Helping People Change

We can't change others, we can only help others help themselves change.

When having a conversation about change, there are many tools one can use to connect and engage, but if the goal is to unlock change, you need to remember the key: getting the other person to state their own reasons for change.

This is referred to as “change talk,” by Miller and Rollnick in their practice of motivational interviewing (MI). Studies show this is the “active ingredient of MI.” Whether you use MI or not, this active ingredient can be repackaged to suit your own approach.

So how do you get the individual to state their own reasons for change? Listen carefully for a reason, 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 stop coming to the casino so 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 of. 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 key to change, keep your ears on alert for change talk, then focus your reflections, encouraging the other person to continue talking about their own reasons for change.

This approach to helping others change is the opposite of telling people what to do. We can’t change others, we can only help others help themselves change. People need the space to feel empowered when making changes. When we become the confrontational expert, we disempower people, making them feel incompetent.

When we collaborate with people through careful listening, we empower them to take responsibility for changing, giving them the ability to see the small rewards accumulate by their own volition. As these small rewards start to accumulate, motivational momentum snowballs into action.

As stated in the last post, “Why” before “How”, the best map is useless if someone is not ready to make the trek. As stated by Friedrich Nietzsche, we can overcome almost any how by first connecting with our why. When helping someone change, the best thing might be simply holding space for them to connect to their own reasons for changing.

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  1. I go through similar situations like this with former Soldiers that I still keep in touch with, they still feel like there is a stigma in getting help, they want to do it on their own but won’t take the necessary “safe” steps to do it.

  2. I wonder whether there are reasons for change which are demotivating, though?

    For example, “I need to change or I will lose something precious to me” is one I come across a lot in managing church change, but it can be demotivating because the change itself is felt as a loss.

    Perhaps some reasons are more empowering than others?

    1. Thank you for this comment! Very good question. I come across it quite a bit as well in my work with problem gambling. The key is that it’s a positive reason they want to move toward, rather than a fear of loss. One inspires autonomous action whereas the other keeps them in reaction to emotional impulses such as fear.

  3. Very good piece…but interestingly I was reading 1984 by Orwell and had just read the part where Winston stopped reading “the book”…he was musing that it wasn’t anything new that he didn’t already know. His though was I know the how but I still don’t know they why.
    Just after this your post popped up on my phone and I stopped reading “the book” and read your post. It was a Twilight Zone moment for sure 🙂

  4. A great post, Steve. Advising a person of something they need to learn will never be as successful as helping them come to that conclusion all by themselves.

  5. Hey bud in the fifth paragraph you made a typo it says ‘you many’ when I think you mean to say ‘you may’ but other than that great topic! This is especially true if you’re trying to quit smoking.

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. Awesome reflection on empowering individuals to reinforce desire for change and the why? Hi do we help them negotiate the how without altering the power?

    1. Thank you! Very good question. You could ask open-ended questions and use reflections, similar to the example stated in the post. Active listening helps them strengthen their “how” without taking away their power.

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