Why won’t people change?

I am passionate about getting the most out of people and helping them reach their potential. One of the key success criteria I have found is the acceptance of change. Having run a number of successful change programs in my career, one of the biggest challenges has been what I have become to know as a competing commitment or secondary gain. A client will be very keen to change, and on the surface, very willing. But, something about their behaviour is incongruent to what they are saying. Why? It looks like resistance, but is in fact a kind of personal immunity to change.

An example of this might be a person who has voiced a commitment or something they are keen to achieve, however, this person is doing and saying things that are not in line with what you agreed. It may be that what they are doing not only goes against what you agreed but is going a long way to sabotage them. Why would they do this? Your first reaction might be the thought that their actions reflect hypocrisy, unwillingness to change, or unspoken reluctance, when really there is a deeper reason, one they might not even recognise themselves.

Uncovering this competing commitment requires asking a series of questions. The first one could be ‘What would you like to see changed, so that you could be more effective, or so that work would be more satisfying?’ Responses might be in the form of a complaint, but complaints are okay, they often unearth useful truths.

The next question could be ‘What commitments does your complaint or response imply?’ In voicing this commitment, people can nearly always identify some way in which they are partly responsible for preventing them from being fulfilled. This leads to a third question ‘What are you doing, or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being fully realised?’ This may lead to the person in question coming up with words or behaviours or acknowledgements of behaviour not congruent with their commitments.

It could be useful at this point to invite the person to consider the consequences of this behaviour, perhaps suggesting they do the opposite. And if they do, will they feel any discomfort or fear? There will always be fear, and that’s okay. The next step is to transform any passive fear into a statement that reflects an active commitment to preventing certain outcomes. Ask ‘By engaging in this undermining behaviour, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing?’ The resulting answer is the competing commitment, which lies at the heart of the person’s immunity to change.

Have some respect for this revelation, as often it is personal. Remember that it is not a weakness, but more of a self-protection mechanism that reflects some big assumptions. Understanding those big assumptions and challenging them in a positive, encouraging way is the first step in the journey of influencing this person to change and ultimately achieve their commitment to change.


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