Updated: Oct 7, 2019
Can people change and if so what does it take?
A friend and I were speaking about an incident involving a mutual guy friend recently. On hearing what he had done, my friend, who has known him for many years sighed and said “well, a leopard can’t change its spots”. Similar to the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, the saying is meant to remind us how foolish it is to expect people to change.
So what then is the point of coaching, particularly developmental coaching? Are people capable of change?
Some believe we can change behaviour but not ‘personality’: the cluster of traits with which we identify closely over time. Yet personality testing is a multi-million dollar industry in which most people get inconsistent results. The most used tests carefully define personality in terms of preferences or tendencies ie expressions of our inner world to distinguish from ‘learned behaviour’ - think of the ‘introvert’ who goes to school and learns to be more ‘extrovert’ through socialisation. But we can probably all think of instances of how, over time, even our preferences have actually changed- we adapt. Research such as Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ work shows us that with the right attitudes, even traits once thought of as innate, such as intelligence, can be grown.
Is a change of attitude, of mindset, the key to change then? Dweck’s work suggests that cultivating a growth mindset about a trait - believing that change is possible - is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need to be motivated. If the leopard’s spots are providing good camouflage hunting his prey and ensuring he gets fed- why change?
The punchline to the joke “How many coaches does it take to change a lightbulb?” is “Just one - but the lightbulb has to really want to change….”
If we believe change is possible and are motivated, how do we go about turning over a new leaf? Sadly health studies are littered with examples of those who had knowledge about how to change and and huge motivation to change and yet were unable to sustain changes which they were objectively capable of making.
To change ourselves, we need to re-design our lives. I can’t live my old life and expect myself and my behaviours alone to shift. An ‘impulse buy’ is not really an impulse…it’s a well-rehearsed step in a compulsive routine of wandering in the mall to kill some time. I become a runner by running, I become a writer by writing. I become a tap dancer by tap dancing over and over so that when the right music comes on, I start tapping. In order to change the dance I need to be willing to wake up and change the music.
So what are the tools of re-designing our lives? We need to cultivate the ability to observe ourselves and our patterns, the self-compassion to move through the grief of giving up who we have been and the skills to interrupt our routines so new patterns can emerge. The house of our future life isn't 'empty', it is already 'full' with all the things we brought with us and refused to throw away. In order to make space for our future self we need to remodel and change the furniture. We change ourselves by re-shaping our lives and those re-shaped lives shape us.