We spend a lot of time trying to change other people. There is, after all, so much wrong with them: they’re selfish, arrogant, bullying, weak, cold, needy and so on.
So we try to point this out – and often meet with resistance, denial or sheer indifference. This can be very agitating and hence renders us cross and severe. Why won’t people take our lessons on board?
In our behaviour, we tend to be making an implicit distinction between two projects: getting other people to change – and changing ourselves. We know we may have to develop in certain ways, but for now, our focus is on altering others. We make an evolution in our own behaviour conditional on evolutions in other people’s. We vow that we’ll be nicer if they’re nicer, that we’ll be less strident if they give up shouting.
However, we’re prone to miss an important insight: changing how you behave to others can be the fastest way to alter how others behave towards you.
People tend – to a remarkable extent – to mirror behaviour. If someone is aggressive around them, they become aggressive back. If someone is gentle, they become soft in return. If someone acts wisely, it’ll draw any latent reserves of wisdom out of the audience.
We’re often in the paradoxical position of advocating one kind of behaviour while making use of quite another. We might quite angrily suggest that someone else calm down. Or we may bullyingly insist to a person that they try to be more empathetic. We deserve sympathy. It’s the agitation and anxiety of trying to teach that can easily take us far from the behaviour we’re advocating.
Here it bears to remember a saying often falsely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi though eminently useful nevertheless: ‘Be the change you want to see.’ It captures something key: how sensible it may often be to give up on teaching directly in order to try teach by example.
This has one great advantage: we can control ourselves while it’s remarkably hard to exert any sort of direct control over anyone else. Our disappointment with other people should be redirected towards exerting control over the one thing we can reliably command: ourselves.
Seeing us exhibiting certain virtues has a remarkable ability to inspire others into imitating us. And even if change is not immediate, we can at least take pride in the integrity of our position, knowing that we have had the strength and dignity already to have started to become the change we want to see.
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