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Helping Others Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

The Do's and Don'ts of Motivating Others

-- By Dean Anderson, Behavioral Psychology Expert

If you’ve been working hard to lose weight and adopt a healthy lifestyle, you probably know how difficult that can be, and how important it is to have the support and help of others who are doing the same thing. You’ve probably been inspired by someone else’s success, gotten some important advice, or found a sympathetic listener just at the precise moment when, otherwise, you might have given up. Maybe that happens for you nearly every day.

When important people in your life are also struggling with weight problems or making healthy decisions, you probably want to give them the same help and support you’ve received from others. Easy enough—as long as they’re looking for what you have to offer.

But what do you do when someone you care about doesn’t seem to want to change her lifestyle or lose weight, even though she's putting herself at risk? What if she really wants the results of eating well and exercising regularly, but isn’t so keen on doing the things that make those results happen? How can you motivate someone to do what you know she needs to do—is that even possible?

What You Can't Do
Conventional wisdom says that you can’t motivate someone else. Maybe you can, however, inspire her with your own good example, give her the information she needs to solve problems, or support her when the going gets tough. But like the proverbial light bulb, that person is not going to change her behavior unless and until she wants to change it, and is ready and willing to do what has to be done. The desire and readiness have to come from inside.

This conventional wisdom is probably true, but all it really tells you is what you can’t do to motivate someone else. You can’t provide her with a good reason to get healthy, you can’t persuade her to do it by the sheer brilliance of your logic and persuasive techniques, and you can't convince her by the persistence of your nagging, suggestions, bribes, threats, predictions of disaster, or other manipulative devices. Until the object of your concern wants to do something about her situation, anything you tell her is going to fall on deaf ears.<pagebreak>

So, if you’re currently doing any of those things I just mentioned, knock if off before it messes up your relationship and drives both you and the person you’re concerned about crazy with frustration and resentment.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. How many people do you know who really want to be unhealthy and overweight, and wouldn’t prefer to look better, feel better, and be as healthy as possible? When someone “isn’t motivated” to lose weight or live a healthy lifestyle, the problem is probably not that she isn't ready or willing to enjoy the obvious benefits of healthy eating and exercise. If things were as simple as that, she’d make those changes in a minute.

More likely, the problem is that, to her, she's "benefiting" (in some way) from the way she's doing things now, and she isn’t sure she’ll still get those same benefits if she makes big changes in her life. Your best chance for motivating her to make desirable changes is to find out what she's getting out of her “unhealthy” behaviors now, and what you can do to help her get those same things without paying the price of obesity, inactivity, and higher health risks.

Let’s take a look at what this means in practical terms.

What You Can Do

  • Do more listening than talking. Remember, your job is not to persuade, correct, or preach. Most people who are “stuck” in unhealthy behaviors already know what’s wrong and what they need to change. What they don’t know, they can easily find out when they’re ready to use the information. Most people even know, more or less, when they’re denying the obvious, inventing rationalizations, coming up with excuses, only seeing the problems, and ignoring the opportunities. But arguing with a friend or loved one about these things just makes it that much harder for her to start talking about the real issues. In fact, people are far more likely to talk themselves out of these unhelpful thoughts than to be talked out of them by someone else. Your job is to listen, nod a lot, and say things like “Yes, that was a problem for me, too,” or, “You mean you do that too? I thought I was the only one.”
     
  • Lead by example. The best reason you can give someone for adopting a healthy lifestyle is doing it yourself and letting her see how it has helped you. Another dimension of this leading by example is talking about what you’ve learned about yourself in the process and the benefits that may not be visible on the surface. As I mentioned earlier, the “real” reason people hold back from change is usually fear of losing something important or exposing themselves to danger. That something important can be anything from the simple pleasure of doing something they enjoy (like eating a bag of chips while sitting on the couch and watching TV) to some deep psychological need to stay overweight and avoid the risks of being socially or sexually active. She might be unwilling to give up a certain style of cooking (Southern or fried for example) because it provides an important feeling of emotional connection with her family.

    Whatever the reasons are, change isn’t likely to happen until she feels like she's got some other realistic options for meeting these needs and desires. And most of us don’t like to think or talk too much about this kind of stuff (even to ourselves, much less someone else). You might be able to help move this part of the change process along by talking (when the opportunity arises) about how you’ve dealt with some of these kinds of things yourself.
     
  • Follow the Pleasure Principle. Whatever else he may have been wrong about, Sigmund Freud was right on the money when he said that people are motivated by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Unfortunately, we also have the ability to do things that bring pleasure now but are certain to cause a lot of pain later on. And we’re not always very good at putting off the small immediate pleasure in favor of a more significant one later on—instant gratification is just more fun than delayed gratification, at least at the moment.

    The ideal solution to these difficulties is to make doing the right thing as fun and pleasurable as possible. That will always work better than preaching the evils of instant gratification, glorifying the virtues of delayed gratification or heroic self-discipline, and striking fear into the hearts of potential junk food eaters.<pagebreak>
So, if you want to get your spouse or your kids to join in your efforts to eat healthy, put away those carrot sticks with the cottage cheese dip, and have a little contest to see who can come up with the tastiest and most nutritious new meal or snack ideas—the winner gets out of doing dishes. If you want to get the kids off the phone or the computer and on their feet moving around, don’t start with rules and limits, start by finding something they like to do, and offer to do it with them. You get the idea.

The good news is that a healthy lifestyle is something that most people will actually find pleasant and rewarding, once they give it a chance to grow on them. You can’t make that happen for others, or even convince them to try when they don’t want to. But with a little thought and luck, you might just provide the Spark that gets the fire going.
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