The Impact of Environment

One of the foundational principles in my coaching work is that understanding the impact of environment is key to effective change. If we want to change something—a relationship, a dynamic, a habit, a thought process—then we must account for the ways those elements are affected by surroundings. Any change we make must be supported by the environment in which it takes place.


When my husband and I took our kids this past summer to visit extended family, we had a chance at various times to watch nine different children respond to the experience of spending extended time with family members they rarely see. My own kids were really excited to see their distant aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents and they spent a great deal of their time soliciting the attention of their relatives. They wanted to play with their cousins, snuggle with their grandparents, and show off to their aunts and uncles. Our nephews responded differently to the large family gathering. Nephews from one side of the family clung closely to mom and dad, seeking comfort and finding security with the people most familiar to them. Our other nephews focused primarily within their nuclear family, behaving politely and appropriately to extended family but seeking attention mostly from each other. I found this dynamic fascinating. 


Each separate nuclear family—my own, my brother’s, and my brother-in-law’s—is taking pains to raise polite, healthy, socially astute kids. Each family speaks highly and in positive ways about extended family members. Each family believes in the importance of good manners and social graces. Each family expresses a hope that the kids within the family will build bonds and relationships with extended family members. Yet clearly there is more to building those connections that mere sentiments, because the kids from each family responded so differently to the new extended family context.


Something about the environment created by each of our families is different enough to encourage different responses in our kids. Certainly some variation can be due to age or personality. But the similarity of response within each nuclear family, despite age and personality difference within those families, was notable. 


So what makes up an environment? What makes some kids want to run to Grandma even though they haven’t seen her in six months, and makes another kid hide behind Daddy’s legs? Are these differences created by different ways we talk about family? Or are they influenced by a thousand more subtle, less identifiable elements that characterize our very way of being?


The environment in my home, in your home, is made up of infinite interactions and ways of being that our kids are picking up on in the same way they breathe the air in our homes or drink the water from our faucets. Environment is made up of how we speak to one another, about one another, and about other people. It’s in tones of voice, volume, and words spoken or not spoken. It’s in how we carry ourselves, how heavily we sigh, how often we roll our eyes, or how quick we are to smile or offer a squeeze on the arm. It’s in what our kids see on our faces the moment they walk in the door from school, the moment they spill milk all over the dinner table, the moment they offer us a gift they have slaved over for days but which we cannot for the life of us identify. 


Environment is everything that makes up where we live, from the house we live in, the rooms we choose to occupy, how we decorate them and what temperature we keep on the thermostat. Environment is all around us, seeping into our bones and into our psyches. It is unique to each home, to each family, just like a fingerprint or a snowflake. There are no exact environmental replicas. We are all creating environmental originals, works of wonder that each day we can mold and shape anew.


Understanding the impact of environment is key to effective change. 


Do you want to make a change? Do you want to stop yelling at your kids? Do you want to start planning your schedule more effectively? Do you want to feel less irritable with your kids or enjoy more moments of quiet intimacy with your child who seems to be pulling away? Then consider what it is about your environment that might be fostering the way of being you currently don’t prefer. What kind of environment might encourage the change you seek? What’s one small thing you can commit to change today that might help transition your environment from what you have now to the one you desire? 


Now what’s stopping you? After all, your environment is what you make of it. Go build your masterpiece.