For many of us, one of the more challenging tasks we face comes in communicating constructively with those we care about after they’ve said or done something we find offensive. A trusted colleague who cavalierly blows off a critical business commitment. A close friend who spills personal confidences in front of casual acquaintances. Your spouse booking you for social engagements without checking in first. A family member who broadsides you with blistering character judgments.
In situations like these, immediate reactions vary. We might take the “eye for an eye” approach and go for the jugular. Or maybe we close down and withdraw, leaving the injury simmering in a spite-filled afterlife of its own. Or perhaps we’re more inclined to turn on the deep freeze and deliver an icy evaluation specifying the offender’s flaws, shortcomings and deficiencies in crystalline detail. Unfortunately, all these strategies are pretty well guaranteed to drive a wedge between the two of you: one of you is going to be the winner; the other the loser. Worse, not one of these reactions comes close as an effective approach for leading positive change in others.
We give ourselves a tremendous advantage in responding to difficult situations when we remember that our ultimate goal isn’t to exact revenge, it’s to inspire change. One of the most effective ways to inspire change is to provide opportunities for those around you to directly experience the skills and behaviours you’d like to see them practicing. “Be” – to paraphrase the bumper sticker – “the change you want”.
Think of this approach as a twist on the age-old “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Behavioural research and day-to-day experience show consistent results. When we expect cooperation from someone we ourselves are unwilling to support, the results will be spectacularly unproductive. Anticipating reciprocation from someone who has recently benefited from our own attentive cooperation stands a significantly better chance of success.
Perhaps the most basic way to successfully leading change in others is to be clear in ourselves on the destination we’re doing the leading towards. What specifically is the outcome we want this process of change to produce?
Identifying the positive results we want can be surprisingly difficult. We can be so busy expressing our emotional response that we lose focus of the underlying principle or value we believe has been violated. Even when we stop and shift our focus, expressing our expectations clearly and coherently can be a daunting task. We find ourselves pointing fingers at others for not living up to standards which we ourselves are incapable of putting into words.
Check out for yourself how clear you really are on your expectations of others. Think of a recent experience in which someone close to you failed to live up to your expectations, either in words or action. Sit down and write one sentence clearly stating the basic, uncontroversial principle or value you hold that was breached: the fundamental principle or value you want to ensure is respected in the future. And beware of taking the shortcut of doing this exercise in your head: our imagination is superbly adept at convincing us we’re able to do things that are not necessarily so.
Give yourself the time to find the right words and you’ve got the beginning of what might just turn out to be a truly transformational conversation.