You Can’t Force Other People to Change – But You Can Help Them

help people change

Do you have a teen who just won’t get off his backside and do anything? Is your brother deeply in debt? Have you got a friend whose romantic life is a series of disasters which she never seems to learn from? Are your parents severely overweight? Is your partner a smoker?

The chances are, there’s someone in your life who you believe is in need of change … but they’re not making any progress. If you’ve devoted yourself to change, perhaps making great strides in your personal and professional life, then it can be frustrating to see others – friends and loved ones – remaining stagnant.

So what can you do about it?

In one sense, nothing. You can’t force other people to change. Sure, you can nag, threaten or cajole someone … but if they’re really going to change in the long-term, that impulse has to come from within them.

The first thing, then, is to recognize that this person is an individual and, unless they are your own child, an individual with responsibility for their own life. You can’t tell them how to live their life.

Let Them Know You Value Them

However much your friend, relative or colleague’s behavior might frustrate you, focus on what you do value about them. When we feel unappreciated and unloved by the world, it’s easy to fall into apathy or despair – feeling that nothing will really make a difference.

Those kind words to your friend over lunch (even if it means biting your tongue when she tells you the latest disaster story), or that note to your parents saying how much you love them, can have far more effect than any number of discussions or rows about what you perceive to be their problem.

Listen to What They Want

Sometimes in the personal development sphere, I see people getting hooked on their own experience of change – and promptly evangelizing about it to everyone in earshot. Great, you lost 30lbs and got fit and toned: that doesn’t give you any reason to look down your nose at people who are perfectly happy with a different body shape. Or perhaps you work on your small business every weekend – don’t knock those who prefer to spend that time partying with friends, or simply enjoying a non-paying hobby. Keep your own agenda out of it.

If you are committed to helping someone make positive change in their life, you’ll need to listen to what they really want. Don’t project your own ideas onto them: they may be enjoying what is, to you, a “dead end” job because it gives them the time and energy to paint at the weekends.

When a friend or loved one expresses a wish to change – perhaps making comments about their physical fitness, their financial situation or their family life – then be supportive. Encourage them to talk more, and always proceed with the assumption that they will be capable of making the changes that they want to. This should be obvious, but it’s never going to help to say things like “Well, the last five diets you went on were a complete failure…”

Ask How You Can Help

When someone does open up to you, perhaps confiding a dream or goal that you’d never realized they had, don’t start offering advice straight away. Ask “What can I do to help?” Give them control over their own change. If it’s a situation that you’ve had personal experience of, and you want to share that, tell them your story – but offer this simply as an example, rather than telling them “So you should do it just like this…”

In many cases, what might be helpful for you won’t necessarily help someone with a very different temperament. Perhaps you get spurred on by competition, whereas your friend needs gentle encouragement. Maybe you like to be enthused and supported, whereas your brother prefers someone who’ll keep him firmly accountable.

When we’re committed to changing our own lives, it’s easy to get carried away into trying to change the lives of those around us. Of course there’s nothing wrong in being moved by someone else’s struggles – but ultimately, the greatest kindness we can do is to accept other people for who they are, and to accept that their path in life is not going to be the same as ours.

Let your children, your siblings, your parents and your friends find their own way. Your role isn’t to be a tour guide, it’s to be a companion on the route, perhaps pointing out dangers and helping them over rough spots – but ultimately letting them choose their own direction.

Photo by Amir K.

16 thoughts on “You Can’t Force Other People to Change – But You Can Help Them”

  1. This idea seems counterintuitive but, with a little thought, it’s very obvious, and has profound implications for management and leadership as well as personal relationships. It’s an idea which has changed the way I operate. You might want to read ‘Choice Theory’ by William Glasser, a classic text on the subject.

  2. There is so much wisdom in this post, Ali. We are totally in someone else’s business when we try to change or control them. Often, when we want people to change, we wish to avoid an uncomfortable feeling in ourselves. The person who just lost weight is reminded of their own pain when they see someone who hasn’t chosen that path. When we let go of being on a mission, we can accept others and bring acceptance to all parts of ourselves.

    You made some great suggestions for how we can support others without trying to change them.

    1. Thanks Gail, and that’s a really good point about our attempts to change/control others often being a reflection of our own insecurities. I definitely see that in me, when I start feeling that someone else “should” change … it’s usually change in an area which I’ve had struggles with myself.

  3. Hi Ali, great post as always. I think some people are stubborn about changing so they close other people off when listening to their advice. I know some people who do this consistently. But when you really want to help a person change, and let them know that you are on their side, or get on the “same page” as them, then they will be more inclined to let you in, listen to your ideas, and change.

  4. Very good advice Ali. It’s easy to get excited about our own changes, but we are all different and have different experiences and our own paces and what is right for us might not be right for another. Being an inspiration with how you live you own life often has much more of an impact on inspiring others than trying to change them in my opinion.

  5. I love this post.
    you won’t believe this…but it has already changed my life.
    I am in the process of grand changes, and I somehow tried to ” help” others when they suffer as a results of inner chaos. Do you know the feeling when you try to resist helping others when they tell you about their troubles?
    …but as we both agree, it is not about their troubles.
    when you really respect them, you immediately know what to do

    thanks you dear !

  6. Great post and it’s right on. I think that another thing that is important to remember is how difficult it is to keep this attitude. My wife is going through a tough time of her own, and it is very difficult for me to not get frustrated and upset with her. I have learned that, for me, talking to friends and venting my frustration there helps me to maintain the attitude needed for change to occur. And, the bottom-line point that you cannot make anyone change is a great point to always keep in mind. All you can do is make the conditions right in order to help someone change.

  7. I really enjoyed this article. I can’t help but notice that many people are convinced that they know what is best for others. And its very hard for them to accept that the best idea may simply be to act as a support system while a loved one works issues out on their own.

    I find that it is always more helpful to help a person in a way that doesn’t attempt to strip them of their creative freedom–even if the reality they are creating seems full of mistakes.

    Thanks for the beautifully written article. It resonates with me deeply.

  8. Wow! Felt like you were reading my mind with this article. Wife and I just started weight-loss program and have really enjoyed it and seeing results. Want so badly to get our overweight college age daughter on board, but we have struggled to find the right way to encourage her. We will take care of ourselves first and hope she will see our progress and begin to ask questions. Great article.

  9. What is frustrating for me is that without my taking charge and nagging, my husband would still be eating the way he used to and his case of Dunlap disease would be,10 times worse than it is because he doesn’t care and doesn’t attempt to learn about health and nutrition. He complains about work constantly also but won’t take steps to look for something else. Drives me nuts.

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