I was talking with a fellow coach the other day, and she said “I work from the presumption that people can’t change, and you should work with their strengths rather than try to change them”. You can probably guess what my response was. No, it wasn’t “Hogwash!”. It was a little less abrupt than that but the meaning was the same.

Just think about it. Every day business owners hear “Work with your strengths and hire for your weaknesses.” Or “Don’t spend so much time trying to change your weaknesses, that requires a lot of effort, which you should apply to your strengths — it will get you further.”

It’s almost like the Nature vs Nurture debate in psychology. Not likely to get me sucked into that one!

Both nature and nurture play a role in a person’s development. By the same token, playing to your strengths is a smart choice in many contexts but please don’t tell me that people can’t change.

We are changing constantly. We never stop. We start changing, evolving even before we are born, scientific evidence has established. The parents reading this will know exactly what I mean, right?

Our brain is designed to constantly learn and evolve — in short, to change. We do things over and over again, sometimes out of habit, other times out of necessity. We’ll often do them the same way every time because it’s easy, unless we’re faced with changed circumstances, in which case we’ll adapt – we’ll make a change. How? By changing our behavior.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: “Change the behavior and you change the person.” You see, conceptually, changing a person entirely, changing their personality is very hard. However, adopting a new behavior is easy, especially in circumstances that make this change necessary.

I used to brush my teeth with cold water until I developed a sensitive tooth. Then I started rinsing with warm water instead. That didn’t change me as a person, it didn’t change my beliefs or values, but it changed a specific behavior.

Sometimes, however, changing behaviors can indeed bring about a change in beliefs. I used to be uncomfortable around large groups of people until I started my coaching business and I had to make lots of presentations to large groups of people and then network with them afterwards. After doing this for six months to a year, I realized that I actually loved it.

Did I change? Perhaps. Definitely in that context. But there was no change to my values. If people were to compare me now versus the person I was before, they would say “Yes, he definitely changed. Yes, he is a changed person.” But I didn’t set out to be a changed person. I just did what I had to do in a certain situation and after a while it grew on me. It changed my belief that speaking in front of people was an unpleasant experience.

I practiced a new behavior. The more I practiced, the more it became comfortable. The more it became comfortable, the more I started to shift my belief about large groups of people. I became more confident in those surroundings. Now I value my interactions with others. I value the time in front of a group of people, sharing with them, engaging with them, teaching them and learning from them. I guess I am a changed person.

In this case, as you can see, I did not play to my strengths. Quite the contrary — I worked on what was a weakness for me and managed to overcome it by changing my behavior. It took time but it was worth it.

So, should you work on your weaknesses or play to your strengths? Working on your weaknesses is going to take more effort. Yes, it will be hard at first. Yes, it will take more time. So, how important is it?

If my goal is to become a highly sought-after speaker, and I am afraid of speaking in front of large groups, or being in large groups, then getting someone else to do the speaking would be the easy way, using, say, my strength of being able to afford hiring someone else. But this easy way is just not going to cut it, not for me, because I am the one who knows best what I want to share with these anonymous groups of people. So it’s important for me to change.

I would start slowly, with small groups, toastmasters, etc, and work my way up until I start feeling comfortable in front of an audience and even start enjoying it.

If my survival depends on sales, and I hate making sales calls, then I could hire someone who loves doing that. But if I am the only one who can truly represent my product and do it justice in front of a prospect, then maybe I should consider evolving my sales skills. Do some role-playing. Get some sales training. Change.

In summary: People can change, they are changing all the time. Whether they want to or not is the bigger question. How badly do they want that change, or need to make that change can make all the difference. A strong desire or a need will give you the resilience and persistence to get there.

Nagui Bihelek – naguibihelek.com

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