You see them heading down a road to self-destruction, but don’t know what else we can say or do to make them change.
Can you change someone’s behavior?
You can’t change people, but there are things we can do to help them change themselves. This involves listening, developing empathy, and asking questions to help them figure out their own reasons for change.
Working in the addiction field has taught me invaluable lessons on the power of communication to help people gain motivation for change.
Table of Contents
Do More Listening and Less Talking
This is the art of holding space.
Holding space is the foundation to effectively helping people who are looking to change a behavior, grieve a loss, or explore options for the future. You can have all the best techniques, but if you are not effectively holding space, they will likely be ineffective.
Holding space is a concept that has become popular in the counseling field and simply means being present with the other person, creating a non-judgmental environment, and allowing the other person to work through their thoughts and emotions.
In our fast-paced world, we often turn into efficient problem-solvers, analyzing, focusing, and fixing, feeling as if we are not doing enough if we are not always doing something.
This approach to counseling originated with Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapy. Watch “Carl Rogers and Gloria to see a true master of holding space.
When you hold space for someone else, you offer them the gift of your presence. You provide them with support without taking their power away. You are simply there, present and highly engaged.
At its core, holding space creates a sense of safety in the other person. They feel safe to express their authentic thoughts, feelings, and desires without feeling shut down, ignored, or judged.
Once you have engaged someone on this level, you have formed the foundation of a helpful relationship and are ready to explore potential paths toward change.
Collaborate Rather Than Control
When helping someone change, you may feel tempted to take control. If they fail to act, you feel frustrated, wondering why they won’t listen to your advice and why they keep needing our support when the path is so clearly laid out.
Out of anger, you may temporarily ignore them or resort to tough love. You may try to manipulate them using bribes, threats, or ultimatums. You may even take responsibility for them, filling out forms or making phone calls on their behalf.
So how do you help someone change when they seem to be resisting all of your well-intended efforts? Collaborate with them.
Collaboration is like a dance. We give and take, meeting the person where they are, guiding the flow of the dance while remaining in harmony with one another. The goal is to guide them toward action, not force them into submission.
To use another metaphor, we must be like travel agents of change. We may be experts on the matter, but we can never really know what kind of trip will be best for the individual until we collaborate with them.
Even when the plans are set and the trip is booked, it is not our job to go on the trip with them. If things get rocky on the trip, they can call us for support, but it is not our responsibility to fly out to rescue them.
People need space to feel empowered when making changes. When we become confrontational controllers, we disempower people, making them feel incompetent.
When we collaborate with them, guiding the change-process, we empower them to take responsibility for changing, giving them the ability to see small rewards accumulate by their own volition. As these rewards start to accumulate, motivational momentum snowballs into action.
Recall what it feels like when a parent or significant other lectures you regarding one of your shortcomings. You may feel anger, resentment, or perhaps a sense of guilt. If these negative emotions spur you to action, the result is usually only short term.
You do whatever it takes to get rid of the painful emotions but fall back into your default way of acting. Lecturing and criticism may be a Band-Aid solution, but it fails to get to the core of the issue, leaving the person feeling disempowered.
Like a travel agent, the best way to collaborate with someone is to ask them questions. For example, notice the difference in tone between the two following statements: You’re so lazy! Stop procrastinating and get your work done! vs. It looks like you’re really struggling. What are some things you can do to get started on your work?
Collaboration solves underlying issues by encouraging a problem-solving mindset rather than spurring temporary action driven by the desire to avoid criticism.
When helping people change, you are often tempted to take the lead. We want to direct them on how to make the change, tell them what they need to do, and perhaps even begin doing some of it for them.
We may find ourselves working harder than the other person, wondering why they wonâ€™t take control over their life. If we find ourselves in this situation it may feel like we are helping, but we have become part of the problem.
When you over-help you take away the other person’s power. You take away their sense of autonomy, a core psychological need. When you do this, you are taking away a significant amount of their intrinsic motivation without even realizing it.
To avoid this form of counterproductive helping, you need to focus on building the other personâ€™s sense of power. In short, empowerment is the product of collaboration.
Collaborative and empowering
conversations have these key elements: unconditional positive regard, a guiding
spirit, and open-ended questions.
Unconditional positive regard is a concept used in Carl Rogers‘ humanistic psychotherapy. It requires setting aside oneâ€™s judgments about another individual, empathizing with them, and assuming the best of them. When someone irritates us, it can be difficult to have unconditional positive regard, but when we start with empathy, we can understand the context of their behaviors, not taking it personally, and not blaming them for being “bad, lazy, or stupid”. We can see them as an imperfect individual, like ourselves, striving to live a “good” life. When we have unconditional positive regard, we empower individuals to see the best in themselves, inspiring them to act accordingly.
A guiding spirit requires one to guide rather than direct. Directing people consists of telling people what to
do, whereas guiding is a form of collaboration with the other person. Guidance is like being a travel agent. You can offer feedback, but the work necessarily requires eliciting direction from the other person. Guidance empowers individuals to participate, making it more likely they will stick to a plan. We want to do things we’ve come up with, not things we have to do.
Open-ended questions empower individuals by allowing them to explore their own reasons for making a change. As opposed to closed-ended questions that only require a simple yes or no, open-ended questions give the other person power to expand on their response in their own terms. For example, notice the difference between these two scenarios:
You: Does your gambling cause you distress?
You: What are some things about your gambling that cause you distress?
Friend: I feel guilty because I haven’t told my spouse about my
Open-ended questions invite elaboration, empowering the individual to lead the course of the conversation.
When we know their story, we can then use further open-ended questions to guide them toward making changes, using questions such as, “what are some things you can do to start making changes in this area?”
Empowering conversations are far more likely to lead to change because we are helping the other person fulfill the basic psychological need for autonomy/ self-direction.
When people feel in control, they feel motivated. This is why the combination of unconditional positive regard, a guiding spirit, and open-ended questions is so powerful.
How to have Mindful Conversations
One of the most difficult parts of skillful communication is also the simplest: remaining present.
We may become distracted by other people walking by, other things happening in our lives, and even by our own thoughts or judgments about the other person. We can have all the conversational skills in the world, but if we do not mindfully engage, none of it matters. Here are a few tips you might consider next time your mind
starts to disengage or criticize:
Get curious. When you approach others with a sense of authentic curiosity, your mind engages, hungry for more information. This approach requires you to approach every new interaction as a student, observing
the unique social nuances, thoughts, or behaviors of others, always learning about what makes people tick. When you get curious, everything becomes a new learning experience, making the most mundane situations seem novel.
Remember that everyone has their reasons. This is particularly useful when confronted by what we may interpret as ignorance, rudeness, or hostility. When conversational violence occurs, most people react,
reflecting back the violence they receive. As skillful communicators, we can choose to act rather than react. When we remember that everyone has their own reasons why they behave the way they do, we don’t take their words personally, giving us the necessary emotional distance to engage the person with a spirit of empathy.
Pay attention to the other person’s reactions. Mindfulness practices are not simply based on presence. This is a common misconception. If this was the case, one could blunder through life but would be vindicated so long as they did it while remaining in the present moment. At its root, mindfulness demands more than just presence, it requires one to be aware of actions and reactions. What this means is an awareness beyond oneself, allowing one to notice the subtle causes and effects of oneâ€™s own behavior and the behavior of others.
This could mean noticing how your shocked facial expression may be a reaction to the personâ€™s story. In turn, you may notice how this reaction may lead to a reaction in the other person who stops sharing, not wanting to be a burden. Being aware of reactions helps us engage in mindful conversations, understanding how we affect others, as well as how others affect us.
Mindfulness is the foundation for maintaining a collaborative spirit while holding space for another person. Without it, we may accidentally make the other person feel like a burden, causing them to clam up or react with hostility.
I learned this the hard way when speaking to a young woman who began sharing her extensive history of drug use, in addition to describing a traumatic experience in her past. After she mentioned her recent visit to the AIDS society, I was so shocked by the number of difficulties she was facing, I didn’t realize I had looked like I’d just seen a ghost.
Without being mindful of my body language, I had accidentally triggered her to immediately disengage, feeling like she was being a burden on me. She dashed out of the room, apologizing. Weighing heavy on my conscience, this situation often replays in my mind, reminding me to be mindful of how unintentional actions often provoke negative reactions from others.
It may be easier to blame others for disengaging from us, telling ourselves they just never listen, when in fact the problem may be us. Engaging mindfully means remaining present to sense the subtle interplay of action and reaction. In order to know if you are unconsciously causing others to disengage, try some of the above techniques. Getting curious helps you focus on the individual and their story, reducing the likelihood of distracting mental chatter.
Remembering that everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do helps us maintain empathy when dealing with frustrating situations. It helps us remain present and emotionally grounded, allowing us to better observe how our actions produce positive or negative reactions.
Mindfulness is the foundation to collaboratively holding space. It helps us pause before jumping in when we try to â€œsaveâ€ the other person through tough love. It helps us maintain unconditional positive regard, creating a space where the other person feels safe to share their experiences.
Once we know how to create a space for change, we need to know what to do with it. Although it may be useful to simply hold space, especially when someone is grieving, holding space is only part of the broader process when helping people make important changes in their lives.
Beyond creating an environment for change, the next section dives into specific language techniques proven to increase motivation to change. These are powerful skills used by leading addiction councilors and have been tested by hundreds of scientific studies.
I have tried to simplify these techniques by summarizing the most important points so you can use them in your everyday interactions with individuals looking to make changes in their lives.
Help Them Find Their Own Reasons For Change
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Those seeking change look toward the mountain ahead, ambivalent to whether they should make the trek. They want to get to the top, but are comfortable and safe on the ground.
Torn between these two competing desires, one may seek out professional advice on mountain-climbing, buy all the top-notch gear, and painstakingly plan their route, perpetually putting off the climb. This is the danger of putting the “how” before the “why”
You may know people who have procrastinated by planning perfectionist plots, while never getting to the hard work of making a change.
The problem with this approach is that it continues indefinitely, leaving the person desiring the end-goal, yet not having the level of motivation required to take action. The reason for this lack of motivation is the lack of focus on why one is pursuing a goal in the first place.
When we connect with our own reasons for taking a course of action, we become motivated on a core emotional level, providing the necessary fuel for action.
When someone comes to us looking for advice on how to make a change, we need to pause before jumping in and offering our assistance. Is this person stuck in perpetual planning? Perhaps they already know the answer and are constantly seeking advice instead of actually of taking action.
This gives them a false sense of accomplishment without having to start the hard work of change. We all love to help others and feel important when someone asks for our advice, but perhaps we need to take a step back sometimes and ask them why they want to make this change.
In practical terms, the conversation may look like this:
Friend: I’m having difficulties with my weight and want to get back to the gym, what kind of exercises do you recommend?
You: It looks like you are interested in making some big changes; can you first tell me more about your reasons for making this change?
Possible reasons that may surface during the conversation may include the ability to healthfully care for family/ loved ones, to have more energy throughout the day, or perhaps even spiritual/religious reasons.
Whatever the reason, rather than jumping to give advice, you can help them better by first having a conversation about their reasons for change.
The best map is useless if youâ€™re not ready to take the voyage. Talking about our why is the fastest way to build motivational momentum. Clinical studies on this technique demonstrate that getting the other person to talk about their own reasons for change correlates with increased successful outcomes.
Miller and Rollnick call this â€œchange talk,â€ in their practice of motivational interviewing (MI). Studies looking at the effectiveness of this technique show â€œchange talkâ€ is the â€œactive ingredient of MI.â€
Whether you use their MI technique or not, this active ingredient can be repackaged to suit your own approach to conversations about change.
So how do you get the individual to state their own reasons for change?
Listen carefully for a reason, and then reflect that reason back to them in your own words, encouraging them to continue talking about it. Here is a simple example:
Friend: I guess if I start going to the gym more often, I could take better care of my elderly mother.
You: It looks like your mother means a lot to you
Friend: Yeah, she was always there for me, so I really want to be there for her.
Whatever you reflect, you will hear more. Therefore, reflecting change talk gets you more change talk. Note that this also works in reverse. If you are not selective in your reflections, you may be encouraging more counter-change talk, keeping the person entrenched in past behaviors.
To unlock the “active ingredient” of motivation, keep your ears on alert for change talk, and
then focus your reflections, encouraging the other person to continue talking
about their own reasons for change.
Here is a simple breakdown of the different ways you can use reflection to elicit more
Simple Reflection: this consists of reflecting the exact words or phrases used by the individual.
Friend: I feel guilty about my gambling because sometimes I spend more than I can afford and I know I should be saving my money.
You: You feel guilty when you spend more than you can afford.
When using a simple reflection, be careful not to sound like you are simply parroting the other person’s words. If done without a spirit of empathy, it can appear cold and mechanical. One way to avoid this is to remember some of the unique words or phrases used by the individual throughout the conversation and incorporate
them back into your conversation at a later point.
Labeling: this consists of simply identifying what you are observing about the other person.
*Friend appears agitated after describing failed diet attempts*
You: This really frustrates you.
Complex reflection: this consists of finishing the other person’s sentences or paragraphs by guessing
what they mean. It is also one of the most powerful forms of reflection, avoiding the risks of simple reflections and labeling. The key to this technique is that the dialogue should flow as if it were a single person
Friend: When I come to the casino I find it difficult to control my spending.
You: The games are so engaging and you lose track of time.
Friend: The other day I was here for six hours and it only felt like one.
You: …and before you know it, you’re spending a lot more money than you
planned on spending.
Note that you need to sometimes go out on a limb and take a guess at what phrase may accurately represent the other personâ€™s experience. If you are not on the mark, the other person will correct you. If they correct you, adjust your reflection to fit their experience, maintaining a spirit of empathetic concern or curiosity.
Summarizing: this requires simply summarizing everything
the other person said recently in the conversation.
Friend: I tried going to a therapist to deal with my gambling because my partner was frustrated with my spending and told me I had to go, but I don’t think it helped because I keep wanting to gamble, but I also don’t want to upset my partner. I just feel lost and overwhelmed because my relationship is very important to me.
You: So you’re feeling lost and overwhelmed because you enjoy gambling, but your partner thinks you are spending too much and wants you to get help. You value your relationship so you sought help, but you feel that it was not helpful for you.
Mirroring Body language: this requires maintaining a posture and expression resembling the individual with whom you are speaking.
*Friend stands with hands half in pockets, at a 45-degree angle to you,
with a casual facial expression*
*You mirror this posture and demeanor in a way that is natural to you
and your own current state*
Note that mirroring is something humans do naturally when we are in harmony with other individuals. Therefore, becoming conscious of this instinct can allow us to be more aware of when we are not in alignment with someone.
Gently adjusting our physical presence in alignment with the other person may not only allow a better connection to develop, but it can also make us feel more open and empathetic toward the other person. In addition, note that you should adjust your body language carefully, never feeling forced or unnatural.
In summary, reflection builds connection and increases motivation by encouraging the other person to continue talking about their own reasons for change.
Rather than simply listening, asking questions, and offering feedback, incorporating a large dose of reflection into your conversations will help you better connect with others, in addition to increasing their likelihood of making a change by further exploring their why.
Get Commitment, Not Just Agreement
Have you ever had a conversation with someone that had left the other person showing commitment, but they somehow repeatedly fail to implement any lasting change? “You’re right,” they say, leaving you feeling like a conversational superhero.
It feels good to have the other person recognize we are right. But if we measure our effectiveness by the other person’s agreeableness, praise, or optimism at the end of the conversation, we are misleading ourselves. We cannot measure real change by these variables.
So, what creates real commitment to change? The answer is simple, yet often difficult to implement because it requires us to put our egos in the back seat. Rather than hearing “you’re right,” the goal is to hear “that’s right.”
Although it may sound like an inconsequential difference in wording, it can mean the difference between temporary agreement and lasting change. When someone says, “you’re right,” they are agreeing with the factual accuracy of your advice or feedback.
When someone says, “that’s right,” they are agreeing with the fact that you have identified how they are feeling. The difference is the latter is a sign of empathy.
You can make all of the factually correct suggestions in the world, but if the other person does not feel understood, they are not likely going to implement the suggestions in the long term.
Former FBI negotiator, Chris Voss, makes this distinction in his book Never Split the Difference. He recalls a time in his early years when he had been working on a suicide hotline. After one of his calls, he felt like a rock star. The man on the other side of the line showered him with “you’re right,” validating all of his hard work and skill.
With a sense of accomplishment, he leaned back in his chair after the call, expecting the same praise from his supervisor who had overheard the conversation. Rather than receiving praise, the supervisor told Chris this was one of the worst calls he’s heard. This is when he learned the difference between giving advice and giving empathy.
The key to lasting change does not lie in your ability to make the other person think you’re right. The key to lasting change lies in the ability of the other person to convince themselves through their own reasons for changing.
Rather than seeking praise and validation for your suggestions, you should be relatively invisible in the process so the other person feels like they are coming up with the suggestions and action plan on their own.
Let’s review how each of the elements discussed thus far come together to create the optimal conditions when helping someone change.
Holding space for someone so they can convince themselves of their reasons for changing requires us to ask open-ended questions about some of the things that are valuable to the other person. This may include topics related to core psychological needs, including mastery, autonomy, and relatedness.
When they begin sharing, we are only required to listen, reflecting these reasons back to them to ensure we are understanding them properly, in addition to observing and labeling their emotions as they share, facilitating empathy and getting to “that’s right,”.
Hopefully, this guide has provided you with some helpful tips on how to help someone change. If all else fails, remember to maintain personal boundaries. We can’t make people change, we can only offer our help.