The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Helping Others with Change: What Role Can You Play?

Written by
Sue Beckham, PhD
Posted in
Live well

Monday, Dec 30, 2013

Another year, another resolution? What’s the best strategy for helping others achieve their New Year’s resolutions?  These tips will help you meet that friend, coworker, or family member struggling with change, where they are and nudge them forward in the process.

1. You can facilitate change but you cannot change someone else.  An individual must make their own decision to change. You can show your support but no amount of nagging or coercion will force someone to change if they are not ready.  So do not take responsibility for their decisions and actions. Do what you can and realize the rest is up to them.

2. Be their friend, not their therapist. Do not overstep your bounds and jump into the role of therapist.  It never works and can negatively impact your relationship with them. Encourage them to seek the support and assistance of professionals such as a wellness coach, personal trainer, counselor, or therapist, as appropriate.

3. Ask them to share their goals with you.  We have all heard the phrase “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. The more specific their goals, the more likely they are to achieve them. For example, “I will start exercising” is a vague goal.  Rather ask them, “What specifically is your plan?” Help them to think through the important questions like:

  • How many days, which days and at what time will you exercise?
  • What type of exercise will you do (walk, cycle, elliptical, swim, etc.)?
  • How hard (intensity) will you exercise, and how will you measure that (heart rate, steps, miles walked, etc.)?
  • Where will you do the exercise?
  • What is your back-up plan if you miss a day?
It is important that they think through the process and determine what plan will work best for them.  Avoid the urge to tell them what to do.  It is always better to ask them questions so they can think through the process of formulating their own plan and not just use your plan.  They must “own” their plan and decision to change. You cannot do it for them.  If they adopt your plan/suggestions and it does not work, then your support and suggestions will not be perceived as helpful. It is important for them to learn to plan for permanent change.

4. Encourage them to share their goals with others. If others know about our goals, they can help us stay on track. A little peer pressure can help them stay focused and adds another layer of accountability when they have to respond to questions about their goals. It also increases the size of their support group.

5. Suggest they create a list of those who can support their change. Ask them to share ways that you can help them make their journey to a healthier lifestyle more successful. It’s important that you do not assume the role of “sole supporter.” Behavior change is hard and anyone who has made lasting change knows it takes a support group to keep you on track.  Encourage them to make a list of  what they  need help with and who can support them in those needs.  People are usually flattered when others ask them for help. Remember, helping assignments can be as small as a wake-up call for a workout or being ready to provide an encouraging call, text message, or email  when things get challenging and the urge to scrap their plan seems overwhelming.

6. Hold them accountable. This part is tricky.  You have to decide if you want what’s best for your friend or family member.  Holding individuals accountable, and since it fits the season, naughty or nice, can be hard but is of tremendous benefit to those trying to make a change. If you don’t feel comfortable asking them if they followed through on their plan, then potentially you could be considered an “enabler.” Enablers do not make good accountability partners.  Holding someone accountable means that you celebrate their successes and help them objectively assess their situation.  For example, if your friend or family member did not make their goal of 3 days per week of exercise this week, you should lovingly inquire about the following:

  • What were your challenges/barriers in meeting your goals this week?
  • Why happened with your back-up plan?
  • What could you do different next week if presented with the same circumstances.
Ideally, they should write out a new plan and come up with solutions to the barriers. This will help them think through the process and reassess if using more social support may assist them in attaining their next goal. An enabler, on the other hand would say “No worries, you will meet your goal next week.  The holidays are hard times as we are all so busy.” But be careful if you are holding them accountable not to be a “Scrooge” about it. For example, a Scrooge might respond with “I could have told you that you weren’t going to be able to do that after you failed last year”. This response is not helpful either.  Scrooge could better assist by not commenting at all.

7. Encourage them to reward themselves for meeting their goals. This is the fun part. I am certain Santa is so jolly because this is in part what he gets to do--reward the world for good behavior after serving as that accountability partner!  But unlike Santa, the reward should be self-determined so that they are more meaningful. Encourage them to attach rewards to their specific goals.  For example, if they make it to the gym 3 days a week for their workout, an appropriate reward might be a massage or new workout clothes. The reward, however, should fit the accomplishment, meaning bigger goals, bigger accomplishments, and bigger rewards. Rewards, however, should not be counterproductive for example, using food as a reward for losing weight. It is absolutely appropriate to build dessert into a meal plan (moderation in all things) but using food rewards just moves the individual further from their goal, emphasizing unhealthy behaviors and attaching meaning to certain foods that shouldn’t be there.

8. Get involved when appropriate. If you are a regular exerciser and your friend is trying to start an exercise program, offer to meet them for a workout.  If you are helping a family member lose weight, suggest all family members get involved in shopping and cooking to learn healthy eating habits. Perhaps, your family can take a hike or play at the park together. The more persons engaged in supporting change, the more likely everyone will succeed.

Think about it and decide which role you typically assume. If it is Scrooge, consider ways you can positively support those engaged in change. If you are more of an enabler then let them know you might not be the best person to support them.  In fact, you might consider a New Year’s resolution for yourself.  Instead of pleasing others, think about ways you can support others with honest but loving responses. Or you may just be too close to them to be objective and hold them accountable.  If that is the case, then be honest and let them know. If you are Santa, then continue your accountability approach which hopefully is nudging them into permanent change. For additional tips on how to help someone make changes stayed tuned. In our next blog we will discuss some tools including our latest app that can help to support behavior change.