The most important thing I do at work is to listen. I don’t build things or create tangible products. I help people change. The nature of change is invisible, all ingredients lying deep within the soul of a person. Sometimes I kid myself into thinking that I am uniquely skilled and responsible to help people change. The truth is anyone is capable of helping others shift and move. We all walk a journey that is shaped by the relationships we live in every day. The person I see in the mirror at any given moment is a reflection of every significant relationship I’ve had up to that point. My best parts, the grace and strength I offer to others, have been called out of me by people who have touched my life.
Can I help people change? The most common response to that question would be, “It’s not my job to change people.” There is some truth to that but as soon as you engage a person beyond surface level chitchat, you both enter into mutual change. For better or worse, we are wired for change specifically within the context of relationships. The thought behind the statement, “It’s not my job to change people” is one of frustration that arises when we try to make changing others a process we can control. In that sense, I would agree and affirm the reality that it is not your “job” to change people but it is your calling. The difference between the two is found in purpose. If your purpose for being in a relationship with someone is to change them, then get ready for a lot of headaches. But if your purpose is to know the person behind the persona, then you will become a powerful change agent in their life.
How does knowing a person lead to change? It does sound perplexing that knowing a person, something seemingly passive, could be linked to change, which is quite active. It reminds me of a previous coworker whom I viewed as an enemy. Our interactions were civil but there were no friendly accouterments of warmth complementing the relationship. So you can be certain I was shocked when I received an email from the individual inviting me to lunch. Despite my tactics of avoidance the solicitor’s resolve did not weaken. Finally we found ourselves breaking bread and creating what was sure to be an awkward, unpleasant memory. I shared stories in response to what I figured were template inquiries about my life. I also asked questions, to be polite of course, and heard stories about my lunch companion’s life, family and friends. Then the most unusual thing occurred, I found myself no longer interacting with an enemy but engaging with a person. While we didn’t instantly morph into best friends I was impacted and left…changed. After all these years I still think about how I was graciously pursued by an “enemy”. The purpose of the relationship was not to change me but in the active pursuit of knowing me and being known by me, I opened up and I changed.
Do you really expect me to eat with my enemy? The most important ingredient in the recipe for making an enemy is objectification. Once a person’s humanity is taken out of the equation they become a blank construct upon which we can assign any hallucination based on our previous hurt. If I can stop seeing you as a person who has hopes, dreams, laughter and sadness, it becomes easier for me to turn you into an object that represents something from my past. Perhaps the cutting way you speak when you get stressed reminds me of a disapproving, overwhelmed teacher. Now, you are now longer a unique individual, you are my childhood teacher that makes me feel embarrassed and ashamed. This is not an intentional cognitive process; nobody wakes up in the morning planning this strategy. However, the brain is a sophisticated machine and it will use subtle relational similarities to help us guard against a repeat of emotional pain. If you remind me of a jerk from my past, I’m going to throw walls up to protect myself from being let down the same way. The problem is the walls we erect to guard against pain are actually creating a cage that keeps us feeling trapped and isolated. It makes me wonder what we really fear when inviting an enemy to lunch. What did King David really mean when he wrote in the Psalms, “You Prepare A Table Before Me In The Presence of My Enemies?”