Virtues/How can you change another person?

Q: How can you change another person?[1]

A: You cannot change another person, however there are things you can do to assist someone who has asked you to help them change. The techniques of motivational interviewing can help someone resolve their ambivalence, uncertainty, and indecision about change, set a new and clear direction, increase their commitment to change, help them plan the steps they need to take, and give them confidence to make the changes they have decided on. The book Motivational Interviewing, by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick describes the technique in detail.

If someone has decided to make a change in their life, they may invite or request your assistance. Certainly you can help them. Before acting to help another person change it is important to preserve their autonomy, help them act consistently with their values, and overcome their inevitable urges to indulge impulses. Consider the example of a friend who asks you to help them stop smoking. Begin by agreeing on your role—what it is they want you to do and don’t want you to do. Who announces their plan for quitting smoking? If you see them smoking, or smell smoke, or see cigarettes or ashes around their house, what do they want you do? If they beg you to “let them have just one cigarette today and that will be all for the week” how should you respond? Understand and do what they actually want, not what you think they want or what you want for them. You can always encourage them to change for the better, but avoid nagging, coercing, patronizing, indulging, enabling, extorting, or coercing them.

Keep in mind that pleasing someone may not be helping them. You can please someone by assisting them in satisfying an impulse. But you may be indulging them rather than helping them. To help someone you have to assist them in acting consistently with their values. That may be much more difficult. This is the distinction between short-term pleasure and long-term gratification. Understand this distinction, and how the person you are offering to help wants you to do handle this inevitable conflict.

You can provide incentives to help someone make a positive change in their lives. For example, parents may offer money to a student for getting good grades. But in planning this approach it is important to understand the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Use the money briefly only to focus on a goal of helping the student discover effective study habits and the intrinsic joys of learning, discovering, and achieving. These can provide life-long benefits. If instead the transaction degenerates into the narrow deal “no money, no work” then when the money stops, the studying stops, and the student has learned only greed, instrumental behavior, and dependency. The play stops when the pay stops.

Influence causes change. People are remarkably susceptible to influence. We buy the latest fashions, prefer Pepsi over Coke, listen to the music that is most cleverly promoted, submit to many forms of peer pressure, and go along with the crowd, even if that requires becoming the rebel. Influence—achieving belief—is a powerful approach to changing what people believe, think, and do. It is effective, nearly invisible, and ubiquitous. Some influences, for example choosing an excellent role model, are constructive. Many influences, such as the ones that cause you to start smoking because you think it will make you cool, are destructive. Pay attention to the influences in your life, and make decisions based on your own well thought-out core values, not on today’s fads.

You can describe how you would like the person to change, why you believe it would be beneficial, and ask them to change. Engage them in a dialogue about the benefits of the change. Perhaps they will agree with your thinking and grant your request.

How you treat another person certainly affects how they behave, and how they treat you. When you treat someone respectfully as an intelligent peer, they are likely to respond similarly to you. If you treat them disrespectfully, they are likely to retaliate in some way. Both parties participate in each relationship. Perhaps the best way to get someone to change is to change how you treat them.

Coercion changes immediate behavior but often at the cost of long term resentment and anxiety. It causes people to act out of fear, or to select from a smaller set of alternatives. Coercive threats, ranging from “share your candy with me or I won’t be your best friend” to “Give me your money or I’ll shoot” are fast acting and long lasting. But they still depend on the free will of the victim. Gandhi said “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” People resent coercion, the vindictive passions run strong, they rarely ever forget, and they are passionate about revenge and retaliation. Coercion relies on fear and unleashes anger, hatred, and the destructive cycle of revenge. It is a short sighted expediency with long-term costs.

Because you cannot change another person, you may decide that the best way to move forward with your life is to disengage from theirs. If they don’t understand their freedom ends where yours begins then it may be best to keep them at a distance. They have no right to trespass on your privacy, time, space, or attention. The intent in disengaging is to protect yourself so you can move forward with your life. It is not to punish them, teach them a lesson, or to ensure they get what they deserve. It may be helpful to discuss with them your reasons for the separation.

It is always helpful to keep in mind what you can change and what you cannot. It helps to attain the wisdom to know the difference. Certainly you cannot change the past, human nature, personality, or the laws of mathematics and physics. You can only change another person if they truly want to change and have requested your help in making the change.


  1. This essay first appeared as a blog post on emotionalcompetency.blogspot. It has been adapted here with permission of the author. See: