Over the years of working in the helping professions, my views on how people cope with life and how they change have differed from what they were when my career began. I was as idealistic as anyone could be back then. I came charging out of graduate school on a white horse — ready, eager and determined to make a big difference, and confident that I would make my corner of the world a better place.
But my naïve optimism took a beating when reality slapped me upside the head (reality can be counted on to do this) and made it clear that people weren’t about to change just because it was in my plans! Convinced as I was that I knew of a better path for them, I saw instead that they often stuck to their own ways. Even if they ended up making the same mistakes repeatedly. Even when they themselves knew that they might get better results with what I suggested.
Mystified at first, I blamed myself, until I realized that the fault really was with my expectations. They were overly optimistic, and I was not so much unskilled as raw and needing to be seasoned. Most of the people who enter this field are like that. They, too, had that initial idealism and excitement and they wanted to see BIG changes as well. They, too, had to get wised up a bit just like I did. Time and experience tempered that naïve hopefulness.
Now it’s years later and I see a parallel between myself and a lot of our clients. They have family and friends they want to see change and they are frustrated when it doesn’t happen. They lose patience with loved ones who make the same mistakes, don’t listen to reason, or refuse to get some help for the difficulties they have. Yet family and friends have even more difficulty with trying to make a change than a professional.
Reflecting on this, I wondered what some of my colleagues had had to learn during their years of service that might apply to our clients. So I asked them this question, “During your years in the field, what is the most important thing you have learned about people?” I thought that the collective professional experience might give readers some ideas about how to approach people in their personal lives. The responses are below.
“All people are able to change.” – Lisa
Maybe someone in your life would test this belief, but Lisa remains hopeful. Perhaps she saw people just like your loved one who did change, in time.
“I have learned that all people, no matter the age, just want to be understood.” – Jill
“People yearn for, crave, need, to be heard. If a person believes they have been heard, and if you as a counselor have ‘heard’ closely enough to offer a next step, healing is under way.” – Gerry
“People really appreciate being listened to. Really heard and treated with respect. People respond well to being genuinely listened to and treated with respect, even if you can’t solve their problem.” – Kelly
“People respond to acknowledgment, no matter what their circumstances. It may be necessary to adjust how we acknowledge them, and how much, etc.; but people can really begin to find hope and believe change is possible if their feelings are acknowledged and someone truly listens to them.” – Laura
This point was highlighted several times. It speaks to the idea that being a good listener, of avoiding judgment as much as possible, and trying to understand the reality that someone lives goes a long way. I see this, too, because often people who are pretty stressed start to relax with a relatively short conversation when they feel that I am understanding and accepting them. I know that this will make it easier for them, in time, to receive feedback that is perhaps challenging.
“All people are essentially the same. I used to get really intimidated by working with certain types of people that I deemed to be of great importance, intelligence, power, etc. — like CEOs, senior leaders, professors, MDs, PhDs, etc. — but eventually realized, no matter who you are or what you do, there is a common human experience of things like grief and loss, struggling with behavior change in relationships or breaking bad habits, worrying, anxiety, depression, that surpasses socioeconomic status or IQ.” – Jen
“Everyone is unique.” – Patty
These two ideas may seem contradictory, but I think that the essential experience of being human is shared by everyone, and we can use our own empathy to better understand and help someone. But we must also remember that people are individuals and not expect them to think or act as we might think is right or logical. And one key way they may be different is noted by Reggie, as follows.
“A client’s interest and motivation to improve the situation they are in plays the largest role in their getting where they want to be. If they already have that interest and motivation, I only need to be a guide in helping them get unstuck. If they don’t have the interest and motivation, my goal is to help them get to that point.” – Reggie
That is, what you may find valuable and a motivator may be quite different from someone else, and understanding what motivates them is vital. And there is a limitation that you run into, something that some people struggle with so much to understand, which Sara notes below.
“One person can’t change another. You can provide tools, support and strategies to promote one’s change motivation within, but ultimately it’s up to them. As a younger professional, I was often so disappointed when I would spend a lot of time and energy working with someone and I was working harder and was more motivated for their change than they were. Now I have a more realistic view of the change process and try to be realistic with clients in knowing that not everyone is ready for change. Even the smallest bit of change to one’s overall wellbeing can be profound to them, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to anyone else.
“I can’t tell you how many people could improve themselves if they realized that they just won’t change someone. And when they don’t want to change, it is even harder.
“The second thing I thought of was resilience. I continue to be amazed at the human spirit and how resilient some can be after bad things happen. I am intrigued by how people differ in this way and how experiences, including bad ones, can strengthen some people. that is one my goals for this year, to read up more on resilience research in an attempt to sort out why and how some people are more resilient than others.” – Sara
“Assume good intentions. I’ve learned that people, in general, are just trying to do their best in whatever situation they are in. Rather than judge, assume good intentions and approach others with empathy. No one truly knows what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.” – Alyson
“Everyone has a shadow side.” – Kate
Again, an apparent contradiction. I agree that it is best to assume that everyone is trying to make sense of life, and that what may seem illogical on the surface has a serious rational underneath, one that is intended to be adaptive and bring about the best possible outcome. It may be hard to understand that underneath behavior that seems daft and destructive is a person struggling to make things be the best.
“Perception is the key to happiness.” – Haleh
Oh yes! Sometimes the way you look at things and the attitude you take makes all the difference!