother dutifully led the boy into Ghandi and Ghandi said, “Stop eating sugar.” The mother was somewhat annoyed and asked Ghandi why he had sent her away for two weeks to only deliver three words of advice. “Simple,” replied Ghandi, “Two weeks ago I was eating sugar.”

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