Wouldn’t it be nice if you could be well liked by everyone, earn as much money as you’d like, make it to the gym each time you have the thought of going, and get your family members to “see it your way” on everything? Being able to do all of these things would mean that you have complete control over your life, and the lives of all those who intersect with yours. Control is something all human beings desire to achieve, but in reality, it’s not something that any of us actually have. You can plan your best to make it to your appointment in time, but you cannot control the traffic on Route 3. You can study as hard as you can for your math test, but you can’t control the questions the teacher decides to ask. You can put on your best outfit and say all the right things, but there are no guarantees that your date will want to see you again.
Despite this truth, we humans don’t stop trying to control that which is beyond our control. How do I know this?
Well, why do we become frustrated sitting in traffic, yell at our loved ones or get stressed out when things don’t go according to plan? Simply because we are operating under the assumption that we have more control over our situations, outcomes and environments than we actually do.
So, if we do not have the absolute ability to control the exact results we want in any and all of life’s situations (e.g., arriving at the restaurant at exactly 8:03), then what do we have?
Instead of trying (and ultimately failing) to control our environments, we want to shift our focus onto influencing as many variables as we can in our favor. For example, let’s say I decide on a career change and I open up a gluten-free bakery. In order to encourage people to purchase my baked goods, I may put up fliers, advertise, create a website, give my bakery a catchy name, etc. I will put as much effort as I can into influencing people to buy my products. But can I control who is actually going to purchase baked goods today? Decidedly not. This is because ultimately, I cannot control outcomes, but I can be influential in my efforts. Surrendering the notion that we have control over others and our environments can alleviate a lot of negative emotion and stress because we are no longer working toward an unattainable goal. Now we are working towards a new goal of doing our best to influence our environments, without the rigid insistence that the outcome be a certain and specific way.
Control and Influence in Relationships
A controlling interaction looks and sounds like the following:
The controller uses judgemental, blaming language. The tone is threatening and/or commanding. The controller feels anger, frustration and irritation. The timing of the interaction is based on the impulses of the controller but may not be convenient for the controlled. The controlled feels fear, guilt, insecurity and helplessness. The controlled’s self-esteem suffers because of the interaction. Neither party is actively listening, or engaged in give and take dialogue. The outcome of the interaction is the desire of the controller only.
An influential relationship looks and sounds like the following:
The influencer uses balanced and appropriate language. The tone is respectful. The influencer is accepting and introspective. The timing of the interaction is based on when the influenced can be receptive. The influenced feels motivated and secure. Self esteem is maintained or enhanced. Both parties are engaged in active listening and give and take dialogue. Information is shared openly and the outcome is acceptable to both the influencer and the influenced.
In our quest to gain more control over ourselves and our lives, we mistakenly attempt to control other people. Yelling, coercing, blackmailing, bribing and other forms of control may be effective momentarily, but in the long run, one of 2 things will happen. Either you will end up isolating others because no one wants to be controlled, or you will be creating a robot or a puppet who cannot think for themselves and does your will because they don’t want to bear the brunt of your control tactics. Healthy relationships based on influence instead of control, are established when all parties have the right to their autonomy. This forces participants in the relationship to learn how to both give and accept influence, to compromise and adjust, and to understand and be understood.