We all know a friend or loved one who needs to make some changes in their life. We have often tried to offer this person advice and tough love, feeling powerless as they head down a road to self-destruction. We have often heard that we can’t change other people, but it is too difficult to simply stand by and watch a friend or loved-one self-destruct without intervening. When things become too difficult, we may distance ourselves, feeling resentment toward the other person for not listening to us. These are normal fight or flight responses to difficult situations.
Addiction and mental health issues affect everyone surrounding the sufferer. The problem is that no one teaches us how to help someone suffering from these issues. Left in the dark, we do the best we can. Sometimes we get frustrated and give up altogether.
This article will show you some powerful tools to help others change. However, there’s a catch. You will need to be open to examining your own attitudes and behaviors. Often, without realizing it, our attempts to help others can make the problem worse. Our automatic fight or flight response to emotionally charged encounters can lead us astray when trying to help someone change.
Here are 5 ways we can engage with others more effectively to facilitate positive change:
Don’t be a lifeguard… withstand the urge to jump in
As a lifeguard throughout my teen years, I was trained to jump in. When someone is drowning, you need to swiftly intervene, telling them exactly what to do to avoid future risks. Doing your job properly requires direct, often physical, contact, especially if administering CPR. In many ways, psychological first aid is the opposite of physical first aid. When someone is metaphorically drowning in front of us, it may seem cold and uncaring to avoid jumping in. How are we supposed to watch someone suffer without saving them? The answer is to “hold space” for the other person. Holding space means simply listening, remaining present and nonjudgmental. It means being there for the person rather than lecturing them or trying to fix them. Unlike drowning, withstanding the urge to jump in provides oxygen in an interaction. It allows the individual to breathe and open up about issues they are working on resolving. Our goal is not to fix them, but rather, to give them the space to safely express and work through their thoughts and emotions.
Be more like a travel agent… collaborate with the other person
When someone comes to us looking for support or advice for deciding how to make an important change in their lives, we are often flattered. We feel as though they see us as trustworthy, reliable, and perhaps even an expert in the given area. When we get this feeling, our first reaction is to act accordingly; we give advice and direction on how the individual can take action. We prepare a detailed itinerary, clearly plotting out the course of the journey. If the other person fails to act on our plan, we feel frustrated, wondering why they won’t listen to our advice and why they keep needing our support when the path is so clearly laid out.
Like travel agents, we need to collaborate with the other person to prepare a journey that is right for 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 the space to feel empowered when making changes. When we become confrontational and overbearing, 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 further action.
Develop your inner Buddha… use mindfulness techniques
Sometimes the most difficult part 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 skill in the world, but if we do not mindfully engage, none of it matters. Next time your mind starts to disengage or criticize the other person, try the following:
Get curious. When you approach others with a sense of authentic curiosity, your mind engages, hungry for more information.
Remember that everyone has their reasons. 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 in 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. Notice how your own words and behaviors affect the other person. In addition, notice how theirs affect you. This way, you can engage mindfully, taking responsibility for how your own actions contribute to a dysfunctional dynamic.
Communicate like an FBI hostage negotiator… build empathy
In the book Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss used powerful communication skills to save hundreds of lives. As his book title suggests, you can’t split the difference when you’re negotiating for someone’s life. Getting half a hostage back just won’t cut it. Since compromise or strong-arming others into submission is ineffective, we need to rely on the highest level of skillful communication: building empathy.
Chris emphasizes the distinction between hearing the other person saying “you’re right,” vs. hearing them say “that’s right.” The former means they acknowledge your factual accuracy; the second is a sign that they feel understood. Being right never wins a negotiation; breaking through to understand the other person’s motives is the best way to be persuasive. When the other person feels understood, they are far more willing to cooperate. Being right doesn’t matter when being understood means everything to the other person.
Use the “secret ingredient” of addiction cancellers… get to their “why”
Talking about the reasons why we want to change is the fastest way to build motivational momentum. Miller and Rollnick call this “change talk,” in their practice of motivational interviewing (MI). Clinical studies on this addiction counseling technique demonstrate that getting the other person to talk about their own reasons for change correlates with increased successful outcomes. Studies looking at the effectiveness of this technique show “change talk” is the “active ingredient of MI.” Whether you use the textbook 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, 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. Therefore, reflecting change talk gets you more change talk. The more change talk, the more motivational momentum you build in the other person.
Learn more in my recent book:
“Making People Change” will simply teach you powerful skills, techniques, and mindsets to be effective when helping others.
You will learn:
- Strategies to Create an Environment for Change
- How to have Mindful Conversations
- Techniques to Increase Someone’s Motivation to Change
- How to Get Commitment, Not Just Agreement
- Practical Tools for High-Stake Conversations
- How to Talk to Someone Thinking About Suicide
- Skillful Communication for the Workplace
- How to Use Negotiation Skills to Help People Change
Becoming the most helpful version of yourself will allow you to affect positive change in others. The best therapists, educators, and negotiators use these scientifically proven techniques every day to facilitate real and lasting change in others.