How can I get the other person to change?

To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

Last month, I had the privilege of sitting with our pastor to have a public conversation about relationships. He had been preaching about relationships on weekends, and the congregation was invited to submit questions online and in person, to be discussed the following Wednesday nights.

I was invited to be the discussant the first Wednesday. When I arrived that evening, I was given a short list of questions that had been received through the church’s website, and the pastor showed me a few more before we went on stage.

I’m writing this post not to address a specific question, but to make an observation. Despite the diversity of problems people were struggling with, nearly all the questions shared something in common. To a greater or lesser extent, they all took the form of asking, “What do I have to do to get the other person to change their behavior or attitude?”

I get it. Really. I’m not assuming that the people who wrote the questions were somehow refusing to change their own behavior. Indeed, as I read the questions, I imagined the frustration that gave birth to them: I’ve tried everything I know how to do. I’ve been nice. I’ve been firm. I’ve set boundaries. And I’m not asking for the moon. But nothing works. Nothing changes. What can I do that I haven’t already done?

Whether we realize it or not, our culture’s enthusiastic embrace of self-help ideologies feeds the fantasy that every problem has a “solution.” Somewhere out there is the magic bullet that will change everything, that one crucial piece of advice we need but haven’t stumbled across yet. And don’t get me wrong: I’ve given plenty of advice in my day. I hope some of it was helpful.

But I am always reluctant to make assumptions about the person who isn’t in the room to tell their side of the story. You’ve probably had the experience of talking separately to two people who are at odds with each other; sometimes, you get two entirely different stories. So who’s right? Who’s supposed to change?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting or hoping to see someone change, especially when we’ve worked honestly and diligently on our own behavior. Seems only fair, right? And in a more perfect world, we might see that kind of reciprocity: Hey, it looks like you’re trying really hard — maybe I should step up my game, too. Sometimes it happens that way.

But here’s the reality. It’s one thing to adopt new behaviors because we believe it’s the right — and righteous! — thing to do, regardless of how the other person responds. It’s another to do it in order to, um, “encourage” the other person to change.

And trust me, they know the difference.

As long as others perceive us as trying to change them against their will, they’re likely to dig in their heels (whether actively or passively). The irony is that when we stop trying to change them, they may suddenly feel the freedom to compromise. Not always, and not necessarily right away. But we have to accept this as a fact of life: in a relationship between adults, if we want to see someone change from the inside out, we can’t force it on them from the outside.

That does not mean having to accept everything the other person does or wants to do. We still have to decide how we will behave or respond, and why, with as much humble self-awareness as possible.

And with that humility, compassion: do we really know what the other person’s motivations are, or do we just assume that we do? Have we ever truly listened? Do they actually feel that we understand them? That kind of compassionate listening can go a long way toward changing how the relationship is experienced on both sides.

So, let our first and most important question always be what we can do to embody the love of Jesus in our relationships, not what we can do to get others to change. Who knows what God might do, not merely in their hearts, but ours.