How To Change People (Hint: You Can't)

Working in health and wellness for the better part of two decades, I've spent a lot of time thinking about behavior change. A was naive and believed that we had the power to directly change the behavior of others. 

If given enough time and all known variables such as a person's motivational history and barriers, then it is conceivable that you could influence their behavior in such a way as to bend them to your will. As a Psychology major in college, I loved reading about the classic studies by trailblazers like Maslow, Bandura, and Milgram. Motivational Psychology is a fascinating field. 

There are innumerable nuances at the subconscious level that, like an iceberg, we only see what is on the surface. Take priming for example. Stimuli in our surroundings that we barely notice profoundly influences how we think, feel, and act. 

About a year ago, I came to the realization that it is audacious to believe that we can actually change someone. It was a huge punch in the gut to come to grips with this fact. These growing pains were an important milestone for me in my professional life. I learned to let go and stop trying to "fix" people. I now spend more time focusing on things that I can actually influence such as leading, inspiring, motivating, educating, empowering, supporting, and advocating.

In one of my early MBA classes on Change Management, I learned of the concept of personal power versus positional power. It totally changed my views of leadership and change. We can all be leaders in each of our daily interactions regardless of tenure or job title. A colleague told me at work recently "Because of you, I started running." I had no idea that I was leading the way, but my example certainly had a large impact.

Living a healthy lifestyle and being a role model is very important. As the saying goes, "To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world."
You don't need to be younger or more fit to inspire others. I'm a pretty fit guy and am regularly inspired by people like this. 
It is humbling when someone tells you that you have inspired them to make a healthy change in their life. The fact is that I ALWAYS respond to this that they deserve all the credit...that they are the ones who made the change.  

There are so many ways to motivate people to change. We all have different levers. Sometimes we just need to dig a little to find the ones that will lead to sustainable changes. It has been my experience that we begin most tasks for extrinsic rewards but continue to do them because of intrinsic ones.  

Lunch and Learns, Seminars, Webinars, 1:1 sessions, coaching, etc. Many times, it is as easy as connecting people with resources which were available to them and they didn't know existed. This could be anything from an EAP program to fitness center discounts. My antennae are always up when I speak with people to try and connect them with opportunities that might be able to help them.

It has been my experience that many people underestimate what they are capable of doing. The Navy Seals have something called the 40% rule which says that you can always push further when you think you don't have anything left in the tank. Sometimes it just takes someone else pointing our blind spots out to us in order to give us the spark we need. Sources of empowerment are everywhere if you know where to look.

I worked with a woman who told me that she wanted to run a 10 mile race in about a year but that she had never run before. When she told her family about her grand plans, they laughed at her. Instead of lending her the support she badly needed, they basically took the wind right out of her sails. Sometimes we just need someone else to believe in us before we will believe in ourselves. Social support is a huge determinant in the success of those trying to make health changes. Having a rock solid buddy or an understanding spouse is worth its weight in gold. 

I view my job, very simply, as helping others. Consequently, I don't feel that I am being effective unless I am told "no" on a regular basis. And the good thing about being an eternal optimist is that my brain doesn't actually process the word "no." What I hear is "not yet", "maybe", or "ask again in 6 months."
More is never enough when it comes to helping others live a healthy lifestyle. I am always looking to do more, leverage more, and devise creative solutions. 

None of the methods above necessitate being disingenuous or employing manipulative tactics. People are smart and see right through those. Starting a fire requires oxygen, heat, fuel and a chemical reaction. No, we can't change people, but we can create the conditions necessary to create a spark so that change can happen. 
Thaler and Sunstein refer to this as "Libertarian Paternalism." People are free to make choices but we should design situations to make it easy for them to make the healthier choice. 

These designs should include a nurturing atmosphere and support on many different levels.

Don't change. Inspire. Motivate. Educate. Empower. Support. Advocate. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. 

I am interested in hearing strategies that you have successfully used to help guide people toward making healthy lifestyle changes.


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