Are You the Reason People Never Change?

You know the classic Peanuts cartoon: Lucy pulls the football away just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it, sending him flying head over heels. AAUGH!

Every. Single. Time.

Charlie Brown never learns. That bald head of his has only four hairs (weird?), and apparently, even fewer brains.

Charlie Brown is an idiot.

Or maybe he isn’t.

Maybe Charlie Brown is not the fool he appears to be. Maybe instead, Charlie Brown is a paragon of patience and generosity to which the rest of us can only aspire.

You see, if Charlie Brown did the “smart” thing and refused to ever be duped again, he would deny Lucy the ability to change. Perhaps Charlie Brown is willing to subject himself to some discomfort not because he is hopelessly gullible, but because he cares about Lucy and believes in her potential to learn and grow, and he understands that in order for that to happen, he has to allow her the opportunity to show up differently.

If Charlie Brown decides he has had enough, Lucy will never have the chance to be a better version of herself.

Yet, landing flat on your back in the dirt every time can’t feel great, physically or psychologically. Charlie Brown has every right to protect himself from such harm, and surely by now Lucy has established a clear pattern of behavior.

How many chances should one give the Lucys of the world?

Some would argue for just one. We have a saying, after all: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

At the other extreme, Charlie Brown does not seem to have an upper limit. Where the “right” threshold lies is a difficult question that probably varies with each individual situation. There is no easy answer to the question of where to set the boundary. The point, though, is that people cannot change if we do not let them.

That’s right: you could be part of the reason the difficult people in your life never change.

Even worse, you could be part of the reason that really nice people—the ones you want in your life—become distant. They might be trying to change and grow only to find that you keep putting them back in that same old box.

The fact that we do this to people is understandable. We humans like predictability. We feel safer when we understand how things work and what to expect, and thus we are quick to file people away in a nice, clearly labeled box and keep them there. If people are changing all the time, we have to work a lot harder to keep up, so instead we just assign them to fixed categories.

Jane is an engineer. Jane is an introvert. Jane isn’t very flexible. Jane gets upset when we deviate from the agenda, and Jane is not good at interacting with customers. Should I consider Jane for this new role? Of course not. I already know how Jane works. See? It’s all right here on the label of the little box I put her in twelve years ago.

That sounds judging and awful, but we all do it all the time. We’re just saving mental energy. Unfortunately, in doing so, we unintentionally make it hard, if not impossible, for Jane to change and grow.

Do you doubt the impact that other people have on our ability to change?

How many of us have had the experience of attending a high school reunion only to find ourselves falling right back into the role we played 25 years earlier? And when you get together with your family, do you ever notice yourself automatically reverting to a childhood version of yourself? It is very hard to resist the gravitational pull of how others know us.

None of us like to be categorized and labeled, so presumably we should want to strive to avoid doing that to others. Instead of deciding without asking that the box they once fit in still fits today, we can do others a great service to others by giving them room to be different. How?

We can start by changing how we listen.

Before your next important conversation, challenge your own motives. Ask yourself:

  1. Are you listening to understand, or to confirm what you already know about the person?
  2. Are you listening to what is being said right now, in this moment, or from the past?
  3. Are you listening to learn, or to be right?
  4. Are you listening to achieve the best possible outcome, or to win an argument?
  5. Are you listening to build a stronger relationship, or to assign blame or avoid conflict?
  6. Are you listening at all, or just waiting to speak?

For me, personally, number four is particularly tempting. I am prone to debate, and I find it very easy to slip over that line that turns a conversation into a contest. Frequently I win, but at what cost?

How you listen really does change how others show up in the world.

Listening from an authentic desire to understand, from the present moment, with an intention of learning, achieving a mutually better outcome, and building a strong relationship is a true gift to the people in your life. 

Charlie Brown is not an idiot. He is an optimist. Yes, sometimes he takes a tumble, but he never stops believing that people can change for the better.

Better listening takes practice, self-awareness, and patience, but the result is a win-win that pays big dividends. If you want to practice listening differently with us, click here to learn more about our approach, or sign up for a free introductory coaching session. We are all ears, and in our coaching we are always listening for the best version of you.

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