Want change? Change something

a street sign which says "change"

We often want thing to be different to how they are.

It’s fine balance, this desire.

On one hand it’s the source of most of our unhappiness, on the other it’s the main reason anything gets done.

But in order for things to be different, we need to do something different. We can’t sit around and expect change to happen around us with no input from ourselves.

In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin suggested that human behaviour is a function of a both the person and their environment: B = ƒ (P, E)

In simple terms, if you want a different behaviour, then you have to change either the person or the environment.

We often think that we can get a different outcome with desire alone. We often underestimate the inertia that all our prior decisions have. We underestimate how hard it can be to fight our own habits without doing something different.

In short: if you want change, change something.

Moving closer to discomfort

A bed of rusty nails, pointing up

Our natural response to discomfort is to move away from it – quickly.

It’s a reflex, designed to protect us from things which make us feel bad. From the things which threaten our wellbeing.

But in many ways, it’s a maladaptive behaviour – it has not evolved to suit our currently physical or social environment. These days, how many things uncomfortable things in our life will get better if we just walk away from them?

When it comes to discomfort, we can choose to be more deliberate. We can feel it, acknowledge and then, before making a decision about what to do with it – we can choose to examine it. To understand it. To know where it comes from. What is generating it.

We’re obsessed with the provenance of our food and our clothes (where did they come from? Are they organic?), but we don’t seem to give a shit when it comes to our our feelings, especially discomfort.

Once we know where the discomfort actually comes from, then we can make better decisions about how best to deal with it.

It might be that the best thing to do is move away from it. But that should be a choice, not a reflex – and we can only make that choice, if we get closer discomfort in the first place.

Looking for the trigger

Old pistols by Michael Coghlan

Most of the time, I’m pretty good at gauging someone’s level of interest in a conversation and course correcting to suit.

Sometimes it’s obvious: their eyes begin to dart around, or their posture changes a little. Sometimes it’s more subtle and you couldn’t say why, but you just know, that they’d rather be washing an angry cat (not a euphemism) than standing there taking to you.

At that point you can either:

  1. plow on anyway
  2. shut the conversation down and let them go, or
  3. try to find something which they do want to hear (or a better way of presenting what you have to say).

Number 1 is a bit of a non-starter, so I try to go for 2 or 3 where possible.

But there are some people for whom I just can’t help but pursue option 1. I know they’re bored, or would rather be somewhere else, but I can’t seem to translate it into action.

I don’t shut it down, I don’t change tactic. I know I’m in a hole, but for some reason, I just decide to keep digging.

This doesn’t happen with everyone, just a few, select (unfortunate) people for whom I can’t stop talking about shit they would rather not hear. And it happens regularly. But why?

In cases like this when you know what you want to do in a given situation, but you’re not doing it – the trick is to look for the trigger.

What’s triggering the behaviour you don’t want (in my case, boring people to death)?

In the instance above, the clue was that it was always the same people.

They were always people whom I admired and wanted approval from. My desire to form a connection with these people was overriding all the warning signs that I was boring the shit out of them. How ironic (but only in the Alanis Morrisette way).

Once I knew that chasing their approval was the trigger for talking at them like an idiot. Once you identify the trigger, you can at least have a shot at not pulling it by accident.

Helpfully, most of our bad habits follow the same structure. We want to do A, but instead we do B. The answer? Look for the trigger.

That’s not to say that when you find the trigger, it’s easy to avoid pulling it. But you’re at least more aware of what’s happening, and that’s often half the battle.

Now when I’m in a conversation and I’ve dug myself (and someone else) into a boredom hole, I can at least have the presence of mind to understand what’s happening and try to climb out.

Sometimes you can just step out of the hole. Sometimes you can climb out. Sometimes you have to dig up.