The 1 Thing You Can Do To Get People To Change

What's the one thing you can do to get people to change? I'm talking about anyone, of any background, who actually wants to change. (Their desire to change is the starting point, of course.) But after that, what can you do?

Photo via Jasmine Waheed on Unsplash

Start with empathy.

If you want someone to change, stop the lectures, resources, even threats and start with empathy.

Empathy is feeling with someone. It’s accessing a place inside yourself where you have experienced something similar to what someone else has experienced and feeling that feeling again. You don't need to have gone through the other person's exact same experience to feel empathy. That's never possible. "Something similar" can be a situation in which you felt some of their same emotions. Empathy is not about feeling sad about a situation or pity someone, but feeling with them.

Physical space can play an influential role when we want someone to change. Barriers like desks or podiums set up physical divides and create emotional distance between people. Furniture can also reinforce power dynamics, signaling who is more important. Changing the set-up of the room in which you work can positively influence change. But what about if you are a home visiting nurse and the patient's home is often your "office"? You could ask the patient where they are most comfortable talking, instead of assuming living room or kitchen table.

Once you start with empathy, it's a lot easier to remember why you do what you do. Service. It's not about being right or offering the perfect resource or answer. Those things don't matter if you don't start with empathy.

They don't matter because helping people change isn't about you; it's about them.

Service can get lost when you push, coerce, bribe, or shame in attempt to change someone. That's why punishment never really works. Because that's about you and your desire to feel better by doing something, anything. Starting with empathy, however, shifts your focus into being about and with someone else. People get when you have empathy with them. When they get that, they are more likely to trust you. When they get sympathy or pity from you, there can’t be any trust

Sometimes, it seems like people will never change. That makes it all the more important to lead with empathy. When you start with empathy, trust follows. "Trust earns you the benefit of the doubt," Seth Godin says. Sometimes that's all the push someone needs to make a change.

Note: this article was adapted from a version published in 2015.