Letting Others Change

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It’s always a little bittersweet when a coaching assignment ends. On one hand, we are excited that the person we have been coaching has incorporated their new skills and is ready to fly solo. On the other, we have developed a relationship with them and enjoy the ongoing interaction.

Recently, we finished work with a client who has made more progress than anyone we have worked with before. He’s grown by leaps and bounds, particularly in the area of self-awareness. At the start of our engagement, he had received feedback that some of his existing skills were no longer serving him and over a period of several months, he has done an incredible job of working to grow new ones.

Unfortunately, although he’s now different, not everyone’s perception of him has caught up. Unlike him, they are stuck and unwilling to change. They see him as he previously was.

As his coaches, we know that his thinking is different, as is his behavior. His leaders see it, as do several of his co-workers. But some of his colleagues aren’t quite convinced. They recall past interactions and keep an eye out for the slightest slippage without acknowledging any progress has occurred. This is a tough dynamic and one we see quite a lot; people set down the baggage of their past behavior, yet those in their community still visualize them firmly tethered to it.

We all have people in our lives whom we expect to fail us. Time and again, they had an opportunity to mess up and did, so we no longer have high hopes they will get “it” (whatever it is) right. They are the human equivalent of fossilized amber, forever suspended in one moment of failure.

To let someone change, we need to get new thoughts about them. In some cases, we may need to see the best version of them in our minds before we see it in person. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt and trust their behavior will catch up.

Here are some ways to begin that process:

1. Stop repeating the prerecorded message you have previously associated with them. It’s almost certain that you have an automatic negative thought about the person that comes to mind each time you hear their name or remember their past behavior.
2. Develop a new message about them. “Mary is changing, and my goal is to support her.” Or “Bill is doing his best and I don’t need to make things harder for him.” The most helpful messages will include space for them and an affirmation for you.
3. Cultivate an atmosphere of curiosity about the situation and what comes next. “I am interested to see how this will evolve.”
4. Forgive them. For being difficult, for being selfish, for being human… Whatever it is, forgiveness is a decision to release someone from a debt incurred when they injured you. Stop keeping score and let this go, for both your sakes.
5. Remember that you want others to let you change, so you have to let them do the same. We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior. Not a particularly fair yardstick though, so keep in mind, we have all been the one who has been hurt AND the one doing the hurting.
6. Watch for fruit. Want to know what kind of tree it is? Wait to see what grows. Give the person time to make change and see how they respond in situations. This is the best outward manifestation of an internal modification.

Extensive research has shown that people will rise to the occasion or they will fail based on how you treat them. It has nothing to do with their ingrained potential and everything to do with how you expect them to behave.

We are all works in progress. Instead of lying in wait for others to mess up, let’s allow them to grow and acknowledge their progress. My guess is they will be more likely to return the favor.