What Do You Do When People Don’t Change?

Is it my fault, was there anything else I could’ve done, or is there something more going on? What do you do when people don’t change?

What do you do when people don't change?

One day on my Facebook page I started posted some thoughts that had really helped me in my life. Whether it be negotiating work decisions or one of the leadership lessons that stuck with me, I just thought it’d be worthwhile to share a few things that made a marked difference for me. The response was quite overwhelming, and since then, I try to post as often as I can, with many people telling me even to this day they’re still enjoying them (people still read them even if they don’t always react to them).

This week I posted a short thought answering “What do you do when people don’t change?”. It was a topic that resonated with a great many people. So, in response I thought, well, let’s give it a longer look.

All of us face times in our lives when we are frustrated by the actions or inaction of other people. On the best of days, I can be a stuck up, self-seeking, confused and introspective little gem. On the worst of days, you can be the same. In truth, all of us have quirks and moments of selfish behaviour, and may carry frustrating traits and attributes that everyone is blindingly aware of, except for ourselves.

And so naturally, when you get two or three, or a dozen, or a hundred, or a small town, or a city, or a country, or a globalised community interacting with each other, you’re going to run into problems.

Eventually, in the course of our decision making, we are going to come across people we refuse to change for, and people who refuse to change for us. What do you do when people don’t change? Let’s have a deeper look at the parts involved.

#1: Work out if this is a major or minor issue

I was going to quote someone here, but I realised that there are so many people that have given this ever true statement of advice: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. This advice is primarily addressed to dating and married couples in helping them work out whether it’s worth breaking the vase or losing all that sleep and throwing your back out because you had to sleep on the couch that is still missing a few springs over.

Not every disagreement or encounter with human stubbornness needs to be a deal breaker. So the dinner got a bit burnt, or they came home 10 minutes late from the beauty spa, or his mates kept calling him during the game. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.

Or is it?

I heard some great advice once that the small things might not be that big, but they add up to eventually become the big things. It’s that stockpile that keeps building up. It’s the snide remark you keep swallowing, the bad habit that keeps flaring up, the inner turmoil you just stew over…

The unwillingness to change.

I think the best definition of “a big deal” I heard was in relation to prayer, but I think it carries over to our relationships too – if it’s a big deal to you, then it’s a big deal. Of course, we should then go on and ask ourselves, “Why is this such a big deal?”. Usually it’s the problem underneath the problem that’s actually the problem.

#2: Stop blaming yourself for things you didn’t do wrong

People of faith especially are great at wearing the responsibility, the blame, the guilt, and the defeat of the wrongs they didn’t commit. This other person or these other people in their lives have been short, continually and habitually crass or destructive, repeated this behaviour to more than just you, and yet you still blame yourself.

I think it’s good to have a sense of personal ownership over our own actions and an awareness of our contribution to a conflict. But if you’ve run into a brick wall, you’ve made the compromises you can, you’ve sought help, you’ve brought it up in a civil manner, you’ve sought to be understanding, and you’ve involved other people… I think it’s time to accept that you’re dealing with an individual or a group of people who just aren’t going to change.

What would Jesus do? Ah, the common statement used to beat down so many people who have tried everything they know how to do. We’re so good at blaming the person who kept trying, or the person who stayed, or the one who kept their cool the longest, or the one who we “expect” to do the right thing. “Oh why didn’t you keep being like Jesus He would be loving and understanding and put up with it and just let them continue to be rude and belittling and demeaning and destructive and…”

Wait what? He told people to give people three escalating chances involving others and they’re out? He didn’t go after the rich young ruler who adamantly said in his own heart that he wouldn’t change? He told parables of people organising weddings and feasts who gave people chance after chance but eventually gave up?

That’s weird.

Actually, it’s not. It’s healthy. Everyone has a limit. No matter how spiritual or how much or a good person they might be. Forgiveness is always necessary, but reconciliation, or the ability to move forward together… that takes two. Or three. Or however many people you need to be on the same page in your situation.

You can’t move a brick wall. And you shouldn’t blame yourself for not being able to, either.

If you’ve done all you can, you’ve done enough.

#3: Get an outside perspective

Mentioned it briefly above, but if there is no change, you really should involve someone else. Friends, mentors, pastors, leaders, community representatives, upper level management, whoever for whatever situation you’re in. You and the other party may be too emotionally invested to have a realistic picture of what’s happening. An external eye can focus on facts that have been moved out of sight by feelings.

#4: Let their example challenge your own behaviour

I think one thing I learnt just before I turned 20 was the power of observing your own behaviour in other people. I think one of the reasons we love shows like The Bachelor or those intense emotional dramas is because they allow us to explore our own issues vicariously. The people involved are usually so blown out and extreme in their crankiness, their selfishness, their lack of direction or their inability to relate to the people around them that they are actually powerful instruments for measuring how much like those characters we really are.

If it’s not on the screen, then in our reality, all of us know what it is to be frustrated with someone to no end. You’ve encountered this brick wall of an individual who doesn’t see anything wrong with what they’ve done or are doing, and they’re perfectly happy to stay in a holding pattern. Ugh they’re so frustrating, the way they, they, they…

…are just like me. Or just like you.

Do you recognise this behaviour in yourself? I know it’s annoying how they keep blowing you off, and it really hurts that they refuse to talk to you, and it sucks that they’re unwilling to open up and meet you halfway… but is there anyone in your life who would feel that same way about you and your behaviour?

Life has a funny way of humbling us by allowing us to reap what we sow. And if we’re seeing it now, there is a decent chance we’ve sowed something of its sort before.

Do you recognise yourself in the mirror of this lack of change?

#5: Observe healthy boundaries

What do you do when people don’t change? Boundaries.

Doctor Henry Cloud is perhaps the most famous proponent of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in families, in relationships, in friendships, and in business. I remember when I was about 11 years old and our family heard Henry’s material for one of the first times, we would always say to each other with a bit of a cheeky tone if one of us got a bit too nosy about someone else’s business, “Boundaries, Matthew!”. “Boundaries, whoever!”. Any time I see boundaries being breached in my job, with my friends, in my relationships or with anyone else, I still hear the word “Boundaries!” bounce around in my head.

I’ve made it sound like a bit of a joke, but in a lot of ways, boundaries really aren’t a joke at all. Essentially what he puts forward is that there needs to be a level of respect between people. This is true even when people are willing to make changes for each other. Even in the healthiest relationship, the health must be maintained by drawing lines of trust and respect for the other person’s individuality, feelings, and needs.

When boundaries aren’t set or enforced, you end up with all sorts of issues. Codependence on loved ones, the boss who is constantly in everyone’s pockets about what they’re up to, a loss of individual identity, a sense of exhaustion from always having to be “on” all the time because this person is literally always in your face. It can lead to some pretty devastating health, financial, spiritual, and mental consequences.

As Doctor Henry points out, look at the conflict that exists on the earth today because of a lack of respect for boundaries. Wars are constantly fought as people seek to claim what is and isn’t theirs. Agreed lines of demarcation are trodden over. People who don’t live in a country are trying to act like the country is theirs.

On a macro scale, a lack of boundaries results in chaos. At a micro level, we bring the same levels of chaos into our marriages and families and friendships and workplaces because of a similar lack of disrespect, or an inability to enforce our own personal boundaries. And when you’re dealing with a person or a group of people who won’t change, those boundaries are going to be what makes or breaks you.

#6: Don’t put it off

Our church pastor recently commented on the fact that it’s so sad that people will put off changing until it’s too late. I’ve encountered a number of people in the past few weeks who have been deeply impacted by this reality. People who refused to deal with their alcohol addiction, their pornography habit, their repeated affairs, their constantly negative attitude, until finally it took their death before these problems were no longer impacting the lives of those around them.

Is there anything in your life that would only stop impacting the people in your life once you were long gone?

I think it’s really sad how easy it is to continue to refuse to change until it’s way too late. Someone is dead, the relationship is over, the kids have grown up and moved on, the person has moved overseas, you’ve lost their number, you’ve lost your place in that person’s life, the company goes bankrupt.

And then we have the gaul to blame the people who have moved on for doing so, when really we have had ample, daily opportunities to do something about the problem, the disagreement, the habit.

Everyone has a limit. If your actions have moved someone beyond it, it’s going to be very hard to get them back. Maybe even impossible. You may have to live with worse consequences than you are right now.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Because a day may come where the door closes, and it really is too late to change your life.

Change can be one of the most difficult things to deal with, and I think there are so many facets to consider when addressing it. Is it me who needs to change? Or have I really done all I can? I think as long as maintain an attitude of teachability and humility as we negotiate our relationships, we should find ourselves having greater success in striving for peace with all men and women.

How about you? What do you do when people don’t change?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Walking the Shoreline

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading