People Don’t Change

Conflict is inevitable because we are all different. This is the challenge of effective conflict management. Our values, needs, self- image, beliefs and expectations vary from one person to the next. When we see people behave in ways that appear to disrespect any of these, we can find ourselves reacting negatively and experiencing conflict. The situation is telling us that we are different and in order to move beyond the conflict, something has to change.

In our conflict management training we point out that much of how we respond to situations is automatic and we all follow largely unconscious patterns that are laid down quite early on in life and formed by our experience and perceptions over time. Conflict challenges us to change some of these. However, people often tell us that this type of change is not possible. That essentially, ‘People Don’t Change’.

In recent Effective Conflict Management workshops, we have discussed this. We have asked participants, ‘What do you think? Can people change’? Responses to this question vary. Some of the interesting ones were ‘look at the smoking ban’ and ‘we’re not asking people to change, but to modify their behaviour’. These are both helpful answers. They point to the fact that to manage conflict effectively, we are not asking people to change who they are, but to make changes to their behaviour. The change in our behaviour as a society is demonstrated well through the impact of the smoking ban. When we need to, we can make significant changes.

History tells us that some of the great leaders of our time saw the necessity to change and did so quiet radically. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi both adapted their leadership style to one of inclusion and reaching out. It is said of one of our world leaders today, Pope Francis, that he has altered his leadership style from an authoritarian conservative one in his early years to, again, an inclusive and compassionate one in his later life, culminating in his radically different Papal style of today. In Gandhi’s view, change always started with ourselves and is reflected in his statement – ’be the change you wish to see in the world’.

Neuroscience also tells us that change is a necessary part of our everyday life. We are continually being presented with new experiences. In order to grow and develop, we need to change. Our brain is continually evolving and changing through the process of neuroplasticity which describes the ability of our brain to reorganise itself, forming new neural pathways in response to changes in behaviour, our environment, thinking or emotions, or as a response to physical changes due to injury or disease.

So not only do we have evidence to show us that change is possible, we also have evidence to show us that we are built to change. In fact the more accurate statement is then, ‘People can’t but change’. But neuroscience also teaches us that we must be intentional and conscious in the type of change we wish to pursue and that it takes time and practice to develop these new pathways and habits.

That’s where constructive responses to conflict come in. In order to achieve positive outcomes to conflict we need to practice and re practice these constructive behaviours until they become our ‘second nature’ and change the old and destructive patterns we followed, unconsciously and automatically, in the past.

‘To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often’, Winston Churchill

We’d love to hear your views on this and what is the change that you would like to focus on in your workplace?

Mary Lou

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