Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy
Can We Convince Someone Else To Change?

People often wish someone important to them would change a particular behavior or trait. How realistic is it to believe that can happen?

First, if the behavior is dangerous (e.g. hitting, reckless driving/road rage, any addictive behavior that leads to abuse, or any kind of sexual, child or elder abuse), get yourself and involved others to a safer place. Those behaviors can change—but people aren’t always ready to admit that what they do is dangerous. Assess your own safety position carefully, and get outside help if needed.

However, people mostly wish work colleagues, family members or friends would change less serious behaviors.  Most commonly, people want a partner, close friend or relative to change certain frustrating things they do or say.

Before deciding whether to ask another person to alter certain behaviors, one should always ask: how important is it to the relationship that this behavior be changed? You have to decide whether this is an annoying but trivial thing, or truly hurtful—seriously damaging your connection to each other.

Asking someone to change a behavior they may not even realize annoys (or hurts) you is a sensitive matter. The person might feel attacked, or think the request unjustified. Of course (optimally), they’ll be willing to listen—and truly make an attempt to behave differently.

We’re all sensitive to criticism at some level, so being asked to change something about ourselves can feel like implied criticism. Our defenses can rise quickly. So, first decide if this behavior annoys you, but will not ultimately damage the relationship. In general, ask for changes only in matters that seriously impact your relationship, to avoid the other person either learning to tune you out, or becoming highly (and reactively) habitually defensive.

Assuming the other person is open to listening, it helps to use “I messages” (how that person’s behavior affects you, not what you think of them for doing it!), and move at a pace that allows them to have a dialogue with you. If they’re open to change, be specific about what you need, don’t make them guess. 

There’s one other way to bring about change in relationships. This has the hardest-to-predict outcome, but will allow you to take more responsibility for what you want. If reasonable and respectful attempts have been made to request a legitimate change, but it still does not occur, then the person who must change is: You.

Whenever anyone significantly alters how they behave, people around must adjust their behavior in response (even without realizing it). If you need something to be different so that you can be comfortable around a particular person, and they don’t seem likely to respond—you can change your behavior. It doesn’t mean you’d stop being their friend or caring about them, but you would interact with them differently around that particular behavior. You would be in a mode of acceptance, and choosing effective means for being okay with that.

Changing the way one responds to certain actions—while still conveying your care and connection to the other person, often brings about powerful changes inter-personally. But even if it doesn’t, it will leave you feeling far better about yourself because you won't be left feeling powerless to do anything about the way another person acts around you.

Therapy is a good place to explore ways to bring about changes that lead to a more mindful, satisfying and effective life. When we don’t feel powerless in situations, it is easier to interact with others, even if they do things that we don’t like.