Over at her Psychology Today blog, Lynne Soraya asks “How do we make people want to change?” For me the answer is “we don’t”. One of the biggest problems I see today is this epidemic of worrying so much about how to make other people change that we forget to work on ourselves. If we find we can’t persuade people to act the way we want, then we try to use legislation to coerce the desired behavior under the weight of law. But none of us is so good that there’s no room for self-improvement. The one place where we can REALLY make a difference is to improve ourselves. Sure we can influence others but not nearly as efficiently for the same amount of effort.
Let’s say we measure based on the number of people influenced and the degree of influence. If we focus on improving influence we can move the needle but within limits. On the other hand, if we concentrate effort on improving ourselves, and in the process set an example that inspires others, the number and degree of influence is much greater. It’s a question of chasing the metric or the chasing thing that the metric is intended to measure. Influence is the metric, not the target. But if you practice things like compassion, integrity, and loyalty, then influence is the natural by-product.
The other aspect of this is that we often desire to change the behavior of s people, in this case the other diners. But if we worry less about specific people then we have a greater opportunity to influence those who actually are paying attention but aren’t part of that target group. My go-to example is drivers. I don’t attempt to respond directly to people who cut me off in traffic. Instead what I do is set the example I’d like to see. If someone signals, then instead of speeding up and closing the gap I fall back to let them in. If a bus or big rig is signalling and nobody lets them in, sometimes I maneuver into the lane they need and make the room for them. By not focusing on the people who “need” improvement and just practicing courteous and cooperative driving, I broadcast to everyone in the vicinity an example and some will pick up on it. Then network effects take over and before you know it lots of people are a bit nicer on the road. This may sound hypothetical but when I was commuting every day I watched it evolve over a few years. I’ve had several people recognize me at lunch near the office, introduce themselves and thank me for something I did on the road. I also carry jumper cables, help people in the grocery store, etc. Making people want to change is really a desire to improve the world. Well, directly serving others through acts of kindness improves the world. That’s a really good place to start if you want to change others and anyone can do it.
In your case, this blog post will be far more influential than any direct confrontation with the other diners could have been. You set an example of compassion, introspection, integrity and dignity that others will pick up on. Some will follow your lead and in doing so influence others in their lives, then the network effects take over and you will have made a difference. That incident in the cafe may have looked like an opportunity to influence that particular set of people and I know it’s tempting. The real opportunity though was to influence people through your blog and you’ve done that! There’s now a whole bunch of people thinking about giving strangers the benefit of the doubt or how they might assist in a similar situation.
Finally, it is worth noting that we are generally too impatient for these effects. We don’t necessarily believe we have influence if we don’t see it immediately. It might take generations to fully integrate a compassion-based change we’d like to make. We don’t necessarily want to make that change through attrition but to some extent it’s inevitable. What we can do is to use leverage so we touch the most people possible with the resources we have available. You have this bully pulpit that lets you reach large audiences. That’s leverage! If you continue to write posts like this one, the example you set will multiply thanks to that leverage, then ripple across time as people you have inspired follow your example and in so doing pass along what they have learned. Parents commonly discover that lessons they thought their children missed were actually learned. (Mine are adults now and often reveal a deep understanding of things I thought they had ignored as kids.) Sometimes you have great influence but people come to understand and integrate it at different rates. Have faith and patience and keep writing from the heart.
So, trying to make people want to change seems to me to be the wrong question. Influence is merely a way to measure the quality of your character and certainly not a goal in and of itself. Concentrate on building influence and you risk damaging your character. Concentrate on building your character and success rewards you with influence. But you don’t have to be Martin Luther King or Gandhi to inspire people. There’s an everyday hero in each of us if we just ask “how can I help?” and take the time to really listen to others. No act of kindness is too small. No act of compassion is too trivial. It all counts.