Change Sucks – Which is Why Support Must Come From a Place of Compassion and Empathy

Change sucks. Unless someone else is changing. And unless that change that the other person is making aligns to how you want them to change.

Yet here we are in the “change business”. You spend most of your days being a change agent. When people are motivated and interested, that is awesome.

Most change in life happens when people are self-aware and self-guided. You probably do that in your own life. Think of something like the day you realized you needed to eat more vegetables, and sure enough from then on (and to this day) go out of your way to make sure you eat a good amount of vegetables.

Sometimes change comes about because people are self-aware, but do not have the ability to be self-guided – or at least acknowledge that they will likely do better if they have the support of someone else. Again, let us focus on you. You wanted to start being more active, but have a history of not staying on with the gym after you get a membership. Maybe this time will be different because you join with a couple other friends that want to keep each other accountable. Or maybe this time you are shelling out extra money for a personal trainer.

There is also the time and place for things like Motivational Interviewing. This intentional conversation is intended to be evocative enough to call forth another person’s motivation to change. It has to be person-centered, and only when the professional is exploratory in her inquiry will the possibility of change be known. If there is direction or coercion or misalignment of the inquiry to the timeline or demands of change, nothing happens.

When people are not self-aware nor self-guided and when Motivational Interviewing is going nowhere there are unique, special circumstances where Assertive Engagement is necessary. This is when the person sees the need for change, but not right now, or helping professionals see the need for change but no change is happening. To be clear, these are not rinky-dink small potato type changes. AE is only used when the lack of change is impacting the person or the community at large in such a manner that the person is putting themselves or others at risk. Like MI, to deliver AE a person needs training and loads of practice.

Anytime we step into the space of helping others change – regardless of which techniques are being used – we must be conscious of our own values, beliefs and morals. It is easy to say “I am not judgmental”, but it is something completely different to put a non-judgmental approach into the practice of supporting change in others. Ultimately it comes down to whether your supports in the change process are designed to be a social service or if you are ultimately trying to exercise social control. Even in Assertive Engagement there are no threats, coercion, bribes or intimidation to change. Change comes down to what the person is willing to do – at her/his own pace. Change supports must always respect and support the free will of others.

There are no shortages of mistakes made in the process of supporting change in others which is another reason why change sucks (or at least has a reputation of sucking). For example, there are myths like, “There is no time like the present” when in fact for most changes to be successful people need to discern, process and decide when and how to take action. Other times change comes with “tough love” or doomsday suggestions if change does not happen – both of which are likely to result in long-term failure.

If change is going to not suck (or suck less) we need to appreciate that adults only change long-term when there is a presentation of facts relative to their needs, an appreciation of personal values and goals, and an ongoing assessment of needs. Retribution and reciprocity do not get long-term benefits with most adults. Furthermore, a change will not be worth the investment of emotional energy, time, or the pain that comes with it unless the person sees the importance of making the change and they are ready to do it.

We can design all of the therapeutic programs we want, but unless we are approaching change from a place of compassion and empathy we will always fail. This is where I turn to the writing of Chodron, and I will leave you with these thoughts as you go about helping others in the change process:

“In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience – our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”


In other words, check yourself before you go about trying to support others to change.



If you or your organization are interested in receiving training in things like Housing Focused Motivational Interviewing or Assertive Engagement, please reach out to [email protected] 

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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