Leading Horses to Water

I was reflecting over the weekend on how easy it is to see what other people need to change. And how hard it is to get them to make that change.

Sometimes people pick up change easily – I worked with one manager who, when he received feedback, never really acknowledged it in the moment. But I’d notice that over the following days and weeks, his behavior would change. It would start subtly, as he built his skills and tried them out. Then he would pick up momentum and shoot rapidly in the desired direction.

It should always be so easy.

Other people acknowledge the feedback on the outside but don’t change their behavior. “Yes,” they say, “I should listen more / manage my time better / show up to work on time / work better with my colleagues” and nothing changes. You hold up the magic mirror until your arms grow tired, encourage them to share their perspective to disagree so you could understand and work past their resistance, and all they say is, “I know I need to change. How will I do it? I don’t know, I guess I’ll try harder.” Recipe = Disaster.

This came to mind over the weekend because of an incident last week with a family member. This person has been engaging in unproductive behavior that is endangering their health for several years. The rest of the family has had it and the vacation turned into a series of broken record playbacks, with increasing volume on both sides:

Family: You know this is unhealthy. Here are the upcoming consequences if you don’t change. Here is what you need to do to change. We love you and will support you. Come on, we’ll do it together.

Rebel: You keep telling me this. I am taking care of this in my own way. It’s not as bad as you think. When I get home, I’ll try harder. You have to understand that overcoming this is challenging. You’re not in my shoes; you don’t understand.

Family: What you’re doing isn’t working and we don’t believe you’re really trying. Things are getting worse. We love you but we suffer when we see you like this. We don’t know what else to do.

Rebel: Leave me alone. I’m an adult. I know what I’m doing.

Sound familiar?

We’ve both been the family and the rebel in this situation and it’s not pleasant from either side. The rebel felt persecuted and publicly shamed. The adults were on the verge of a breakdown. The children, who quickly went to ground when the grown-ups started talking yet again, were disturbed by the loud voices and feared what would happen to their beloved relative.

After daily discussions for five days, I got tired of the whole thing and decided to try a different tactic.

Look, you’re an adult. You’ve earned the right to make decisions for yourself. What I hear you saying is that you’ve made a decision to live like this. We disagree with your choice, but it’s your choice and there’s not much we can do to change your mind. Until you choose otherwise, you’re not going to change. So, if you’re going to live like this, at least live safely. Organize your surroundings to make your new lifestyle safe. Hire professionals to take care of the things you can’t take care of yourself; don’t depend on your spouse to compensate for the repercussions of your lifestyle choice. You say you’re taking steps, and I have to accept that, although I’m not seeing results. Until you get results from those steps, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. All we want is for you to be safe.

So far it hasn’t worked. Partially because this person isn’t willing to admit that their lifestyle has deteriorated to the extent that it has. Partially because the family wasn’t united on the approach – bad strategy on my part – and continue to hold out hope that things will return to where they were before. Partially because we lost patience with the resistance and departed before the week was out.

At least, at work, when an employee’s behavior doesn’t change, you can exorcise them from your situation so other people aren’t harmed by the dysfunction. In family, that’s thermonuclear.

And yet… and yet… in everyone’s life there are things that we aren’t doing that we should be doing to make our own lives healthier and happier, that we aren’t taking advantage of.

If you don’t think there are opportunities in your life, just ask your colleagues, your friends and relations – they’ll have a list that they’ll be happy to share with you and they’ll even tell you how to change. But don’t expect them to ask you for your opinion.

Because there’s nothing wrong and they don’t need to change.

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