Friday, November 23, 2007

Encouraging Change: Do It With Them

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and instead of doing the typical “What I’m Thankful for” post, I decided to share a lesson I learned in encouraging others to change.

I have 2 members of the family that are exercise-challenged – my brother and my dad. As an athlete and someone who values a healthy lifestyle, it’s been hard for me to not to judge about their lack of exercise and poor eating habits.

For the past few years, I’ve wanted to encourage them to workout and eat healthier. Like most of us, I had honest intentions but hadn’t really thought of an effective approach. I tried using humor, but found that it was just too mean. No one likes being greeted with “Hey Tubby!” or having their love-handles grabbed in front of others.

Then I tried to have serious conversations with them about why it’s important to exercise and eat better. Obviously, they knew they should be doing it but I went so far as to say “Dad, I don’t want you to have a heart attack. Don’t you want to live longer and enjoy your retirement?” I tried to work the “Don’t you want to look good for the ladies?” angle with my brother, but neither of them seemed inspired.

At some point, I know I became a nag. Every time I saw them or spoke to them on the phone, I would ask if they’ve been exercising. It didn’t make for very fun conversations and no one was happy. I felt like a nag, our conversations went nowhere, and I felt my relationships with them were getting weaker. I'm sure they were annoyed by it (I certainly would be), but I was caught in the age-old dilemma of how to get someone to change if they don’t want to.

I guess through trial and error, I stumbled on the idea of being a "facilitator" for their change. Maybe they didn’t know what to do next or have the tools to change, so I softened my approach and offered specific help:
  • I wrote up easy workouts they could do at home (on commercial breaks)
  • I bought my dad a jogging suit and sneakers for Christmas
  • I got my brother personal training sessions at a gym near his house
  • I sat down with my dad to review his daily diet and offer some healthy substitutions or alternatives (i.e. wheat instead of white bread, smaller meals more frequently, more veggies, no meals after 7pm, etc.).
  • We bought my brother an iPod shuffle to help him stay entertained while doing cardio
It had some effect. I could tell it was starting to get through and they were at least beginning to think about changes they could make. But they still weren't motivated or excited about it.

Then one day, my boss had lent me a DVD of a leadership conference and Dr. Henry Cloud spoke about how to encourage change in people. It’s been a while now since I’ve seen it, but the message he offered was “Help them create new patterns in their life by doing it with them.” Make the activity tangible by getting into the trenches and holding their hand through it. Don’t just call them to see if they’ve been doing it or have done it yet. Dedicate some time to do it WITH them.

In that spirit, I’m proud to say that yesterday my whole family ran the 2007 Port Washington Turkey Trot. Both my dad and my brother jogged the entire 5 miles and surprised themselves with their achievement. We spent the rest of the day sharing stories of the race and eagerly making plans for next year.

Although it took some planning and email campaigning to get everyone’s buy-in, I realized it was the right approach (and totally worth it) when my dad or brother would call to tell me they just went running and were ready to beat me on Thanksgiving Day.

So if you’ve got someone in mind who has been putting off their filing, hasn’t been to the gym lately, or has trouble studying for the GMATs, and you really want to help them, I offer you Dr. Cloud’s suggestion –


It makes all the difference.

  • What do you think about this approach?
  • Have you had a similar experience?
Please comment!

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