Earlier in the year I spent two days working with and teaching a number individuals helping them improve their ability to hold difficult conversations. After the session one of the organization’s directors who stopped by to observe said, “This is all well and good, but you know, you can’t teach a pig to sing!” I was taken back by this statement because not only was it a crude metaphor for the individuals who were honestly trying to increase their people-skills, but it was also allusion to his own lack of commitment to what others were trying to accomplish. I couldn’t help myself, so I said, “I guess that would depend on who is the pig and how good the singing has to be.” He promptly turned and left the room.

Sometimes we can become the greatest barrier to those who want to change something about their lives. We come to adopt a mental picture of people in certain situations and then we tend to continue to see them in that light. Because we are unaware of an individual’s internal struggles, challenges, or aspirations, we reject any attempt on their part to become anything other than what they have always been to us. Simply, we are not very forgiving nor are we accepting when people fall short of our expectations or when they want to change negative behavior.

We think, “I can’t teach a pig to sing.”

Here are some questions that will help you examine your own attitude and behavior toward those who are trying to learn to “sing” a new or different song:

What thoughts or judgments do you possess about those who are trying to change?

Examining your thoughts can be very revealing. In the example above, the director revealed his attitude toward those who were willing to try something new. I can’t help but wonder what effect that attitude had on those who might attempt something and not succeed the first time out. If you can become aware of your own negative thinking toward people and their efforts, perhaps you can challenge your thoughts or ask yourself if there is another more objective way to interpret the same set of facts.

How do you speak about others?

Someone wise once said that out of the heart, the mouth speaketh. What do your words reveal about your thoughts? Referring to people in derogatory and demeaning language says more about you than it does about them. If you can catch yourself speaking poorly about others, then you might explore the source of those thoughts and determine if they are serving you or others in a way that is uplifting and energizing.

Do you dump your doubts on others?

The way we speak to others about their performance may impact their willingness to continue with their efforts. Providing support and encouragement of any effort to improve will sustain people when they falter. It is also important to take the time and make the effort to offer suggestions or ideas that will help the individual. Your support can go a long way in helping an individual feel like the challenge of learning and its accompanying hurdles is worth the effort.

Are you willing to change and improve?

Sometimes our unwillingness to change hinders others from making an effort to do the same. Example is the great teacher. What other people experience as they observe your feelings, words, and actions tells them what is acceptable to you and what is not. Remember, in the absence of data people will interpret meaning in the worst possible way. If you are in a position of authority over others, they may not be willing to exceed or go beyond their perceptions of your thoughts and feelings. Many people will never attempt to rise above the example of their leaders.

Do you think you can’t, so you’ve decided you won’t?  

When the director said what he did, I thought, “Of course you can teach an individual to sing.” What I also interpreted him to say was, either these people can’t do it or they won’t do it. I also wondered if he believed that he couldn’t so he wouldn’t try to help his people improve. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to explore that. However, what is obvious is that if you think you can’t, then you probably won’t make the attempt. I have found over the years that skill impacts will. When people have the skills and are confident in their ability to use their skills, then they will make the effort.

Can you let go of the past to move forward into the future?

Sometimes our history with certain people or with a particular organization can keep us from improving. We need to do a better job of identifying what is holding us back and take steps to do something that will propel us forward. You might ask yourself, “How fast will you allow yourself to change?” Only you can determine what you will do to improve.

Is your behavior consistent with your goals?

If the organization is encouraging everyone to improve the way people communicate, then any behavior or speech that runs contrary to that goal will not lead to the desired success. The culture of the organization can be negatively impacted by those few who outwardly oppose the efforts of the many. Doing whatever it takes to get on board and be supportive of others will contribute to the success of any change process.

What change would you like to see in yourself and others?

Being deliberate about what you would like to improve should lead you to take decisive action. Once you have identified a goal, then you can implement the plans that will result in the attainment of your goals. Helping others set specific goals, being supportive of the process, and holding them accountable will help them to be successful.

What is the cost of doing nothing?

When presented with opportunities to change, the easiest route is to agree and then do nothing. If you continue to do what you have always done, then you will continue to receive what you have always gotten. Unfortunately, people don’t usually change until the benefit for change outweighs the pain for doing so. Improving one’s people skills in any organization is paramount given that there is very little that isn’t impacted by how individuals communicate with one another. Counting the cost of your current results or the lack of results can be a great motivator to improve and change for the better.

There are opportunities all around us to improve our results and the results of others. We should be more engaged in taking responsibility for the outcomes we seek, rather than seeking self-justification for inaction based on whether the other person will learn how to sing or not. Success will come to those who make the attempt rather than those who condemn the efforts of others. Your words and actions are powerful. May I encourage you to lift and enliven the people around you.