The Paradoxical Theory of Change: Can You Defy Expectations?

{2:25 minutes to read} The paradoxical theory of change is an idea that comes out of Gestalt therapy. According to the theory, if people feel understood and affirmed as who and where they are, they feel free to move on and be something different—which is paradoxical on its face.

This idea is important whenever a negotiation is taking place, but most strikingly when in divorce.

Spouses who have been married for a long period of time and make the decision to divorce usually make that decision, at least in part, because they feel unappreciated and misunderstood by the other person. They often find themselves locked in a dynamic, desperately trying to demonstrate their true selves to the other person and be recognized and affirmed for the good within them. Unfortunately—and this runs both ways—they are often trying to change their spouse at the same time. And that doesn’t work.

From a conflict resolution professional’s perspective, I know that I am never going to convince my client’s spouse to change their perspective on something by arguing with them. I’m much more likely to open the possibility of thinking about something in a different way by understanding first where they actually are on any particular issue. If I understand where they are, and then get permission from them to explore other perspectives, a resolution is much more likely to come about. My ability to demonstrate an understanding of my client’s spouse short circuits the fear that, as the lawyer for the other party, I am the personification of evil.

When acting as a neutral, it is even more important—and powerful—to understand where each person is without trying to change them, without trying to push them close together.  

1. I point out how they agree—but very lightly.

2. If they disagree, I acknowledge it. That’s just how it is.

This may seem simple, and it is, but the rewards are outsized.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey wrote about understanding before you seek to be understood. Take the time to see if you can fully appreciate and understand the other person’s perspective without trying to change it. If you can do that, then magic can happen.

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