While changing yourself is a noble pursuit becoming increasingly popular, changing other people is a more dominant reality for most of us and a seemingly default posture in human nature.
We often yearn to move people from point A to B to C and while there are lots of unhealthy, selfish, and unproductive ways to do this, there is way we can channel this motivation constructively.
So let’s talk about the best way to do this.
First from a Korean folktale, then a little science, theology, psychology, and a quote that has vastly shaped how I lead, parent, and shape myself.
The Tale of the Tiger's Whisker
There was a young spouse, just several years into her marriage, who was at her wit’s end. Her husband had always been gentle, tender, and a loving mate before he had left for the wars. Upon his return he was consistently cross, angry, and unpredictable to the point that she was afraid to live with him. Occasionally she would glimpse his former self of the man she had come to know and love, but the resentment had built exponentially and their relationship was dire.
When her situation became unbearable, she sought out a wise sage who lived high in the mountains. She climbed for many days until finally reaching an obscure cave-like structure and, as she approached the open doorway, she heard a voice echo from inside, “I hear you. What is your need?”
The woman stepped back as the wise sage had not yet turned her back. Unsure of how to proceed she explained her situation and her deep desire for her husband to change.
The wise sage heard the woman’s story and simply said, “What do you expect me to do about this?”
The woman had no certainty on recommendations she was apt to give such a wise sage and simply offered for the sage the most simple solution she assumed wise sages did - to make her a potion or drink that would do the trick and put everything right. The wise sage responded that no such potion exists, though, she supposed one could be concocted. The wise sage explained, “You will need to bring me a blade of grass from a fertile marsh and a peppercorn.” The wife was relieved at the ease of this task, but just as she was about to leave the cave, the wise sage finally turned around, looked her straight in the eyes and said, “But there is one more ingredient that will be necessary to cure your situation. It is an unusual ingredient, but in order to change your husband, the potion shall call for the whisker of a live tiger.”
“What!” the woman exclaimed. “That is impossible.”
But after getting no response from the sage, the woman realized that finding this whisker was her only hope so she made her way down the mountain. Finding the blade of grass and peppercorn was easy enough, but now she was faced with her impossible task of retrieving a whisker from a live tiger.
That night she barely slept, tossing and turning over the overwhelming task ahead of her. She decided to get up early with a rice bowl covered in meat sauce and proceeded to the mountainside where a tiger was known to live. She placed the rice bowl in the open grass and hurried away, afraid of getting confronted by such a powerful creature. As she had fallen asleep, she woke up, looked out to the grass and saw that the rice bowl was gone. Disappointed that she missed her opportunity, she returned with more rice the next day, placed it in the same spot, and, again, retreated. As before, she woke up to see the rice bowl gone.
Again she put out rice, but this time she noticed the creature stir as soon as she walked away and she watched the majestic tiger graciously walk up to the bowl and eat the rice. Weeks later, after providing rice every day, she returned with normal rice bowl, but this time the tiger came out to meet her. Several days later, she noticed that, this time, the tiger sat waiting in the open grass as the woman approached in expectation of the next bowl of rice.
Weeks had now passed and the tiger had grown fond of this woman who provided such food. The woman's patience and dedication had grown on the tiger and the powerful creature now allowed the woman to stroke its fleece. Upon finishing the rice bowl that day, the tiger did not return to its shelter, but stayed near the woman. The next day, there was even more connection as the tiger, after finishing the rice bowl, followed the woman to the nearby trees where the woman often waited and, as they sat down, the tiger took rest laying its head on her lap.
“Finally,” said the woman, “I am close enough to the tiger to retrieve a whisker,” and she took out her knife and snipped a whisker from the live tiger’s face.
Immediately, she ran up the mountain, full of exuberance, and stood in the door to the wise sage’s cave.
The wise sage was still sitting with her face away from the door and spoke softly to the woman, “I hear you. You have come back. Tell me, do you have all of the ingredients for the potion?”
“Yes,” the woman replied, “After many weeks I have finally retrieved the whisker of a live tiger.” The woman then told the story of her daily task of patiently developing the connection that changed the tiger’s response to her. When she finished, the wise sage took the tiger whisker and released it into the wind never to be seen again.
The woman took several steps in an attempt to catch the whisker as if the sage had made a dreadful mistake, but in seeing that the sage made no effort to catch the whisker now flying off the mountain the woman turned to the wise sage with a furious rage, “Why did you do that? It took me months to retrieve what you had asked and now it is gone forever!”
The wise sage turned to face the woman and said, “I told you, no such potion exists to change your husband. The only thing that will change him is what you have learned by retrieving this whisker. A potion is not what you need - only take what you have learned and your marriage will be restored.”
Here’s how you don’t change other people:
If you force your will on people, not only is it selfish and probably more about you than them, but the other will sense your control and rebel. At this point, even if they do change, it was out of submission, not empowerment and the chances of it sustaining healthily are minimal.
Take a marriage, for example.
Let’s say one spouse has an unhealthy habit or character trait that the husband or wife despises. It may even be out of good intent - that this issue contributes unhealth to the relationship and, if it would just change, everything would be better. So the husband or wife, in an attempt to change their spouse, gets critical. They just remind them of their fault and threatens that, unless they change, the relationship isn’t going to work and it will be their fault. Which gets degrading and toxic and divisive real quick.
Critique can be a form of judgment and judgment is often a form of control.
Which is, often, an act of violence - mostly emotional & mental, but can often manifest itself physically, too.
Let’s analyze your life for a moment - if you’ve ever had someone unabashedly shame or critique or attack you, how often is your response, “You know, you are right, I’ll change my behavior immediately!”? Not only can we usually smell being controlled, but our natural response to critique is typically defense.
So what is the best way to move someone from point A to B to C? I'm glad you asked.
The First Step to Changing Another
So first, if you want someone to change, begin by checking yourself. If there is any indication that this is actually for you and not for the other person or the good of the larger body, then drop it. Or if you sense you are carrying some anger or vengeance or negative perspectives into the situation, deal with yourself first.
The first step is about noticing if there is any selfishness or an agenda rooted in your desire for change that doesn't have the best interests of the other in mind.
The Second Step to Changing Another
Compelling someone else towards change will also require you to practice restraint.
Because in seeing unhealth or injustice or wrong or failure or inadequacy or damage you are going to want to attack it. But, at the least, your critical attack won’t have much of an effect and, at the worst, will only increase the unhealth. You have to, to some degree, accept that this won’t magically enact itself on your timetable…because change is hard and it happens slowly.
No matter how much you have seen the light or have the right answer or know what is best - the other person will have to own this themselves. You can help them to see it. You can guide them to discover where they need to go, but you can't force them. You can't take a horse where it doesn't want to go so how much more is this true for a human being. Wherever they need to go, they have to take themselves there - your only job is to help.
The Third Step to Changing Another
Which brings us to the only response I can recommend:
Third, love them into their future.
At every moment where you want to critique and impose yourself and show them just how wrong or bad they are…do the opposite. Just start treating them as if they are everything you long for them to be. Imagine what a healthy relationship or organization or community is and you begin leaning into first. Talk to them as if they are already there. Give them responsibility and opportunity as if they have already arrived and it will create an affirmative lens through which they know see themselves. Call it "self-signaling" or "pre-cognition" but it is essentially creating an environment for their attitude to bring forth different behavior. You are giving them a lens to see themselves through that will assist in determining a new trajectory.
In the Christian tradition, this would be referred to as prophecy. You are confronting the person, but not with negativity. You confront a situation or problem by speaking to it in a way that compels them to change. A helpful definition of prophecy in the Christian and Jewish tradition would be "building up who you really are."
Your spouse forgets the schedule or loses their keys all the time? Speak to them and treat them as if they are already a person who remembers.
Your partner often speaks demeaningly to you? Treat them as if they are the person who loves you unconditionally.
Your child is a bit violent and often resorts to lashing out on others in anger? Name for them that they are already gentle and loving and that their violence is not their innate nature.
Your organization needs to change its identity? Function a half step ahead by practicing that identity until it becomes normal.
When you engage in the relationship with the assumption that they are already that hoped for change, you reflect their life to them in a way that allows for the person to see themselves differently and it creates a new narrative, not of shame for their failure, but of wandering. Forgetting the keys or enacting violence is not who they are, it is a misstep from who they really are.
The difference is one of posture:
The critical form of changing other people begins with who they are not.
The prophetic form of changing other people begins with who they truly are.
You confront what is happening by naming how they’ve wandered, but then by showing them the better version that is already inside of them just waiting to come out.
In educational circles this is called the “Pygmalion Effect” based on several studies where different sets of students were treated differently even though they all had the same test scores. One group was treated as if they were the top students capable of getting high scores because they were smart. The other group was told that they weren’t capable of attaining the higher standard and they were the average students, at best.
What happened? Students who were at the same level began scoring grades in reflection of how they were treated. Each set of students lived into what they were told with the students told they were at the top performing at the top and the students told they were average scoring very averages grades.
The picture painted of who they were determined who they became.
We function as a self-fulfilling prophecy of what we believe about ourselves. You want to change someone, speak to them who they are capable of being - paint the picture that who they can become is already inside of them - and it will shape how they see & what the believe about who they are resulting in congruent behaviors.
This might be best described by Antoine de Saint Euxpery:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.”
Cast the vision for who they are.
Affirm the way of being that ought to be.
Create the destination for what is possible.
And you can be sure that they will sail into those beautiful waters.
A Last Word For Your Role in the Process
The only person you have control over is yourself. You are not responsible for their behavior and the only person you can actually change is you. So if you wait for them to change and only critique them in the meantime…it will never happen. But if you take the first step, if you do the hard thing and treat them for what you know they can be, it just might create a fertile soil to give them space to begin leaning into their own new future. You become a beacon by your willingness to act differently and, in empowering them, it creates a hope that inspires that new direction as opposed to condemning the current one.
Changing another person begins with you creating the new normal like a woman getting close enough to the tiger to pluck a whisker.
It is the slow, patient process of creating a new environment that facilitates a new future - and wherever you want them to go...it will begin with you.
If you remind someone what they aren’t, that will be the only lens through which they see themselves.
If you remind them what they are, it begins pulling them into that future which is now possible.