For eight years, I believed that I could transform my ex-husband into someone else.  I encouraged him, coached him, cheered him…anything in my power to change him into what I viewed as his full potential.  Even though he constantly asked for my help, the truth was, he never put his full heart into it.  I wanted him to change much more than he did, and I was so blind by my mission that I never accepted him for who he was.  Not surprisingly, this conflict contributed to the end of our marriage.

We want to believe that we are a positive force for change, both in our lives and in those around us.  We see role models accomplishing this all the time.  Great teachers can mold young minds.  Great philanthropists can provide opportunities to those who have none.  But just because you want others to change doesn’t mean you control them.  In the end, it is up to each individual to live his own life.

So while we can’t control others, there are things in our control that may influence others to change for the better:

We Control Our Actions. 

You are always in control of how to react in a given relationship.  This in turn, gives the other person a chance to react to your reaction.  How you react helps define your relationship and, if the relationship is strong, can help model behavior.  This is how parenting works.  Even very young children have a will of their own and cannot be forced to do anything, but how you treat them can change them.  If you remain calm in the midst of a temper tantrum, you have better odds of passing that ability to control emotions onto your offspring.

The same principle works with other relationships.  For example, if you want your partner to listen more attentively to you, you can become a better listener yourself.  Try to see things from her perspective and discuss issues that are important to her.  If you do, she is more likely to listen to you when you need an ear.

We Control Our Words. 

Although the old adage rings true that actions speak louder than words, how we speak to others can also have a positive or negative impact.  In most cases, showing compassion will yield higher positive outcomes than demanding results.  If you have a friend who’s trying to stop smoking, but fails several times, persuading them to try again immediately might not be the best course of action.  Maybe he needs a break from trying or just needs someone to sympathize with his situation.  Encouraging him to jump into a new program may remind him of his past failures and make him want to stop trying at all.

If you truly care about the person, don’t make all your conversations about the issue you want to change.  No one likes to be badgered about his flaws, and even if you have the best intentions, if you harp on one point, you may sound like you care more about the issue than about him.

We Control Our Perspective. 

No matter how the other person acts and speaks, we are in control of our opinion of her.  First and foremost, it is our choice to view that the other person needs to change at all.  We can always choose to accept them for who they are, flaws and all.  In fact, most of us need some form of unconditional love and acceptance in our own lives.

However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting a person to change for the better.  Most of us want to be better people ourselves.  Striving for more can help us grow into stronger people.  The difference between how you perceive yourself versus how you perceive others is that, because you live inside your own head, you’re more likely to cut yourself some slack.

So try to empathize whenever possible.  Of course, help her and encourage her when asked, but only help at other times when it’s appropriate.  Try to keep in mind the other things you like about the person besides just the issue at hand.  And ultimately, if it becomes clear that the other person doesn’t want to change, consider dropping the issue altogether.  In the end, if she has no desire to change, no amount of wishing she will change will make it so.  (And in an extreme case, if the issue is causing you a lot of pain and the other person doesn’t want to change, you may have to consider breaking the relationship completely.)

We Only Control Ourselves. 

It’s important to remember that there is not, and never will be, a clear cut way to get others to behave exactly how you want them to.  And that’s the way it should be.  Others have the right to make their own decisions about their lives, just as you do.  So it’s great to want to change people.  If you care about the people around you, you will likely help change many people throughout your lifetime.  But just as important as seeing the people they will become tomorrow is accepting them for who they are today.

Photo by Victor Bezrukov

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

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