3 Ways We Try (But Fail) to Change People

When we got our puppy years ago, the first thing we did was sign her up for obedience school. She is a beautiful black lab that we got from a local family and we named her Bella. During the 8 weeks of classes, she slowly learned how to sit, lay down, shake our hand, and wait.

It was an amazing transformation to see this dog learn to recognize my authority over her, learn new behaviors and be able to do them on command. The big secret behind all of the training was rewards. She learned that if she sat, laid down, waited or put her paw up, she would get what she wanted most; a small pellet full of processed chicken, rice and other mystery ingredients.

You know what would be great? If people in our lives could be motivated by a small treat to do what we wanted. Of course husbands, wives, kids, co-workers and friends don’t function in any way like my dog. The motivation to change and even their ability to do so are far more complex. No class that I’ve ever seen promised to teach you how to train your husband in only 8 short weeks. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to find ways to change them.

There are 3 main techniques that we use to try to control other people’s behavior. As we go through them, see which one is your weapon of choice.

  1. Threat:  Threats have this idea underneath of them; “I’ll make you afraid enough that you’ll never do this again.” You tell them that if they do this or do it again, their life will change in a painful way. It could be withholding something they want or need from you. It could be taking something away. When you use a threat, you believe fear is the best motivator to make that person change. 

  1. Manipulation: Manipulation at its core says, “I’ll find something you really want and tell you I’ll give it to you if you do what I ask.” This goes beyond rewarding someone for good behavior to reinforce that action. It is saying since I want or need you to do this, I am going to bribe you to accomplish my will. How many parents have said in the grocery store to their child who is throwing a temper tantrum that if you stop, I’ll get you “x” before we leave. 

  1. Guilt: Guilt accomplishes its purpose by saying, “I’ll make you feel so bad, so ashamed, that you’ll decide never to do this again.” This one attacks the core of people you are trying to control. You are telling them that they will become less valuable as a person because of this specific behavior or lack of behavior. For some people, this is quite an effective technique to control others. 

The unifying problem with all of these techniques is that they won’t bring lasting change to anyone. As a parent, I do set some boundaries in place and let my kids know about the consequences of their disobedience. I also reward them at times when I see them doing something positive and I may have bribed them at times in a tough spot. But I don’t believe fear, manipulation, rewards, guilt or shame are going to change anyone’s heart.
Jesus said in Mark 7:21-22 that all of the dysfunctions of our lives come from what is in our heart. What your husband, wife, friend, co-worker or kids need is not an outside motivator but a heart change. God promised his people through the prophet Ezekiel that he would give them a new heart so they would have new motivations (Ezekiel 36:26).

The best way for us to help people change is by pointing them to the good news of Jesus Christ, praying for them, and being open to God’s Spirit. You can be used by God to help people change but you can’t do it for him. A good parent will teach their kids about authority, have healthy boundaries, and lovingly discipline. But only Jesus can change their hearts. A good spouse will forgive their partner, encourage them and repent when they have wronged them. But only God can bring about change. In all of our relationships, pointing one another to Jesus and being open to the Holy Spirit is our part in bringing about change.  

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