Change is tough.
Life may be in a constant state of flux, but when it comes to ourselves, our lives, our relationships, and our habits, change can be one of the hardest things to pull off. Plenty of people out there — spouses, especially — will tell you that humans fundamentally can’t change, or at least won’t change. As the old adage goes, “A leopard can’t change his spots.”
I, for one, don’t subscribe to this logic. As a life and leadership coach I see people change all the time, often in profound ways. They embark on new careers. They start new relationships. People who have been cautious and fearful their whole lives take dramatic leaps of faith. People who have been brash and quick to rush to judgement learn to slow down and meditate.
The truth is, change is all around us. As humans we are constantly growing and evolving in the ways we subconsciously and consciously choose to.
But it’s not easy. We live our lives built on habits and patterns that we reinforce every day, month after month, year after year. With each reinforcement that way of living becomes that much more deeply ingrained and harder to reverse, no matter how sad, bad, or harmful the consequences. Even if we want to change, it can be really hard, sometimes even impossible without the help of others.
That’s why support is so critical for enabling growth. In my opinion, supporting others to change, evolve, and see themselves in a better and brighter light is one of the most important roles that all of us play in life.
Problem is, helping others change can be as hard as changing ourselves. What seems obvious from an external perspective is often anything but from within another person. Our default response as humans is to offer advice. “You’re struggling with this, try that.” “It worked for me. Surely it will work for you!“
This may feel good for the advice-giver, but rarely leads to breakthroughs for the person on the receiving end. No matter how positive the intentions, if we’re bombarded with tips and tricks from others, we can easily feel judged or under attack, which can make us defensive and prolong us from making the change we want to make.
Better than offering advice is allowing another person to come to a change on their own, with whatever support they need from you along the way. In coaching I view myself as a sounding board, the nonjudgmental space where clients feel safe to voice their concerns, brainstorm strategies, or talk about their fears. When that happens, amazing results ensue. People start seeing things in whole new ways. They discover truths they never knew were there. They are active agents in their own enlightenment, and they reach “aha” moments that completely rewire their brains and allow new synapses to start firing.
As a result, people create for themselves the ability to think differently and act in new ways. I’ve seen this happen time and again. Here’s how you can enable similar transformations in the people you care about.
Step One: Create Trust
It starts with creating an environment where your client, friend, family member or work colleague feels safe to share. They need to believe that you are listening. I think of it as an affirmation that the most helpful I can be is to just be present, not interrupt and stop those impulses to cut in and say, “I’ve been there before, this worked for me, therefore you should do this.“
Setting the environment can be quick. At work, ask a colleague if they’d like to grab a coffee and talk a problem over. That immediately says you’d like to carve out time from your busy schedule to listen.
Or it may take longer to create that environment, especially if the person is hesitant to be open to receive support. Be patient and fight the desire to fix things. If you continue to create a trusting space for a person to dive into a deep-seated problem or chronic issue, they will start opening up in their own way and in their own time.
Step Two: Stop Projecting and Start Asking
Once trust is established, instead of offering advice, ask questions. When we give advice, we are projecting our own reality onto another person and telling them to do what we would do. However, things can look very different from a removed vantage point and usually their reality — how they experience things — can be very different.
Alternatively, asking open questions doesn’t antagonize but instead deepens your connection and the bonds of trust between you. What was that like for you? How does it make you feel? How do these issues manifest for you in real life?
These questions help disarm people. Instead of triggering a defensive mechanism, they prove that you want to be there with them — that you care. In my experience, it’s incredible what comes out of friends and clients in these moments. Often they start saying things that they haven’t realized before, they can have epiphanies big and small.
Step Three: Offer Support
Finally, shift the focus to your relationship. Ask, “How can I help? What support do you need from me?” This helps a person to think deeply about how they might want to have support, something we rarely take the time to do. I remember a long time ago when a mentor posed this question to me, and I realized I didn’t even know what I needed from her. I had to stop and think about it for a few days and the answer turned out to be very simple — to listen to me and encourage me when I had moments of doubt.
Remember that people all move at different paces and in different ways. It can be frustrating if someone close to you moves slowly or makes some twists and turns before they get to where they are headed. Be patient and take the time to put some focus on yourself. Being in a supportive role can be draining so it’s important to show yourself some empathy and compassion. You can start by reflecting on your frustration — What is truly driving me to feel frustrated? What can I do to manage and dissipate this frustration? What is it that I need right now and how can I provide that for myself?
This approach to helping others change may not be intuitive, but it is effective. Remember, this is less about us projecting ourselves onto others and more about hearing them for what they are and what they need. When that happens, real change can begin.
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