“When are they going to believe I’ve changed?”

How long does change take?

It depends on who's asking.

As she read the feedback, I saw her shoulders slump and a look of tiredness on her face. 

“So in short it seems like people notice and appreciate the changes I’ve made, but they’re not convinced yet that they’re truly genuine, or that they’re going to last. 

When are they going to believe that I truly have changed? 

That I’m simply not that person anymore?”

I came to the United States in 2001. And within six months of being here, I had managed to collect three speeding fines. (Let’s just say I was coming from a very different driving culture in South Africa!)

By law, New York State could have revoked my driver’s license entirely. But they didn’t. What the Department of Motor Vehicles offered was something different. My driver’s license was suspended for six months, but I was legally allowed to drive to school and to medical appointments during that period. But that was it. And if I broke that, or was caught doing anything else during that period, that was it – my driver’s license would be gone. 

So what happened? 

I drove…so carefully. I truly changed my driving habits – to the extent that when I was back in South Africa for a holiday a year later, I was unnerved by how fast South African driver’s drove! 

It takes time for you to change

But it took time. 

That was the genius behind New York State’s restricted license approach: it not only gave me the motivation to change, it also realized that change would take time to become the new normal. I had a decade of driving habits to unlearn. And I had to develop new driving habits. Neither of those were going to happen in a day, a week, or even a month. 

But they most definitely happened in six months. 

Learning to drive at a more reasonable and prudent speed all the time is a relatively simple change to make. But it still took time. 

Learning to trust where there has been betrayal or hurt can take longer. Often a lot longer. 

It takes time for other people to see that you’ve changed.

We got Mango, our large orange cat, from the SPCA in 2018. No-one knew his exact history. He was a stray, but not feral. He clearly wanted and needed human contact, but he was very – very! – nervous around humans. We absolutely could not pick him up, and if we reached down to try to give him a scratch he would just bolt. The only time he would tolerate being petted was when his head was in a bowl of food.

Clearly he had bad history with human hands. 

We were prepared to give him the time and space he needed to learn to trust us. We were willing to go at his pace, and accepted that he might never become a lap cat. 

He has become a lap cap. 

He will now come for scratches and rubs, and will, indeed, jump onto my husband’s lap demanding a brush and scratch.  But we still can’t pick him up. 

It took five years.

Over the years we have, of course, had to take him to the vet from time to time. Each time we have to go through the process of getting him into a cat carrier. The first time was traumatic for all of us. We literally had to chase him all around the house until we finally got him backed into a corner from which he could not escape. He peed himself. And we had to prod him with a broom into the carrier. It was awful. And we knew we had just set back the clock on whatever gains we had made towards getting him to trust us. On coming back home from the vet he would hide from us for days. 

Now, after five years, he still dislikes the cat carrier, but we have a process that minimizes his distress, and within minutes of being home again, he will let us give him a scratch and rub. He’s come to learn that he does always come home to love, food, snuggles and safety. 

It takes time for other people to believe that the change is genuine and permanent.

Coming back to the person I was coaching, I truly felt for where she was. She had changed – she absolutely had. She had been working hard at it for some time. And people were seeing and noticing it. But, her history was such that people were still wary and skittish. It had only been a few months. 

And her changes weren’t perfect, of course. She was vastly improved, but she was human and of course still felt impatience, annoyance, and frustration from time to time. And while she no longer yelled at people, people could sense she was working to keep herself in check. And so while they appreciated the change, they weren’t ready, yet, to believe that this was a permanent thing. 

In short, she was encountering the lags between “seeing” and “believing”. 

The four lags in seeing to believing

When it comes to changes in your interpersonal style, there are a few components, all of which take time. 

First, there is the time you need to unlearn old habits and learn new habits. This was like me learning to drive at the right speed – all the time, not just some of the time. 

Then it can take some time for people to even notice that you’ve changed. To Mango, at first we were just human, and so not to be trusted, period. It took him many months to figure out we were “not like those other humans”. 

Then they might notice the changes you’re making, but just dismiss it as one offs. They don’t think the change is genuine, let alone that it will be sustained. In Mango-speak that would be “They haven’t chased me into a carrier today, but that doesn’t mean they won’t tomorrow.” 

Only when you consistently keep doing the new thing, do they come to believe that, ok, you’re genuinely trying to change. 

And it takes longer still for them to believe that this change is both genuine and here to stay. 

To answer my client’s question, when were people going to believe she truly had changed, the answer was, of course, it depended on where they were in the “seeing-believing” cycle. 

From the feedback it was clear everyone had already seen the change. So she was past phase one. 

In phase two, people see the change, but aren’t convinced it’s real, or genuine. From the feedback, most people were past this stage too. People believed she was genuinely trying to change, and appreciated the effort she was making. 

Most people were somewhere in phase three: they saw the changes she was making, believed they were genuine, but they just weren’t ready, yet, to trust that the changes were here to stay. They needed more time. 

And a few were already in phase four: they believed the changes she had made were here to stay. 

Which phase people were in, and how long it took for them to move through the phases, was a function of their previous and current experience with my client, their previous experiences in general, and their innate wiring. There were those who carried less hurt from her or others, or who were more willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. There were others who carried more hurt, either from my client or other experiences, or who were just innately more cautious and so were just slower to see and believe. 

Keep calm and carry on

It can be frustrating, even demoralizing, to know that you truly have changed, but for other people to not quite believe it – yet. 

That’s not the time to give up though. Because if you do, you actually prove them right – the change wasn’t genuine, and wasn’t here to stay. 

Keep calm and carry on. In doing so, you keep on honing those new neural pathways so that your new ways of being truly do become automatic and you don’t have to work so consciously at them. 

It’s a horrible cliché, “change takes time”, but it’s true nonetheless. 

Whenever you’re down on yourself, take a moment to note just how much you have changed. When you look back over a year, five years, ten years, you can see all the ways in which you have changed, learned and grown. 

And if you’re feeling impatient with the length of time it’s taking for other people to see and believe, I invite you to gently ponder, what phase might they be in? And what experiences might they have had that, like Mango our cat, they might need a little longer to see and believe. Can you give them the grace to be on their own journey too? If we had “pushed” Mango, we would have slowed his progress to lap cat. 

Get the feedback that will help you see that you are, indeed, on the right path. You deserve – and need! – that positive affirmation. 

And then…keep calm, and carry on. 

Join Our Newsletter

Signup for the Building Compassionate Workplaces newsletter to marry results with people, compassion with courage,
and leadership with humanity.