Changing Others – Part One


By David Joel Miller.

Sometimes we really do need to change others.

Now I know I talked to you before about how hard changing others was and how we first need to look at ourselves. We have also looked at the way in which really lasting change happens. But sometimes we do need to try to change others behavior especially when it is not us they are harming but themselves and their acceptance in society. If you child is hitting other students you could wait to see if he outgrows it, but by then he may be expelled from school and you may be stuck with an unruly brat in your home all day. So sometimes teaching others to change is for their own good. There is a process for this way of changing others and it is called behavior modification.

Now I know I talked to you before about how hard changing others was and how we first need to look at ourselves. We have also looked at the way in which really lasting change happens. But sometimes we do need to try to change others behavior especially when it is not us they are harming but themselves and their acceptance in society. If you child is hitting other students you could wait to see if he outgrows it, but by then he may be expelled from school and you may be stuck with an unruly brat in your home all day. So sometimes teaching others to change is for their own good. There is a process for this way of changing others and it is called behavior modification.

Now I know I talked to you before about how hard changing others was and how we first need to look at ourselves. We have also looked at the way in which really lasting change happens. But sometimes we do need to try to change others behavior especially when it is not us they are harming but themselves and their acceptance in society. If you child is hitting other students you could wait to see if he outgrows it, but by then he may be expelled from school and you may be stuck with an unruly brat in your home all day. So sometimes teaching others to change is for their own good. There is a process for this way of changing others and it is called behavior modification.

Behavior modification began as largely experimental methods. It was used to change animals and later was applied to developmentally delayed clients. It has been gradually expanded to include all kinds of groups from kindergarten kids to college graduate students. And the great thing about behavior modification is that it works. But it does not involve what most people think it might include. Behavioral modification is not a shorthand name for brainwashing or manipulation. It is about helping people to change who don’t know then need to change.

Lots of behavior change methods have been criticized as manipulation. I cringe when I hear that expression. Don’t all kids manipulate? It is one way of getting your needs met when a direct method does not work. We need to teach others how we would like them to behave and then encouraging that behavior. For the “spare the rod” crowd I reiterate that physical punishment is the least effective method of teaching most of the time. It produces angry people who hit back or beaten people who stop trying. Real discipline is about training, not punishment.

Some people think the opposite of punishment is bribery. That won’t work either. If you bribe someone, particularly a kid, to do what they should do, next time the amount of the bribe will need to be increased. Eventually, the whole bribery method collapses when you can’t or won’t pay the exorbitant amounts demanded. Not sure about this, check with Washington.

The first step in changing someone else’s behavior is to get crystal clear about what behavior you want to change and why. Let’s take an example.

Mom brings in a child which we will call Clarence for want of another name. Mom is tired of getting calls from the school that Clarence won’t behave. She wants me to fix him. Sorry mom, I am fresh out of parts for that year and model. You want him changed, you as his parent need to do that. I will be glad to teach you how but you will have to do the work.  So mom what is Clarence doing? When you say he does not behave – what exactly does he do or not do?

At this point, mom pulls out her list. He won’t do his homework, does not stay in his seat, makes “mouth noises” did not clean his room and got in a fight. The fight might be anger management, but the mouth noises, that is a whole nother thing. So I ask the mother what is the one thing, the one most important think she wants to change about her son. With behavior modification, we need to start on one thing to change and then progress to each item on her list one at a time.

Mom picks “won’t do his homework” I feel myself starting to relax. This is a case of increasing a behavior. We have more and better tools to increase desirable behaviors than we have tools to reduce undesirable behaviors. Also, this is something specific so we should be able to tell when we are making progress.

Sometimes I get things like I want him to be friendlier. What exactly do you mean by being friendlier? Bringing home a girl?  Giving away your stuff? Or would you settle for smiling more? A specific behavior like smiling more is easier to work on than the vague friendly thing.

The fastest way to increase a behavior is to reward someone for doing the thing we want them to do. Someone in the back of the class just yelled foul. You said no bribes. No, I am not saying bribe the kid. I said reward. What is the difference? A bribe comes before someone does the act. A reward comes after and the two things are connected. So my boss pays me if I show up for work a whole two weeks. He does not give me a bribe first and then hope I will show up. And the amount was clearly understood. It does not go up each time he wants me to show up.

Let me give you a hint here. For many kids, praise for something done well is even more reinforcing than things. Kids who have a close relationship with their families want to please their parents. Just make sure you let them know you are pleased. If my boss were to stop paying me I might get the idea he does not want me working there and I would probably stop showing up. I might also get really mad.

So next time we will need to talk about what things might be rewards and how to use these to increase positive behavior without falling down the bribe trap. Rewards are also powerful motivators in adult relationships. If you do not make each other happy more often than you make each other mad your relationship is headed for trouble. So very soon I plan to write a post about rewarding your partner to keep the relationship alive. Till next time

More on the topic of changing others can be found at:

Changing others part two 

Rewards gone wild

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the books, trainings and classes category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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4 thoughts on “Changing Others – Part One

  1. Pingback: Changing Others by Influencing | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: Can therapy help if the problem is someone else? | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Why your child won’t behave | counselorssoapbox

  4. Pingback: Who needs to change for you to be OK? | counselorssoapbox

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