Can people change? It's a pertinent question as a new year begins and some of us, perhaps many, consider making changes in our lives.
Of course, in one sense it's also a silly question. People change all the time. Some grow up, some grow older. The Christmas letter photos tell this truth, however welcome or unwelcome it may be. What I'm talking about here is different. Not natural or inevitable change, but rather intentional change. Like losing weight, learning Spanish, giving up smoking, or approaching life more hopefully and less fatalistically. Like turning around a failing business or a conflict-ridden church.
Some years ago, as an enthusiastic young minister I said something that indicated I was sure people could and would change. The attractive, middle-aged woman with whom I spoke listened with polite but evident skepticism. When I finished she fixed upon me a weary gaze and said, “People don't change very much.” Period. End of story. At the time, I thought her words, and expression, sad.
Older now, I've come to agree with her, at least to this extent: Change is hard, and it doesn't happen easily, whether for individuals, families, or institutions. Hence, many of the resolutions made on New Year's Day will be broken or forgotten by Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And many who try to lead change become discouraged and give up.
But for those who do manage to make major and important changes in their lives, what makes such change possible? What is the change process?
In his ominously titled 2007 book, Change or Die, Alan Deutschman sheds some light on these questions with case studies of people in three different dire situations: people suffering from heart disease, convicted felons, and an automotive plant notorious for its recalcitrant workforce and poor products. In each case, people had given up on these folks — the patients, cons, and workers — figuring that they were people who could not or would not change.
The usual methods of getting people to change can be summarized, according to Deutschman, by the “three F's,” facts, fear and force. But the three F's don't have a very good track record when it comes to helping people succeed at change. Still, they seem like the common-sense strategies, so people resort to them again and again. “You have to face facts,” says someone seeking to spur change. But it turns out most people are remarkably skilled at fact avoidance.
Deutschman describes what worked in each of his three case studies with three R's. Relate, repeat, and reframe. Relate means that if a person is to change they need to have or establish a relationship with a person or group that believes in them, encourages them, and gives them hope. If Deutschman is right, resolvers need a teacher, a mentor, a group or a community of people dedicated to change and who believe you can change. But it's not just a relationship; it's one that offers hope or what Seattle Mariners' manager Don Wakamatsu calls, “A belief system.”
“Repeat” means that successfully making change requires learning new skills, and ways of acting which become habits. Deutschman says a good bit about “brain plasticity,” the point being that repeating new skills is about changing the way your brain works. Often people try to change thinking first, then behaviors. Deutschman sees it happening the other way around. You change your behavior; changed thinking follows. Changed thinking, is the third R, “reframing.”
I imagine a lot of us try to work at change in our lives as a solo enterprise, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. “Thanks, I can do this by myself.” If Deutschman is right, then that's wrong — which may explain the ubiquity of support and recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. I remember a friend who complicated conventional wisdom by saying, “Rugged individuals need rugged support systems.”
Deutschman's relate, repeat, and reframe neatly parallels what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described as the “dance of learning.” Whitehead said learning was like a waltz, a three-step. It consists of romance, discipline, and generalization. To learn something new you first have to have a romantic attraction to it. It has to be beautiful or alluring or cool to you. But romance, while a necessary starting point, wears off. The second step is discipline, sticking with it, learning the skills, language, moves, and absorbing new habits. The third stage is generalization, by which Whitehead meant that you have sufficiently mastered something that you are able to infer lessons from it which have a broader, more general, application to other areas of life.
So, you ask, what about my own New Year's resolutions. They include becoming more fit and learning yoga. So far I've tried two different yoga classes at the YMCA where I am a member. I am assessing the teachers and groups for the right “relating” fit. The first class I tried had a lot of people who were really good at yoga and the teacher moved pretty fast. I found it discouraging. My second class was smaller in number and moved at a pace I could keep up. The teacher kept saying, “Excellent,” which I need a lot of at this point.
Can people (including me) change? Deutschman says we can. In addition to his big cases, he helpfully narrates several stories of change in his own life. But if he is right, few of us will change or sustain change based on fear or even facts. Relationships that offer hope and encouragement are much more promising. So, if you're resolving to make some tough changes with 2010, consider finding the right teacher or trainer, mentor or coach, group or community. Change isn't easy, but it is possible.
With that, I need to get back to watching my breath and lengthening my spine.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!