Why People Don’t Change

A very common mistake in the helping professions is to make a blanket assumption that the people we serve want to improve themselves and are ready to change.

So when we that help don’t see change take hold in our clients, we run the risk of silently chastising the client. By  way of example,a person signs up for a class to learn basic computer skills, seems enthusiastic and open to learning, but during the class you observe them reverting to old habits. Although you taught them the home row and keyboarding using all the fingers and both thumbs, they are pecking away with one or two fingers like they did when they first came in.

Similarly, you spend time showing an unemployed person how to go about job searching, telling them it’s a full-time job in itself but observe them a day later apparently goofing around on the internet instead of applying themselves full-time trying to land a job.

Yes it can be frustrating. It is however just possible that a couple of assumptions were made – not by them but by you and I at the outset. These assumptions are the reason that lasting change has not taken root.

The first assumption may be that we assume the person wants what we ourselves would want were we in their position. So if they lack computer skills, we assume they have the equal desire to learn. If they are unemployed, we assume they want a job and the financial independence and rise of self-esteem that comes from having one. Not everyone as it turns out who takes a computer class really has the same commitment or strong desire to learn, nor does everyone actually want a job who says they do.

By projecting our own assumptions onto others, we start our interaction off on the wrong footing. “Of course you want a job right?”, and the person will nod their head and verbally agree with you. But do they? That very old expression, ‘actions speak louder than words’ translates nicely into realty. Does the persons actions support their assertion that they in fact really do want change – REAL change?

Let’s face it, old habits die hard. It takes effort and drive to learn new things, to change out of what we’ve done and has been normal for us up to a point, and then struggle from what’s been easy to what is in the beginning hard. Self-discipline isn’t universally shared. So it isn’t hard to understand that a person you’ve shown how to properly use a keyboard will revert to old habits rather than struggle. In the short-term it’s just faster to use those two fingers, and it’ll take much longer to use all your fingers.

One of the things I’m often heard telling those I work with is that they have to want it more than I want it for them. ‘It’ referring to whatever we are discussing be it a job, computer skills, a career, their education etc. If they don’t own the desire to change, change will start and fail. Lasting change means doing things differently than they’ve been done before over a long period of time, and that can only be successfully achieved when the motivation to change is in the person.

Now, let’s suppose the desire to change is sincere. A second assumption we run the risk of making is that the person has the necessary skills required to take what they are taught and then implement the new ideas, concepts and skills on their own. So even the most sincere person who comes to us and asks for our help may not ultimately be successful in reaching their goal. They just don’t have the necessary building blocks for the new skills we are imparting to build on.

At this point, resist the temptation to assign blame. It’s not your fault that you couldn’t get them to move forward, nor is it theirs for failing to implement for any length of time what you’ve shared. You and that person are however at a wonderful place if you can both see it and act on it. You may be in a place where you can evaluate together, what you need to put in place first so that higher learning can take root.

An undisclosed learning disability might be the problem. It could be just as well that the person who says they want to work is pretty comfortable with their present situation. You and I? Oh we’d want a job, and the independence it would mean, but them? Well if they pay rent to their parents, have their food and rent paid by social assistance and don’t have a strong desire for materialistic things, they might just really be content to keep the status quo. I’ve heard many a person eventually tell me this, but don’t assume everyone on social assistance feels this way.

Our values may not be the values others hold. To make this assumption is an error on our part. To assume others want to change the way we’d like them to change is likewise a mistake. It is equally important to check out if the person we hear requesting our help has the necessary pre-requisite tools for the skills we want to impart to be built upon.

As you teach others, be conscious of what others teach you.




4 thoughts on “Why People Don’t Change

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