Can we make people change?

I have this terrible habit — I keep hoping people will change. It's not like they ever do, but for some reason I keep going back to the well — and that well continues to be empty. Sound familiar? That's because according to experts, most of us think we can convince someone to be different, whether they want to or not.

"I get so many calls from people who say 'Would you please work with so-and-so to make them want to do this?' and my first response is that I can't make anyone do anything," said John McGrail, a clinical hypnotherapist and author of the book "The Synthesis Effect." "No one can change another person. You have to want to change yourself and that's where it starts."

McGrail said human beings are hard-wired to resist change due to a state called homeostasis.

"It means our brains cling to the familiar because the unknown creates fear," he said. "Even if a new way of being is better and pain-free, we will stick with what we know time and time again because of how our brains are wired."

Jeffrey Brown, a psychiatrist and author of the book "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Great Health," said change can be forced through an ultimatum, but results are usually temporary.

"We can get people to change their behavior — but what's more important is that they actually change the value that shapes that behavior," said Brown, who is an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "We can leverage someone and shape their behavior with a threat — 'If you don't do this then I'm going to do that.' What results out of that is some level of resentment and it's very unlikely there will be lasting change."

So why do we continue to try and change others?

"We keep going back and keep trying to change them because our needs are still being unmet," Brown said.

Both Brown and McGrail said this is a persistent challenge for those with differing core values or belief systems, and that extreme discomfort is the best initiator for change to take place.

Here are some tips for dealing with your desire to change others:

Communicate your reason for the desired change.

"Communicate to them why you would prefer that they change — that's a key word — prefer," Brown said. "They don't have to. People hear prefer better. And then also hearing back from them what their reason is for choosing either to change or not to change. I think we are running on the assumption here that the person who is wanting the other person to change is correct — but that person may not be correct so you have to listen to their rationale."

Be compassionate.

"Most people in changing these issues need a little assistance — and it's not because they're weak it's not because they're inferior it's not because they don't have will power, it's because the human mind has evolved in a way that makes us hard wired to resist change — even when the change is positive we will cling to the familiar with unbelievable tenacity even when the familiar is painful," McGrail said.

Accept people for who they are.

"Learn what is called 'the art of allowance', which is to say, 'I don't like the way you're behaving or acting or being and I can't change you so I'm going to choose to allow you to be who you are,'" McGrail said. "Now if this an egregious behavior — someone is being cruel to an innocent child or animal or there is a threat to your safety, this obviously wouldn't apply, but allowance is an amazing gift because it then has no affect on you — you are choosing to keep your balance and let them be who they are."

Set boundaries.

"If the person won't change their behavior, then you have to change yours," Brown said. "Maybe you don't go to dinner with them, or you don't spend the holidays with that person. But communicate why you are setting the boundary and then limit your exposure to the behavior that is upsetting to you."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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