Getting Down to Change

By George A. Boyd © 2018

Q: What interventions are successful to help people change?

A: Ultimately, people must take action to change at the personal level. While people can change their understanding of what is impacting their situation, alter their perception or mindset, modify their beliefs and attitudes, most personal change occurs when you take new action.

Let us use an example of someone who is trying to lose weight. She can read some articles and watch some videos on the Internet to gain greater understanding of how the mind works and what is contributing to her addictive behavior around sweets. She can alter her perception that she is doomed to be overweight her whole life and recognize that men and women, who were overweight just like her, lost as much or more weight than she wants to lose and kept it off.

She can adjust her attitude: she can stop regarding herself as a “fat slob that nobody loves,” and recognize she is a good, loveable person. She can have some compassion for her struggle to lose weight. She might change her belief that it is impossible for her to change, and instead believe that if other could people overcame obesity, so could she.

While all of these are helpful measures, taking action is the key to her actually losing the weight that she wants to lose is to take action. This might involve doing some exercise, modifying what she eats, reducing portion sizes, or substituting foods that are nutrient dense and low calorie for foods that become stored as fat.

Many of the interventions people offer as advice, support, help, or guidance—while they can create change at the level of perception, attitude, or belief—they might have no impact on someone’s behavior. Since you cannot get behind someone’s forehead and make choices for him or her, often the best you can do is to facilitate their behavior.

We can look at different methods for influencing others to enable them to change, and note how effective this is at actually getting them to take new action:

  1. Promoting intuitive insight – You could do a psychic reading for someone or do some type of psychological process that enables them to gain understanding of what motivates them, or what something means or signifies. At this level, you get insight into why you do something—or why you don’t do something that you believe you should do; or want to do, but don’t. You might also get ideas or inspirations about what you could do. The impressions you gain at this level, however, are vague: they must be concretized into a plan and action steps.
  2. Program or strategy – This broad-brush identification of the steps to achieve a goal, the issues that need to be resolved to succeed, the areas on which you need to focus can help you formulate goals and make some choices that will start the change process. Many coaches and professionals will present their programs at this level, with a training offer to learn specific skills to implement these strategies.
  3. Theory – Teachers adopt this approach when they present relevant research that sheds light on the areas in which you want to improve. At this level you can identify which methods yield the best probability for success, so you can employ effective measures, and not waste your time with strategies that don’t bear fruit. Theory generally proceeds training, as you need to understand the why—the rationale for doing certain practices—before you begin to learn how to do something.
  4. Training – This takes the form of in-person training or video presentation that shows you how to do something. Here you implement what you learn through doing it. Through regular practice, you turn the behavior you learn into a habit. With further practice you can innovate and improvise on that skill, and gain greater mastery and proficiency with the skill.
  5. Benchmarks – Benchmarks test your proficiency and mastery of what you have learned. Academic tests are one type of benchmark. These scales or evaluation criteria that measure your performance tell you how well you are doing relative to others in your comparison group. Knowing how well you are doing compared to others can spur you to improve your own performance. If the task appears to be impossible, however, it may paradoxically lower your motivation to continue—you might even give up if it seems you can never reach the high standards or lofty goal that is ahead of you.
  6. Guidelines – These give you frames for behavior: when to do it, when not to do it. When to use a method, when not to use a method. Guidelines seek to channel your behavior into the most productive, effective, and efficient pathways, and steer you away from ways that don’t work as well, may produce unexpected consequences, or may wind up harming yourself or others. Guidelines share practical wisdom with others, and may provide shortcuts to trail and error.
  7. Behavior – This is when you actually do something. You might have learned about what to do, but this is where you implement your learning; this is where you use the skills you’ve practiced. This is where you actually create the change in your life.

Coaching aims for behavior change: improved performance, better results, reaching benchmarks, achieving goals, and actualizing potential.

Psychotherapy and hypnotherapy focus on removing internal blocks or barriers that stand in the way of you taking constructive action. Counseling clarifies choices, and looks at the potential outcomes of following each alternative—action follows from resolute choice.

Not all action leads to success; in many cases, it leads to failure and frustration. But not taking any action leaves you where you are now: if you want to change, you must take new action.