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.  

What if I’m wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?

Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.

In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.

Here are some final questions for you to consider:

  • What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
  • What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
  • What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
  • If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
  • Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
  • Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?

Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.

Is someone you love in extreme emotional distress?

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How to Be Around People in Extreme Emotional Distress? 

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How to change the behavior of someone you care about deeply

First, acknowledge what you cannot control. When others do things that are destructive, hurtful, irritating, annoying, or have painful consequences, the acknowledgement itself is simply a way in which you are looking and seeing what is actually going on. Not wanting something to be true, ignoring the fact that it is happening, attacking the person for the behavior, and making threats often reflects an inability to accept and acknowledge what is there. Often people don’t want to accept reality because it means something very painful. The acceptance of what is and the acknowledgement of what you cannot control can lessen the drama around the fight. It can also get people unstuck from repetitive impasses. However, it often means grieving what has been lost.

Next, do something for the relationship itself. Having a strong relationship will make you much more powerful and influential than having a rocky or weak relationship. One way to do this is to focus on what you appreciate, value, or like about the other person. Make it a point to express this directly. Another way to do this is to create time together in which you actively listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t interrupt or disagree- instead, just see if you can focus on understanding how they see things. Pay attention carefully to thoughts, experiences, feelings, and opinions. See if you acknowledge how they see things- even if you don’t see them that way. You may want to simply reflect and summarize what they are saying, and use statements like “If I understand you correctly…” Try to be gentle, warm, and receptive. Temporarily suspend efforts to fix or control their behavior.

Finally- if you desperately want them to stop doing something that is hurtful- focus on naturally occurring consequences of their behavior. When you try to control or change someone’s behaviors by threatening, being coercive, or being cold and withholding, it could really damage the relationship. Be direct in expressing your own feelings and reactions about their behavior- without making threats. You will be more powerful and influential when the relationship is strong, spending time with the person is a pleasant experience, and you are liked. Therefore, treat the other person as capable of choosing. Treat them as an equal. When they are fully aware of the realistic, natural, unwanted and painful consequences of their actions, their options for choosing increase. Consider your role as an ally who helps them think through their actions. There will be a big difference between (you) trying to control the outcome through threat or coercion vs. (them) having to face what they are doing and figure out what they want to do about it.

Repeat the steps. Sometimes you will be able to accept and sometimes you will not. Practice acknowledgment of what you cannot control over and over again. Build the relationship. You don’t have to ignore to deny what they are doing. You just have to have a way to address it in such a way that your voice matters, you don’t lose your own self-respect, and you don’t lose sight of what is important.

To say something or to say nothing: That is the question

Sometimes not speaking up leads to increased anxiety, agitation, helplessness, or feeling taken for granted. Sometimes it leads to feeling hopeless and overwhelmed.

Sometimes the experience of being “upset” is an indication to pay attention, take notice, and to take action. Sometimes self-defeating or problematic behaviors exist to communicate to oneself that something needs to change.

Sometimes, when upset, people will rant and rave about the problem to anyone who will listen, but they will avoid expressing anger directly towards the person with whom they are upset.

Here are a few things to remember:

If nothing is done to change a problem or situation, there is no good reason for it to change. In other words, not speaking out will not change problems.

There is a benefit to being able to tolerate some degree of tension in a relationship. It may be that you will put the information out there and the other party will not like it, will not tolerate well, will have reasons to dislike you because of it, or will punish you for making it explicit. Sometimes, if you put the information out there, it will be up to the other person to decide what to do with it. It is possible that they will have difficulty getting their mind around the information.

If you are thinking of speaking up about something that has been bothering you, how would you do it in such a way that you feel good about yourself? How would you address it without losing your self-respect?  Consider planning what you would say- then rehearse saying it with an emotional intensity that matches the message.

PS. (More information on matching emotional intensity to the message is available in the 7 steps for sailing through emotional storms- just join my mailing list!).

Too needy? Too dependent? Too clingy?

When we desire or want things that other people aren’t able to give us, one option is to blame ourselves for wanting or desiring it in the first place. This can be especially true for people who feel misunderstood or unacknowledged.

When we blame ourselves for wanting or needing something from someone else, we not only fail to solve any problems- but also feel worse for being in this situation in the first place. Sometimes people believe that by determining fault they’ve actually solved a problem! The field of psychotherapy confuses this issue even further by using condescending labels like narcissistic and entitled, and implies that it is simply bad to want or need things in the first place.

If you have been in the business recently of sitting around, feeling bad, and blaming yourself for desiring something from another, here are a few things to consider that might help your relationships go more smoothly:

1) Are you clear about what it is you want in the relationship that you aren’t getting? Consider the intensity behind your request and the urgency of how you come across. Is there any particular pain involved that you are trying to avoid feeling, don’t want to accept, or don’t think you will be able to tolerate if the person can’t accommodate you? Sometimes urgency and intensity is increased when we don’t want to grieve, acknowledge our own loss regarding the relationship, or move on.

2) Consider that no one relationship can placate or accommodate all demands for affection equally. Intense and intimate relationships need periodic breaks. Is there a way in which your relationships complement different areas of need for you? Is there a way in which your need for affection, acknowledgement, or understanding can happen with more than one person?

3) Consider the diversity in which people in your life express caring, show appreciation, or give their support. See if there is a way you can focus on acknowledging this, and be willing to let go of focusing on what the person isn’t giving you.

4) Bear in mind that all people need and want things from other people: The ones who don’t get called narcissistic or entitled simply have ways of getting it effectively. One way of being effective is being able to read and interpret interpersonal cues accurately. If you know when to back off- and you are good at gaging what other people can tolerate- you will be easier to get along with and better liked. Forcing a square peg through a round hole in any relationship can hurt or even destroy the relationship.

5) Not having affection, acknowledgement, validation, or understanding now doesn’t mean that you will never have it or no one will ever give it. It may mean that you have to search around for it, you need to find it in other relationships- and you may have to tolerate the emotional pain of not having it right now.

How to deal with angry people

If you are uncomfortable around angry people, don’t know what to do or say when other people express anger, are quick to avoid angry people, or become desperately eager to change the subject when the tone of the situation shifts to anger- then this blog post is for you.

First, if someone is very angry with you it is usually helpful if they are direct in their expression of their anger. It is much harder to address and solve problems when people are angry but will go out of their way to minimize, avoid, diminish, or deny that they are upset. When you know exactly what is in front of you, you will be able to figure out what you can and cannot do about it.

If someone is willing to be direct in their expression of anger, first try to simply understand what it is they are saying. This can be extremely difficult because if your integrity is threatened (or if you feel under attack) you will likely come across as guarded and defensive. It is hard to listen attentively and try to get accurate facts when emotional arousal is high. Conversations with angry people can be difficult, but if you can get through them skillfully you will be better equipped to navigate emotionally charged situations in the future.

Try to them to clarify what it is they expect, want, or anticipate happening. It is sometimes the case that people who are expressing anger are so emotional that they are not at all clear about what they want, what they expect, or what it is they are asking. If you are being attacked or criticized, try to diminish personal attacks and guide them towards stating their intentions or desires clearly. If personal attacks continue, you may want to suggest revisiting the conversation when they are done attacking you and are ready to work on problem solving.

Skills for clarification and understanding might include 1) summarizing what they are saying 2) asking them for correction or clarification 3) being willing to let them clarify or correct you. See if there is anything that might make sense from their point of view despite holding a different point of view. This may take multiple tries- and you may need to repeat these skills frequently throughout any one conversation.

Consider the intensity of emotional arousal. If a person feels as if someone is taking them seriously, listening, and working to understand them; their arousal will likely go down. When arousal is low enough for problem solving, then problem solving is much easier!

Next, realistically assess what can and cannot be changed and address the consequences. What can you possibly do to accommodate their request? What might you be willing to do differently? If you are a parent, supervisor, or other person in authority it is possible that you will not be able or willing to accommodate their request. Be honest and realistic with what you can and cannot do. Be gentle in laying out the facts for them. If they are still having difficulty accepting your decision, you may want to acknowledge disappointment, help them work on acceptance or alternative solutions, or encourage them to solve the problem differently. By doing this, you are showing that you are attentive to their concerns, care about the relationship itself, and can possibly be a resource when future conflicts occur. Hopefully you will have navigated an emotionally charged interaction without avoiding it, openly explored what could and could not be changed, and demonstrated that strong emotions can be tolerated without destroying the relationship.

Slow down, get clear, and become organized

Knowing what you want gives you the power to ask for it, to look for what you want, and to get what you want from the people who are willing and capable of giving it.

Lots of things get in the way with our ability to be effective. Often intense anxiety keeps our focus on the immediate threat. Sometimes this means rehearsing or imagining the worst possible outcomes over and over again. Sometimes our anxiety propels us towards anxiety-driven action. We are prompted to immediately fix, appease, accommodate, or even attack. Sometimes this causes us to lose sight of ourselves, become unglued, or to become disorganized. We stop looking at our expectations, desired outcomes, or even our unique observations. We don’t think about unintended consequences of our behavior on our relationships. We can become busy accommodating everyone else’s expectations to the point of exhaustion- often to find that other people continue to be dissatisfied.

Take a minute to consider what you want, think, notice, and feel. Consider if what you want might include: Being heard, being taken seriously, being respected, or being acknowledged.

Sometimes change involves a loss or regret that another person is not willing or capable of giving you what you want. But instead of getting into a crisis over it, this clarity allows you to re-consider your options, change the way you are asking for it, tolerate the limits of others, or even move on- and possibly keep looking for it from someone who can give it.

When my clients get better, the changes I observe are quite noticeable. Often there is a shift in energy- a slowing down.  They appear more confident as they become centered, calm, and clear. They get organized! They are less prone to non-useful conflicts and increase their ability to steer clear of unwanted chaos.

Communicating anger without killing your audience

The blog post this week is for persons who have a hard time with anger. If you are a person who tends to rant and rave, gets in trouble with personal attacks, or comes across as interpersonally abrasive, this post is for you.

Communicating anger can be done effectively when the intensity of anger matches the message. Anger has to be at a manageable level. If you can get anger to go down, you may have a very strong point to communicate- but you’ve got to do it in such a way that anger works for you, instead of getting in your way. Here are some suggestions:

  • Soften your gaze, relax your face, and try smiling with half of your face.
  • Unclench your jaws and your fist, open your palms, and relax your body.
  • Stop glaring.
  • Be clear about what you want to communicate. Try stating it in a matter-of-fact but firm manner.
  • Slow down your breathing.
  • Try to pay attention to how your face communicates. A flat, impermeable look can be negatively interpreted or misinterpreted. (Notice if/how you are drawn to particular TV characters who have expressive faces).
  • Wiggle your eyebrows. Try shooting one eyebrow up.
  • Notice your tone of voice. Try singing what you want to say before you talk to the person. This will get you to notice your emotion in your voice and make it hard for you to hang on to the intensity of the anger. Another option is to use a cartoon voice.

If you act or behave in such a way that is incompatible with anger, you will have a pretty good chance of getting your anger to go down. Being clear, matter-of-fact, and firm; staying connected, rooted, and close to your inner wisdom can be a much more effective way to communicate anger than sarcasm, attacks, and rants.