How To Change Another Person

river runs through itWhy is it the people who need the most help… won’t take it? Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It)

Who’s that person in your life who needs to change?

Perhaps a boss bullies and controls or fosters chaos through indecisiveness. Maybe a coworker refuses to communicate or a friend follows a self-destructive path. Possibly a child breaks your heart with obviously bad decisions or a spouse drifts silently away.

We all know someone who could make life easier, more pleasant and satisfying, or less of a struggle. Family, professional, or personal relationships would be so much deeper and less stressful. If only he or she would change.

Since this is such a pervasive problem, here’s the secret to changing another person.

You can’t.

Any attempt to change someone other than the person who greets you in the mirror each morning is doomed to fail. You and I cannot change anyone except you and me.


You can impose external behavior through physical or psychological force and coercion.

You can deploy guilt or fear so effectively that the other person “voluntarily” alters course.

You can manipulate with reward or punishment.

You can make affection conditional.

There are many effective ways to exert power and control over someone else’s behavior. Techniques vary, but all of these methods contain a single common element.

They all convey a fundamental lack of respect.


Political dictators use torture and intimidation. Benevolent pseudo-leaders use clever words. Bullies use superior size or numbers or a bigger microphone. Managers use finances, promises, or threats. Friends use peer pressure. Family members use affection.

Techniques and weapons differ, but the underlying dynamic remains. Fear generates power and control.

Sometimes the power and fear are blatant, the show of force intentional. Often it’s much more subtle and even deliberately disguised. It may even be unintended.

Doesn’t matter. Control depends on power. The weapon may be a gun, approval, money, or intellect, but whenever I attempt to control someone I demonstrate my lack of respect.


This is indeed a hard truth. It’s especially difficult because the change we seek may be well-intentioned and motivated by a desire for “the other person’s own good.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. Whenever I seek to control someone else I seek power based on fear and lack of respect.

So how can I help?

I can love—unconditionally. That’s what Jesus said. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.

Each one of here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding. Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It)

Who have you tried to change? What do you need to do to let go of that impossible notion?