Repeat After Me: I Will Never Try to Control Others

Barely a week goes by where somebody doesn’t ask me what mistake people make most often when dealing with family and friends. Regular readers of this page can probably predict my answer: The biggest mistake people make is trying to control others.

We can’t control the weather. We can’t control businesses, other than by spending or withholding our dollars. Nobody expects to control government or politicians, other than by exercising personal responsibility. Their power evaporates if they can’t control us with the promise of freebies (paid for with our money, of course).

In spite of that, people still expect to control others; their spouses, kids, family, friends and, if they’re really ambitious, even “society” in general.

People will piously declare that they don’t want to control others, but they go right ahead and try anyway. They’ll say something like, “I know I can’t control John. But I’d like to find a way to make him behave differently.” Oops … there’s that control. You can’t change someone’s behavior just because you want to.

The best you can do to (possibly) change a person’s thinking is to persuade them with reason. But it’s still up to them whether to listen or not. It takes an active choice to open one’s mind, to focus and to think. If they choose to ignore you, even the most brilliant reasoning will have no effect.

Some people not only expect others to change, but they feel entitled to it. In a personal relationship, “This isn’t the person I married. I’m entitled to change his or her behavior.” If somebody ends up not being the person you thought you married, then maybe you were misled, or maybe you rushed into a commitment without all the facts.

You may be able to prove beyond a doubt that your daughter, wife, husband, son, spouse or friend should act differently – not just for your sake, but for his or her own self-interest. But if he or she thinks they’re just fine as they are, there will be no change.

Certain politicians expect people to change, and feel entitled to it. So much time, energy and money is wasted on this impossible quest. A prime example is “The War on Drugs.” Three decades and billions of our dollars into it, are drugs any less popular than before? (No.) Are there fewer people abusing them? (No.) It’s no different than Prohibition back in the 1920s, and we all know how well that worked out. “The War on Poverty” has degenerated into a daytime TV platitude. Did poverty go away? (No.)

Think of the religious fanatics who try to use coercion to get their way. How many were converted by the events of 9/11? In fact, how many new enemies did they actually make on that day? It’s no different than the lingering stigma of the Crusades. In spite of all that sword rattling, I look around today and I see people of all religious denominations. Organized attempts to change people’s thinking will continue to be gross failures.

How well did it work out for Hitler to force people into racial and nationalistic boxes? Are we all Nazi today? No. In fact, Nazi is a dirty word. Communist dictators such as Stalin murdered millions in order to force a doctrine of economic equality on a population that was still just as poor 50 years later.

This is by no means intended to be a political tirade. But these historical examples of organized attempts to change attitudes and opinions are too compelling to ignore. Whether it’s trying to change your husband, your kids, your wife or millions of people, coercion is not the answer.

Physical or verbal abusers in a marriage, as well as dictators and “spiritual” gurus can sometimes intimidate bodies to do what minds will never accept. It might even look for a while like it’s working, but history has proven again and again that it never lasts. And the abusers, dictators and gurus will end up as nothing more than dirty words.

Michael J. Hurd

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