Can You Get Someone To Change Their Behavior Without Sabotaging Your Relationship?

Giving useful, helpful, and adequate feedback is something that is hard for a lot of people. I constantly witness parents, spouses, friends, family members, and even mental health professionals try to change the person they care about by blame, shame, and humiliation. While negative feelings have important functions and can motivate people to change their behavior, lack of useful feedback can have the opposite effect. For sensitive people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors, internalized shame, self-consciousness, and obsessive self-defeating thoughts, the consequences can be devastating. Here is a list of what not to do, and some food for thought about what to do instead: 

Tell them it is their fault: Getting someone to take responsibly for their actions makes sense. However, telling someone they are at fault is generally not followed up on by some plan of action, support, or help to prevent problematic behavior happening in the future. Generally, telling someone they are at fault does nothing more than make them feel bad. It makes more sense to be able to describe what specific behavior they did and the consequences it had in a non-judgmental manner. Is the goal the help prevent them from doing it in the future? If so, what is your role in this interaction? What are your intentions in blaming someone? Often, saying a person is at fault is simply a way to express anger, and expressing anger too intensely can sometimes destroy relationships. 

Tell them they are mentally ill: If you are trying to write someone off for behavior that you don’t understand well, this is an easy way out. Telling someone they are “mentally ill” can sometimes get people off the hook for providing more specific feedback or expressing anxiety more directly. What specific behavior are you talking about? Is there something in particular you want them to change? Do you have trouble describing their behavior? If people are treated with respect, they generally respond proactively. Mental illness can sometimes be a nebulous term for behavior that is not fitting or appropriate to the situation, and can also be a way to say “I am not comfortable with what you are doing.” However, being ganged up on, being misunderstood, and being shamed only ostracizes the recipient. Is calling someone mentally ill a way to express fear of what you can’t understand? Consider what it is about their behavior specifically that makes you uncomfortable, and see if you can use words to describe it without judgment. 

Tell them that they do things for attention: An attentive, listening audience can be a powerful thing. Just ask anyone who has benefitted from a caring partner, a best friend, or a loving family member! I love it when I receive the type of attention I want, and the type of attention I need. It makes me feel closer, more connected, and warmer towards the people I care about. There is no need to pathologize what is completely normal, and to make people feel bad for social inclusion, affection, and control. If there is a behavior that they actually do that burns you out, overwhelms you, or angers you; it may be time to own your frustration and know and communicate your limits. It may also be an opportunity to provide some feedback on what isn’t working in your relationship, or to clarify what it is you actually need for them to do or change. 

Tell them they have a personality disorder: Describing a disorder doesn’t change a behavior. People often think that if they could only describe something, somehow it will change! Telling someone the reason they behavior x way is because they have personality disorder generally just make them feel bad, and in some cases hopeless to do anything about it. If you want to hold someone accountable, you will have to develop better ways of giving feedback. A more thoughtful approach to changing behavior includes a compassionate and realistic plan to address it. 

Tell them they are a bad (parent, teacher, spouse, child, etc.): In essence, bad is a judgment. Trying replacing “bad” with descriptions of impact, consequences, and feelings about what happens when they behave the way they do. What is it about their behavior is “bad”, and why is it so important to bring to their attention? Are you avoiding expressing your own difficult feelings by judging others? 

In general, people are more willing to do what we want them to do when we have a strong relationship with them, when the feedback we provide comes from a place of caring, and when we validate and encourage others. A person is more likely to take feedback into consideration when they feel valued and cared about. Are there ways you can encourage or enhance the relationship? Focusing on behaviors that you want to increase (such as connection, openness, courage, self-awareness) will probably go a lot further than punitive responses coming out of frustration or anger. While constructive feedback is sometimes called for, aversive consequences manage to prevent problem behavior, and limits around what a person can tolerate is reasonable; punitive responses can also damage relationships.