The Neuroscience of Self-Determination
Recently I have had the pleasure of presenting a series of trainings on dealing with conflict and/or difficult people to several organizations around the country. In each of these classes, I met intelligent, dedicated, conscientious individuals who just wanted to do their best and get their job done in the most effective way possible. Further, based upon many of the scenarios they described, many of the people who they had to deal with to make this happen were certainly part of the problem. What I observed again and again, however, was how frustrated some of the participants became when their attempts to change the problematic individual were unsuccessful. And, the more that they pursued this end (changing the other person’s mind), the more they were left feeling resentful and powerless.
In several of these classes, we were also looking at how to deal with stress, as well as difficult people, and this gave me an opportunity to discuss how creating a solution that requires someone else to change can be stressful, as well as frustrating. In fact, one of the quotes I like to use in trainings such as these is: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die” (Malachy McCourt).
Finally, the discussion came down to one simple fact: “Regardless of the problem, as long as our solution requires someone else to change, we will never know the power and promise of self-determination.” Now, this doesn’t mean that we should never try to influence another’s position or even change another’s mind. In fact, several of the models I discuss in my book, “Life from the Top of the Mind” are designed specifically to reduce other’s resistance to our suggestions. What this statement refers to is that when our solution requires someone else to change, then at that moment we have made this “someone else” the most powerful person in our lives!
Now, even if this is true (meaning that the other person is important), what is ironic about this perspective is that it often has exactly the opposite effect! In other words, when we are interacting with someone and they sense that we are trying to change them, have you noticed that they will often dig in their heels and become even more defensive and resistant? (One example of this is when we tell someone that they “must listen,” you can bet that this is the last thing that they will do!) In my presentations, I refer to this as the “Lesson of the Fist” because it speaks to how individuals will clench their fist tighter when they believe that someone is trying to force them to show their hand (or change in some way).
This is where the second aspect of this week’s quote is meaningful: “The power and promise of self-determination.” If we have determined that we are the only ones who will have the power to influence our state of mind (and maybe, more importantly, our peace of mind) then we must be willing to claim this perspective of self-determination as our highest purpose. What this means is that while we acknowledge that we are not an island, and therefore we will be interacting with others in almost all aspects of our lives, we are not going to make our success contingent on their changing.
If, despite our best efforts (i.e. listening, and trying to frame our suggestions in terms of what is important to them), we find that the person is not going to change, then we can choose among the alternatives that are always available to every adult. One option is accepting the situation as it is and going about our days being as productive as possible and as happy as we choose to be. And a second option is leaving and searching for a situation that is more congruent with what we are looking for in a job or relationship.
Regardless of our choice, however, if we are taking 100% responsibility for our ability to respond (versus needing them to change), we will be determining the qualities and characteristics that define who we are and who we are becoming, and thus we will know the power and promise of self-determination…the power to think, feel, and behave in ways that are not controlled by others, and the promise of a future where choice versus chance is the determining factor in our experience of life.
If this vision appeals to you, then I would encourage you to see all those “challenging individuals” out there as people who are giving us an opportunity to practice. Put another way, if we would like to become more skilled at determining our experience of life, then life will certainly give us plenty of opportunities to practice. Whether we practice resentment or self-determination, anger or acceptance, frustration or peace of mind, what we practice has been, and will always be up to us. So, maybe the most important question is…what do we want to practice?
~ All the best, Dr. Bill