Updated: Jul 23, 2021
In some circles, behavior modification gets a bad rap. People want “heart change” and not “just” behavior modification.
I agree with the sentiment entirely. Heart change is the ultimate goal. However, no therapeutic technique can bring about a change in one’s heart.
No person can change his/her own heart, much less that of another person. We don’t even fully understand our hearts (see Jer. 17:9)! How can we judge another person’s heart? In fact, we don’t – we judge their behavior, i.e., words and deeds, as an indicator of their heart.
Heart change is God’s business (see Ez. 36:26). Once His Spirit gets to work, behavior change is apparent as the fruit of Spirit develops in the heart of a believer (see Matt. 3:8 and Gal. 5:22-23); this is why I say heart change is the ultimate goal.
That being said, there is a place for behavior modification. Interpersonal (relationship) difficulties can be significantly reduced by changing how we interact with others. Simple things like old-fashioned manners, e.g., saying please and thank you, and thinking before you speak. Avoiding the “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission” trap. If that goes through your mind, it is an indication that you are aware permission is necessary.
More complicated things like earning someone’s trust back may require levels of transparency that make you uncomfortable. It may also include allowing the betrayed party to question your whereabouts without you getting defensive. See, the betrayed party can’t see whether your heart has changed. They see your behavior and will determine if they can trust that your heart has changed based upon it. (Tip: Be where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to be doing – and over-communicate if anything changes.)
When we modify how we engage with others, it changes how they respond to us. Eventually, this can bring changes and healing to the relationship.
Side note: Using behavior modification to manipulate others is just wrong. You’re better than that. You can spot someone who is trying to manipulate you by watching for consistency.
Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC