You Can’t Push a Rope

This has been my mantra for the last few years. My son insists on texting instead of calling. “Whelp, you can’t push a rope.” My coworker rarely makes a deadline. “Yep, you can’t push a rope.” You want your friend to sober up. “Hmmm. You can’t push a rope.” Pushing is frustrating. It’s trying to force reality. It’s trying to change someone or a reality that is not within your control. I do it all the time. I tell someone how great I feel since becoming sober. Or how my asthma and inflammation has receded since going sugar-free. I send reminders about the deadline to my team only to have the same culprit miss the deadline AGAIN. All this pushing is exhausting. I cannot force my will on anyone. I am only responsible for myself.

I read a post from Seth Godin this morning in which he wrote, “People don’t change (unless they want to). Humans are unique in their ability to willingly change. We can change our attitude, our appearance and our skillset. But only when we want to. The hard part, then, isn’t the changing it. It’s the wanting to.” And it’s not my personal wanting to change my child or coworker or ex that works. It’s their own personal decision. It’s their wanting. Not yours. Not mine. The only way to push is if they ask you to help them.

Here’s how to give up pushing the rope:

Relinquish control          

For the longest time, especially as a parent, I thought I had control. Like I was the puppet master. If I wanted my daughter to be a great volleyball player, or my son to attend my alma mater, I could make it happen. I could push and dictate and shove my wishes upon my children. I could impose my will. I can take the same stance with projects and deadlines I disagree with and lose sleep over not having the ability to reroute the course toward my way of thinking. I think that’s why I even started saying, “You can’t push a rope.” I was essentially acknowledging that I didn’t have control. I relinquish. I let go of the struggle of trying to rewrite the outcome. I think of the Carrie Underwood song, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Let what happens happen, let go of the rope and relinquish control.


I have always admired my father’s ability to be patient. I frankly try to channel his energy when I want something (out of my control) to change. I want an answer from the attorney, I want this fight behind me, I want the project to be done, I want everyone to turn in their work on time. I want. I want. I want. When I channel my father’s patience, I get calm. I slow down. I step out of the whirlwind of desire and wants. It’s uncomfortable but peaceful. Time will unfold and what is supposed to happen will happen. Perhaps someone else will pick up the rope when it’s time to pull instead.

Provide support

If I’ve learned anything from being sober, it’s to share my experience and let it lie. The teacher in me wanted to preach and dictate. “This is how you should do it.” I’ve learned that it’s better to start off by asking for permission: “Do you want some advice?” or “Do you want to know my experience?” If you just give out advice, neuroscience shows that it shuts your listener’s brain down. Think about that when you are trying to educate your child on the dangers of drugs or who they should be dating. By giving advice or dictating what they should or should not being doing, you are shutting down their brain. They won’t hear you. If your advice is asked for or permitted, start off with: “My experience with drugs, alcohol, dating, overdue projects, parenting, graduate school, cooking, marathons, dog ownership, divorce, home repairs, debt, finding a job, a difficult boss, waiting tables, owning a restaurant, riding a bike, driving a car, etc. is…” Provide support but ask for permission and tell your story. Try not and tell someone what will happen if they start drinking again or don’t pay off their credit cards or don’t take a job in plastics. We aren’t clairvoyant. Speak from your experience the last time you pushed a rope.

Actively listen

I have found in coaching that reflection on your own thoughts is one of the most powerful tools of coaching. Knowing that someone isn’t trying to sway, influence or manipulate you helps you feel safe and reflect on what you really want. This happens through active listening. If I’m trying to push a rope, I’m wrapped up in my own agenda. When I am actively listening, I am making a safe space for someone to reflect. I’m also not tied to the outcome or the agenda (see Relinquish Control). Perhaps your child, parent or coworker will ask you to pull the rope with them. It’s up to them. Listen to what they need and then decide what to do with the rope.

I think about the months and years that led up to my marriage falling apart. As I look back, I was pushing that rope so hard, I was tripping over it. I had no control over my husband and never did. What I realized in just a few weeks after the collapse was that I could control my own path, one step at a time. I let go of the rope and, after anguish, time and self-reflection, it’s never been better. Leave the rope behind.

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