Do you ever wonder what it takes to make changes that stick instead of slipping back into old patterns of behavior? I’ve been curious about that for a long time.
To really understand how people make durable change, let’s flip the question and ask how people get stuck, how they wind up being less than they’re created to be. Like most of life and business, our actions are the result of a system. Building on the thinking of people as diverse as psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, philosopher Dallas Willard, and theologian James Bryan Smith, here’s a simple way to think of the system that gets us stuck:
- Narratives: We’re interpretative creatures. Though most of us rarely admit it, there’s a running commentary going on in our heads that makes sense of the circumstances we’re experiencing in our outer reality. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I immediately have a running commentary in my head about what just happened, the other driver, and my relationship to that driver. I don’t consciously choose that narrative and it’s rarely based on the full set of facts. It’s the story I’m telling myself to make sense of my reality, a kind of existential shorthand.
- Habits: We’re creatures of habit. To make life simpler, we establish patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in response to the world around us. These habits might involve simple activities like how much or when we sleep, how much or what we eat/drink, and how we structure our days. They may also be habitual patterns of relating to others. When I’m cut off in traffic, I may have a habitual expression cross my face, certain choice words I speak out loud to the other driver, and even a special one-fingered salute. We acquire most habits accidentally, a sort of behavioral lint.
- Relationships: We’re social creatures. We pay close attention to how we’re viewed by those we value. If my wife is riding next to me in the car as the other driver cuts me off, it makes a difference how she reacts to my habitual behavior. She can reinforce my habit, adding her own saltiness to the atmosphere. Or she can roll her eyes at my actions prompting a whole different set of narratives and habitual responses that I’d rather keep between us, thank you very much. Regardless, her reaction matters. As a human, I’m wired to pay close attention to connection to those I care about.
While it’s probably a simplification of a very complex phenomenon, these three factors combine to reinforce what I do. And what I do largely determines who I’m becoming. If the system is one that leads me away from becoming who I was created to be, no amount of simple behavior modification is going to make a long-term difference. I may go on a diet but unless I go after the whole system, I’m never going to keep the weight off.
So if you want to harness the learning experience in your real-time class for the long haul, try engaging the Golden Triangle of Durable Change. This system puts the three elements outlined above to work in creating the kind of long-term results we all want.
Here’s how: Let’s say the class you’re in revolves around positively influencing others. You’ve been told you have potential to be a first-rate CEO but sometimes you steamroll others instead of influencing them. While you could get things done by bulldozing, you know deep down that there’s a cost to that in relational capital. Plus you feel a little icky about that feedback. You’re pretty sure you weren’t created to be a runaway freight train. No, you’re created to be an effective, tough-minded and soft-hearted leader who brings out the best in people over the long haul.
It won’t take you long to identify the on-the-spot moments where your railroading tendency shows up. It’s probably in meetings with key colleagues, those meetings that feel like they’re going so slowly you want to stick a fork in your eye. That’s your classroom, the place to apply the Golden Triangle of Durable Change.
Start with your Narratives. Look at the story you tell yourself in those on-the-spot moments when you feel your blood pressure rising and the impatience building. Maybe it’s a deep desire to be successful and an intense fear of failure. It’s possible there’s a tiny bit of “I’m smarter than these people” arrogance. You probably don’t even know what you’re telling yourself in that moment, but when you write it down you’ll see the mixture of truth and falsehood. The trick is to rewrite the script toward something that matches who you want to be. Perhaps something like, “I want to be successful over the long haul, so I want to pay close attention to the needs and interests of these colleagues while we get great work done.”
Next, move to curating a set of constructive habits. The way to be ready for on-the-spot moments is to engage in off-the-spot Practices that prepare you to actually be different when the bright lights are on. Anyone who has mastered any skill – from musicians to athletes – engages in Practices that enable them to do things under the spotlight that they could never have done without practice. These practices often seem mundane but they’re crucial. No musician performs scales on stage but you won’t play Beethoven if you haven’t mastered your scales. To become the kind of person who steamrolls less, you might engage in practices that build muscles in listening and empathy.
Last, surround yourself with Supportive Relationships. Most of your colleagues would love for you to become who you were created to be. With a little vulnerability, you can enlist them to help you. It usually involves letting them know what you’re working on, asking them to catch you doing things better (not perfectly!), and offering you helpful suggestions on how to do even better. While many leaders feel awkward about initiating these conversations, those who do usually discover the freedom and *gasp* fun that comes from letting down their guard.
You don’t have to be stuck. Your colleagues, customers, shareholders, and family will all benefit when you intentionally move toward who you’re created to be. And you might just like yourself a little more too.