You can lead a horse to water …

The famous saying you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink is very apt when trying to help other people (and especially life-partners) change problematic behaviour.

From my decades of work at the Smart Therapy Centre, I am very aware that change requires a willingness to take action on our own behalf.  It requires internal motivation and it cannot be imposed.  If you try to force others you will meet massive resistance and stubbornness.

On the other hand, assertive coaxing, kindness and persuasion work wonders.  That is, if they are done correctly.

Coaxing like ‘you can easily do this – it is mainly about making the decision to change’ is only valid if your view is respected and if the encouragement is not overstated.  If it is overstated and said too often it diminishes the motivation of the other person to change, who no longer needs to step forward and take responsibility because you are doing all the work for them. 

Basically, there needs to be a respectful acknowledgment that while you are happy to coax and help – in the end, they will do it, or they won’t, and THEY will live with the consequences of their own choices.  So, coax, but be willing to withhold when necessary.

Kindness is also metered out similarly with real-life consequences.  Kindness is given through genuine care and empathy for the other person’s plight and it helps people to change because they feel safe and cared for enough to take the risks involved. 

They understand that you have patience and time for them to change, but they also understand that the timeline is not infinite.  There are limits, and you expect some progress soon if your kindness is to continue.

It goes without saying that if your kindness is met with hostility, meanness or lack of goodwill then there are consequences. 

You might make comments like ‘you can push me away if you like, but you would be alienating your very best advocate and friend – I am the person who MOST loves you in the world and I am able to help you solve this ongoing problem – but if you choose to be rude then I can be equally rude back and I can withdraw my support – basically it is YOUR choice’.  

With the comment above, notice how you have not immediately withdrawn love or kindness – in fact, you have re-stated your love and advocacy despite their poor behaviour.  BTW, you can only do this, if you keep your own emotions out of it.  Re-stating your love and advocacy tells the other person what they stand to lose if they continue behaving badly. 

Also, notice how the responsibility is put back on the other person to make their choice about how they intend to behave going forward.  This makes them ‘own’ the new behaviour if they decide to change (even if, at first, only temporarily). 

Also, notice that the primary ‘persuasive’ aspect of the above comment is that it is argued specifically from the perspective of how making the change will benefit the other person i.e. If you stop pushing me away and being rude, I can help you solve this difficult problem.

Going forward, nearly every persuasive argument needs to be delivered from this perspective.  All the real-life consequences should be talked through, showing how the problem behaviour is getting in THEIR way time and time again – how it is stopping THEM from getting what they want in life.  

In this process, every lie they are telling themselves to maintain the poor behaviour needs to be rigorously exposed.  For example, ‘I like to have a drink’ rather than ‘I am dependent on alcohol’. Any such exposure though, should always be done with kindness and again from the perspective that it serves THEM to know what is blocking them from taking the necessary steps to change.

Your job is to act like a guide.  Encouraging them out of their personal prison.  Being kind when they are going well and telling them clearly when and how they have messed-up.   

Of course, it is always clear to you both that you are ONLY on their side while they are behaving well towards you – otherwise they will be on their own.  This ‘tough love’ approach helps and motivates people to make the choice to change.