The Way We Try to Change Others Is Counterproductive

Change strategies are methods for encouraging people to change their attitudes and/or behaviors. Advocates use change strategies in order to conduct outreach and also to influence other advocates in their own group or movement whose opinions they disagree with.

The change strategy many of us have learned to use is counterproductive. It generally has the opposite effect than we intend it to. This counterproductive approach is based on a longstanding and widespread set of inaccurate assumptions about how and why attitudinal and behavioral change happens.

Supporters of this strategy often refer to it as the “confrontational approach,” but to confront simply means to come face to face, or to challenge. There are many effective strategies for helping people come face to face with their present situation and feel open to changing. However, the so-called confrontational approach isn’t one of them.

A more accurate term for this strategy is the “aggressive confrontational approach” (which we refer to as the ACA), because it’s based on aggression. Such aggression may be subtle or overt, and it’s virtually always shaming. Examples of the ACA are rolling your eyes at your conservative sister-in-law as she explains her political views, or publicly berating another progressive who posted that they support a politician whose policies you disagree with.

There are many effective strategies for helping people come face to face with their present situation and feel open to changing. However, the so-called confrontational approach isn’t one.

The ACA fuels infighting in two main ways. Advocates who support this approach may attack other advocates who don’t support it, calling them “soft” or “sellouts.” Such attacks cause other advocates to feel fearful and insecure, and also to worry that if they aren’t confrontational, they’re hurting the cause. And advocates use the ACA when they disagree with other advocates, in an attempt to change the latter.

For example, some vegans believe that it’s necessary to shame nonvegans to get them to stop eating animals, and they accuse vegans who aren’t using shaming tactics as being “enablers” or “giving people permission to exploit animals.” Or, an anti-racist activist might shame another activist within their organization for the latter’s perspective on inclusive hiring policies.

The history of the aggressive confrontational approach

To understand the ACA and why it endures, it’s helpful to understand the history of this approach. Much of the information that follows comes from the key findings of a meta-analysis (an analysis of all research on the subject) carried out by William Lee White and William R. Miller, who examined data from 40 years of studies.

How the ACA took hold

The ACA began as an intervention to treat addiction in the US in the mid-twentieth century, and it eventually spread to influence the field of psychotherapy, the human potential movement, through encounter groups like Insight Seminars and Erhard Seminars Training (EST), and, finally, the general public. The questions asked by those trying to treat addictions were “How can we inspire change in someone else?” and “What methods or interventions will stop people from engaging in behaviors that are causing harm to themselves and others?”

The people asking these questions generally weren’t trained psychologists; they were largely laypeople who were trying to manage their own addictions. They were members of voluntary, peer-based communities, most notably Synanon, the group that gave rise to AA (AA is, in fact, not based on the aggressive confrontational model). The answers they came up with were highly subjective, since there were no established protocols for reliably and scientifically evaluating the effectiveness of the treatments.

The prevailing belief at that time was that addiction was caused by a problem in an “addict’s” personality: alcoholism and drug dependence were classified as personality disorders in the DSM-II. (The DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is the official book used for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in the US.)

One influential theorist, Harry Tiebout, described the “addictive personality” as immature and egocentric. This personality, he claimed, included ingrained defense mechanisms such as denial, justification, rationalization, and outright dishonesty.

According to this view, the only way to break through an addicted individual’s defenses was with aggressive, high-volume confrontation. Tiebout’s theory helped fuel the saying “Break ’em down to build ’em up.”

Backlash against the ACA

By the 1980s, criticism of the ACA—particularly when applied to more vulnerable populations like adolescents, women, and BIPOC—led to some softening of the techniques. Around the same time, confrontational methods and the assumptions driving them started to be empirically evaluated.

What the research showed was that the assumption that defensiveness is ingrained in someone’s character and that aggressive confrontation breaks through that defensiveness is simply wrong.

In fact, the opposite is true. Research showed that aggressive confrontation actually causes defensiveness and reduces the chances that the person being confronted will be receptive to change. As White and Miller point out, “Defensiveness is a normal human response when one is accused, demeaned, labeled, disrespected or threatened. In other words, suspicion and confrontation are self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Researchers looked at a range of different groups and group styles, quite separate from substance abuse treatment strategies. White and Miller report that individuals who were aggressively confrontational produced “an uncommonly high level of harmful outcomes” and that “...there is not and never has been a scientific evidence base for the use of confrontational therapies.”

In other words, when we use aggressive confrontation to try to get someone to change, it brings about the opposite outcomes of what we want. As White and Miller point out, “Getting in a person’s face is rarely the best way to help them open up to new perspectives.” (Elsewhere on this site we explain how and why shaming someone is counterproductive if we hope to encourage them to change.)

As organizational psychologist Adam Grant explains, when our attempts to change others aren’t successful, we often end up reinforcing the others’ position: “Experiments show that preaching and prosecuting typically backfire—and what doesn’t sway people may strengthen their beliefs. Much as a vaccine inoculates the physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies the psychological immune system.”

Patriarchy and the ACA 

Sometimes, advocates who refuse to use aggression are criticized as being “soft.” It’s worth noting the gendered nature of this criticism so that we don’t mistake sexism for pragmatism. The ACA is inherently patriarchal.

Sometimes, advocates who refuse to use aggression are criticized as being “soft.” It’s worth noting the gendered nature of this criticism so that we don’t mistake sexism for pragmatism.

Patriarchal values include aggression, competition, control, and authoritarianism over the so-called feminine values of understanding, cooperation, empathic motivation, and relationality. Debate is therefore valued over discussion, and winning or being right are valued over mutual understanding.

Within a patriarchal, authoritarian framework, nonaggressive approaches are sometimes framed as “giving people permission” to do something undesirable. For example, environmentalists who don’t shame people for purchasing single-use plastic bottles or vegans who don’t demand that nonvegans immediately stop eating animals may be accused of encouraging such behaviors by advocates within their own groups.

The argument is that by not pushing aggressively for change, an advocate is “letting people off the hook” or giving them a “free pass” to continue to exploit.

But to assume that we have the power to “let a person off the hook” is to assume that we’re in the position of granting that person permission in the first place. When we place ourselves in a position of granting another adult permission to do something—of authorizing their behavior—we’re assuming authority that we don’t actually have. In truth, we have virtually no control over what other independent adults believe or do (when the behavior in question is legal), so we’re not in a position to grant them permission to begin with.

Of course, there’s a big difference between communicating that it’s “okay” for someone to engage in a harmful behavior—actually condoning it, and granting someone permission—and explaining that a behavior is harmful while providing suggestions for ways to help. And we can hold people accountable without being nonrelational.

Why do we use the ACA if it’s counterproductive?

One reason we use the ACA is simply because most of us don’t realize that the approach is problematic. After all, it’s been modeled for us by our culture and most likely also in our own families. And we’re generally not familiar with the various evidence-based approaches that are promoted by communications experts, psychologists, negotiators, and other professionals who specialize in motivating people to change—approaches that are based on empathy, compassion, effective listening, and an understanding of healthy relational practices.

Also, a great deal of our communication takes place on social media, and social media is structured to be nonrelational. Studies have shown that we’re more likely to get traffic and likes if we’re communicating nonrelationally. So we’re encouraged to use counterproductive communication, and we’re rewarded when we do.

A third reason why people rely on the ACA is because this approach can sometimes be effective—in the short term. People may respond “positively” to aggressive confrontation in order to please us, or to avoid continuing to feel pushed, and so on. But any changes people make under these circumstances are unlikely to endure.

Breaking the pattern of using the ACA

It takes time to break patterns, especially when those patterns are widespread and culturally reinforced, so it makes sense that even those of us who have started to realize that the ACA is problematic continue using it to some degree—even as we try not to.

It’s crucial that we commit to moving away from the ACA, since it harms our groups and movements and turns people off to our cause.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we remain committed to moving away from the aggressive approach, since it harms our groups and movements and turns people off to our cause.

Communication experts concur. For instance, in Messages: The Communication Skills Book, one of the most well-respected books about communication on the market, authors McKay, et al. explain how in blaming, criticizing, complaining, or demanding, the overarching message to the other person is that they’re bad or wrong.

These are ineffective persuasion strategies that violate the basic rules of decency, fairness, and respect—and the same is true of threats, belittling, and withholding. As the authors point out: “Strategies that don’t influence change all act the same way: they are aversive, and they hurt people.”

Of course, even if we use the most relational of approaches—approaches that involve practicing integrity, honoring dignity, and creating a sense of connection and security—people may still feel defensive. But by using a relational approach, we increase the chances that others will be receptive to our message, and we decrease the chances that they’ll respond in ways that contribute to infighting.

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