Have you ever wanted to change a teenager? Or, after failing to get them to change, have you ever wanted to force them to do what’s right—at least until they’ve served a mission, married in the temple, graduated from college, or secured a respectable job—promising that after they’ve made the right choice, you’ll turn their lives back over to them?
We all know this was the same plan proposed by Satan, but as a parent, advisor, or friend, we’re certain we’d only use it as a means to get them into righteous adulthood. At which point, we’d revert to the Lord’s plan of free agency. Sound familiar?
As much as we desire, we don’t have control over our teenagers or anyone else. We’ve all been given the gift of choice. However, while we can’t control their agency, we can control our methods of influence—the means we use to influence others. At our disposal are many powerful tools for influencing our teens to make righteous choices.
In most cases, to truly influence someone to change their behavior requires you to influence the way they think about those behaviors. In other words, before a person can change their life, they must change their mind about their life. Getting someone to change their mind is hard enough when it comes to simple things like which is the best lip balm or soft drink. But when it comes to changing the way people think about themselves and their view of the world, many would rather die than change (consider alcoholics or martyrs).
Not only are others resistant to our efforts to change their minds, it turns out we aren’t very good at encouraging them to do so. We plead, we argue, we nag, we whine, we debate, we use facts and figures. And despite our efforts, we don’t help others change their minds; we just increase their irritation with us and their resistance to us.
The good news is when influencing others, you don’t have to get them to change their minds about all things; rather, you need them to think differently about only two things. Carefully identify the behavior you would like your teen to start doing or stop doing. Now, the only two things you have to change their mind about regarding the new behavior is:
- Can I do it?
- Will it be worth it?
Even when facing some of the most profound, persistent problems, the only two things people need to believe is that they can do what’s required to overcome that problem and that if they do, the results will be worth it. This is because we choose our behaviors based on how easy or how hard something will be and on what we think will happen to us as a result. With this understanding, there are three guidelines to follow when attempting to change people’s minds.
Don’t rely on verbal persuasion. When trying to change someone, we immediately begin by telling them why they ought to want to change. Ironically, verbal persuasion is the most commonly used but least effective way to change others. While it may work with small stuff like persuading a spouse to change his tie to match his shirt, it rarely, if ever, works when it comes to profound, persistent problems. A well-crafted phrase, even delivered with urgency, doesn’t trump the intense pleasure of addictions or the surety of a deeply-held belief system. When it comes to verbal persuasion, use it on minor and inconsequential problems. When it comes to the big problems, save your breath.
The great persuader is personal experience. The best way to change people’s minds is to create personal experience. Go beyond words and give someone the chance to experience a world that is different than the way they thought the world worked. For example, help a low achiever experience achievement. Design an activity where a teen can experience a difficult challenge and the resulting success of conquering that challenge. Experiencing accomplishment does more to change a kid’s mind about her personal worth than a thousand words of praise and a blue ribbon for participation.
Let’s look at the popular building products company, Home Depot, as an example. Leaders at Home Depot want every employee to relate to the customer. So, they require the folks at headquarters and those working at desk jobs to actually work on the store floor until they earn an orange apron. Everyone spends the time and effort required to earn an apron before they can go to their permanent job. This way, when policies are designed and systems are implemented, corporate people understand how it affects employees and customers. They rely on their own experience to guide their thinking rather than on a lecture about customers.
This is one reason exposing young priests to missionary experiences, like attending a discussion, or going to convert baptisms can be so powerfully persuasive. The Priests have an experience with the world you are trying to help them envision.
Create experience through stories. Often, creating a personal experience can be too difficult, too expensive, or impossible to arrange. That’s when you resort to vicarious experience. A powerful way to change minds is for the person to hear a story from someone else about their personal experience. When stories are sincerely told and combined with testimony, listeners vicariously experience the story while the Spirit synonymously bears witness resulting in changed hearts and minds. This is why using a poignant story and testimony can turn a vicarious experience into a personal experience.
I know many young Priests who have had their minds changed about serving a mission by having a returned missionary share his or her personal struggles and successes, stories of their converts’ learning and conversion, and their personal testimony of the truthfulness of the Lord’s redeeming work. For example, after one of my Priests turned in his mission papers, I reminded him of our many discussions about a mission and how he said he probably wouldn’t go. I asked him what had changed his mind. He said that after hearing Todd, a returned missionary, tell him about teaching an estranged couple and how the gospel had brought them back together, he felt Todd’s joy and was proud of Todd’s service. He wanted to make a difference in peoples’ lives just like Todd. This young man’s mind was changed by a vicarious experience. Todd’s story and testimony helped change the way he saw the world and led to the desired behaviors of serving a mission.
Consider a final example of how the power of using personal experience and vicarious experience can change a teen’s behavior. My good friend’s ten-year-old daughter Kathy was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. To manage her disease, Kathy had to test herself five times a day by drawing blood through a painful prick in the fingers. Depending on the test results, she often had to give herself a shot. At the age of ten, Kathy did what her parents asked her to do. However, when she turned fourteen she became less diligent. Leaving her friends and going into the restroom to test became such an inconvenience that she sometimes skipped testing for an entire day. When she felt just fine she thought testing must be “no big deal.
” A good friend who was worried confided in Kathy’s parents that their daughter was skipping her testing.
Her parents understood the dire consequences of Kathy not managing her disease. They desperately wanted to change her behavior but that would require changing her mind about testing and shots. They talked it over and agreed to a plan.
Early one Saturday, Dad woke Kathy. “Get up and get ready, we’ve got plans.” In the car he explained that he had volunteered her for several hours at the hospital. He explained that one of the consequences of not managing diabetes well is your kidneys fail and you have to go to the hospital for dialysis three times a week. Her job today was helping the nurses in the dialysis center care for their patients. He also explained that her volunteer work on this fine Saturday was not optional.
Kathy met the nurses and assisted them with their patients. As she visited with the patients, saw open sores that wouldn’t heal, heard about their pain, saw how the need for dialysis controlled their lives, and heard many wish they had caught their disease earlier and managed it better, she was deeply touched.
On the ride home with Dad, nothing was said. That afternoon, she began again the rigorous discipline of testing five times a day and giving herself the necessary shots, hardly ever missing throughout the rest of her teenage years.
Never underestimate the power of experience when changing minds. These personal and vicarious experiences will be your best tool in helping to influence your teen toward righteous choices without denying them of their free agency.