Research Paper By Colleen Cluett
(Life Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Facilitating the implementation and sustaining of behavioural change is a key aspect of coaching1and coaches often help to facilitate a clients transition through the stages of behaviour change to achieve implementation and habituation2. Effective behavioural change requires that we identify what we are changing, why we are changing it, and how we are changing it and then create a strong plan of action to ensure that we implement this change accordingly. In my research paper, I explore the key stages of generating and implementing behaviour change and describe the application of coaching to this process. I have focussed on self-motivated behaviour change at the individual level from the perspective of a coach.
What is behaviour change
Behaviour change refers to the “transformation or modification of human behaviour”3, with a new or altered behaviour being the end-point of a behaviour change. Weighing a certain amount or having a certain job or blood glucose level can be a by-product of a behaviour change but it is not necessarily a direct consequence of it4,5. This can have implications for what changes are desired and why and should be remembered throughout the coaching journey.
Five stages have been identified for self-initiated behaviour change and are discussed in this paper: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action and Maintenance2,6. However, the process of implementing and maintaining change is seen to be a spiral rather than linear with most people regressing to an earlier stage at some point, often through a lapse or relapse2,6.
Setting the foundation
As coaches, we first need to understand which stage of change our client is in2. Our clients come to us most frequently in the contemplation or preparation stages, potentially after already having experienced a relapse, but they may also be in the pre-contemplation, action or maintenance stages2. What stage they are in is generally determined through the coaching skills of encouraging and allowing the client to fully express themselves, active listening, being curious and asking questions. This knowledge will contribute to the coaching journey and is especially important to remember in the identification and design of actions. If the client is in the preparation or contemplation stage responding to or encouraging action-stage actions may be premature and can negatively impact the client’s future actions1. Rather the client should be assisted to move through the stages one at a time2.
In pre-contemplation “there is no intention to change behaviour in the foreseeable future”6. As mentioned above, clients generally come to coaching the contemplation or preparation stages although coaches may see clients in the pre-contemplation stage. This is especially the case if the client comes to coaching at the request of another party or if the client comes seeking coaching for another topic before identifying this behaviour1.
Clients in the precontemplation stage may be considered to be in the mindset of“I can’t” or “I won’t”. To assist clients in this phase it is necessary for the client to feel deep and sincere empathy from their coach, to feel that their feelings and needs are understood and accepted and that their coach respects them and is not judging them1. They should also be aware that if they ever do feel ready to make a change the coach will be there for them1.
In the contemplation stage, the client is “aware a problem exists and [is] seriously thinking about overcoming it, but [has] not yet made a commitment to take action”6. This stage can last for a long time as a person in this stage “struggle[s] with their dysfunctional behaviour and the amount of effort, energy, and loss it will cost to overcome it”2. Clients in the contemplation stage can be seen to be in the mindset of “I may”, and are contemplating changing or implementing a behaviour, generally within the next six months1,6. They may be aware of the disadvantages of current behaviour and some of the benefits of the new or changed behaviour but may feel intimidated or ambivalent about the change1. Clients may be in this stage for a long time as they contemplate the change, weigh the pros and cons and, perhaps, struggle to imagine themselves in that change or work out how to achieve it1.
To help these clients to move from the contemplation stage into preparation, consider exploring:
- The benefits of implementing or changing this particular behaviour;
- What they are excited about in making this change;
- The reasons they are making this change;
- What this change could bring into their lives;
- Previous occasions that they have been successful at implementing a behaviour change;
- Potential connections with people who could support them with this change or who have already made this change1.
Focus on the client’s “why” for the change. Goal commitment i.e. “one’s attachment to or determination to reach a goal” is essential for achieving one’s goals7 and achievement of behavioural change is improved when goals are specific instead of vague and “proximal” i.e. closer in terms of time or application, rather than “distal” i.e. feel far away or will take a long time to accomplish. Thus, it is essential to be very clear on why and for it to feel of high priority8.
A coach should also facilitate the client’s exploration of why they shouldn’t make the change. This may seem counterintuitive but is necessary to create a robust commitment and action plan in later stages. Changes are not made in a vacuum and any behavioural change that is made will also have an equivalent and opposite effect. When a change is made, it is important to consider and to take into account these effects in order for our actions to be implementable and sustainable. It is also important to consider inertia, i.e. “the strong persistence of existing form and function”9. When the behaviour is neutral or beneficial then inertia is at least cost less, if not advantageous. However, if the behaviours are adverse or detrimental, inertia is a problem9. When changes are identified, inertia can compel one to keep moving (or not moving) as before. Thus inertia is often a reason that a client has not implemented a change successfully already and, if it is not considered and taken it into account, it can prevent clients making changes now and in future. With this information, the client can then recognise which of these are genuine barriers and which can be overcome1.
In this stage, the client should also contemplate: what, exactly, they want to change; how they want to change it, and what their expectations are for this change. Goals that are framed as learning goals rather than performance goals and those that are focused on “promotion” rather than “prevention” are also more likely to be attained10,11.
At this stage, actions that the client may take are likely to involve thinking, discovering, reading, listening, talking and deciding1.
This stage “combines intention and behavioural criteria”6. Clients in the preparation stage may “have reduced their problem behaviours” but “have not yet reached criterion for effective action”2. They can be considered to be in the mindset of “I will”1. Their motivation is strong and they will be planning to implement their change within the next month1. Within this stage, the client will brainstorm possible approaches and solutions1. Successful behavioural change requires that we protect our burgeoning changes from distractions and conflicting goals and that we anticipate potential conflicts or decisions we will need to make before we are faced with them11. Anticipation and planning are crucial for maintaining behaviours and proactive coping mechanisms are often a better predictor of long-term self-management than either intentions or self-efficacy12. Proactive coping is defined as one’s ability to foresee and prevent or modify one’s reactions to a range of possible stressors before they can jeopardise one’s goals13. A useful framework when considering support structures is to use the Manager and Employee technique described by Marshall Goldsmith in Triggers14. In this technique, it is the client as the manager who sets the goal and targets of their behaviour change. Often, they as the manager, then leave themselves as the employee to get on with it. Oftentimes the employee fails to implement these envisioned changes, much to the disappointment and potentially the judgement of the manager. Instead, they should consider what kind of employee they are; are they self-motivated or do they appreciate clear action steps and target dates? Do they respond well to Key Performance Indicators and incentives? What kind of support do they benefit from? Then use this information to refine their plans.
To help these clients to move from the preparation stage into action, consider exploring:
- Tangible plans for change;
- Writing down their commitment, including specifics such as the what, when and how;
- “SMART” steps, i.e. those that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely, that they can commit to, to achieve this change;
- Difficulties they may face in implementing identified behaviours and solutions for working these out or overcoming them;
- Problematic situations that the client could encounter when they carry out the behaviour and how these could be overcome, ideally before they arise1;
- The client’s commitment to attaining this goal, as commitment is critical for success7.
In this stage the client “[modifies] their behaviour, experiences and/or environment in order to overcome their problems”, this “involves the most overt behavioural changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy”6. This applies to people “if they have successfully altered the dysfunctional behaviour for a period from one day to six months”2. Clients in the action stage are considered to be in the “I am” mindset and are implementing their new behaviour consistently1. When clients are in this stage they are likely to “achieve better and quicker results” and this can be encouraged by the coach through the creation of an appropriate, robust and comprehensive action plan2. At this stage, there is also a high risk of lapse or relapse and so a coach should work with the client to explore, manage and learn from potentially challenging situations1.
Finally, incorporating fun into your client’s behavioural change can help to incorporate it into their daily routine. This has been shown through various applications of gamification, defined as a “series of design principles, processes and systems used to influence, engage and motivate individuals, groups and communities to drive behaviours and effect desired outcomes”15 in apps, education and even health interventions16,17,18. Applying some of these elements to their behaviour change, such as points, levels, time restrictions, streaks or interactive cooperation or competition can help to increase the likelihood of involvement in an activity16 and thus can be very useful for behaviour change. However, be aware that having their own internal motivation and commitment is still essential to ensure that if the reward or game goes away, their change remains19.
With clients in this stage, consider exploring:
- How they can make implementing their new behaviour easier than not implementing it, what could be included to make this more enjoyable;
- How they can link their new behaviour with their values, strengths, preferred environments and other modes of support;
- Potential SMART targets that can help them to begin to enjoy a sense of achievement and/or progress early on their journey;
- Potentially challenging situations that they experience and how they can prepare for those;
- Challenging situations that they have experienced including: what was happening, where they were, who was with them, how they felt at the time and what they could do differently the next time to frame this as a learning experience;
- What would happen if they did lapse, how they would handle it, how they would treat themselves, what that would do for their overall goal1.
Keep in mind that the initiation of an action or behaviour ought to be efficient i.e. should not require a lot of reasoning and effort, in order to get to the point where the initiation of the action or behaviour can take place without conscious thought, i.e. it becomes a habit11. Also, help the client to remember that “change is not a linear progression through the stages” and that “most clients move through the stages of change in a spiral pattern” with most individuals relapsing or “regress[ing] to an earlier stage” at some point2.
In this stage the client “[works] to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action”, this “stage extends from six months to an indeterminate period past the initial action”1,6. Clients in the maintenance stage are considered to be in the “I still am” mindset and are considered to be in this stage when the new behaviour is a habit, performed automatically1. This is often about 6 months after the change was implemented. Clients are generally confident that they can maintain their new behaviours. However, they will still need to be diligent to maintain this change as lapses can still easily occur, including from risks such as boredom or slowly reverting to their old behaviour1. At this stage, a lapse doesn’t generally present a significant risk and clients can often get back on stage and even be stronger for it, however, they should be aware of and take care to avoid a relapse1. If a relapse does occur it is not necessary to analyse exactly what went wrong, instead focus on helping the client reconnect with the motivators they identified in previous stages including their vision, goals, resources, values and strengths while listening, using your curiosity and reflections and letting go of any judgements1.
Many clients will “relapse” and regress back to a previous stage at some point before they achieve long-term implementation of their changed behaviour, as such it is necessary to encourage a spiral way of thinking instead of a linear one to support the client and to minimise potential disappointment and shame2.
In the maintenance stage consider exploring:
- Opportunities for the client to keep growing by setting new goals;
- Opportunities to establish additional support mechanisms in the form of social connections etc.;
- New motivators, or maintaining connections to those already identified;
- Early recognition of and response to lapses should they occur;
- Relapse prevention plans1.
Many, if not all of us, have behaviour that we would like to change. It is useful for clients to know that we recognise their feelings and needs and that we do not judge them1. This is especially so given that change is a process, not a technique2. Our clients are likely to move through the five stages of change a few times before settling into maintenance1,2,6, a process which can be disheartening and ultimately prohibitive if not handled compassionately and empathetically. Understanding the stages of change and applying each one effectively and timeously in our coaching can support us to facilitate meaningful, sustainable and, ultimately, empowering behaviour change for our clients. It can also help us to support them, hold them accountable when necessary and to be a touchstone for the changes they want to realise if and when they lose sight of them. Being compassionate and empathetic and holding a judgement-free, accepting and curious space for our clients will encourage and enable them to explore and try out different ideas and opportunities. This can facilitate growth, development and, ultimately, fulfilment for many of our clients, which in turn is a huge motivation for many of us in our role as coaches.
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