Motivation Articles

Helping Others Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

The Do's and Don'ts of Motivating Others

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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.

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.
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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Member Comments

  • This was an interesting article it was very educational
  • Gentle persuasion. Zig Ziglar said you could get people to do anything you wanted as soon as you convinced them it was their idea in the first place.
  • LCERTUCHE
    I try to include my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews when cooking. They are always willing to taste something they have made personally.
  • Dear Coach Dean, You are a very wise man. Thank you.
  • MABRAULT


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  • Great article. I have only been doing SparkPeople for 60 days this time, but people are starting to notice. I have talked to 7 people in my life about SparkPeople and I don't believe that any of them have or probably try it. One admitted that she doesn't want to give up eating what she wants - I invite her over when I making a great healthy dish that looks sumptious (whole wheat pizza last week). She is always posting delicious recipes on Facebook - so I post SparkPeople recipes on Facebook. Another person is my baby sister her was very upset with my health issues, so she wants updates that I am taking care of myself. In the last 60 days I have learned alot about me and the role that our Mom had on us. Mom had definate eating disorders and was always on a diet - I still hate the word. I have turned the conversation to those years. I will use all of the suggested steps. Next week we are going to a relaxation yoga class and massages!
  • This is a great article. No one wants to start a healthy lifestyle if they are going to be deprived of certain foods and strictly dictated to go out there and exercise for 30 minutes 3 times a week! Making it fit into your lifestyle makes the journey enjoyable and fun!
  • This is something I definitly can relate to. I love the changes that I've made and how they reflect upon my life. Every day I feel like I have more energy from eatting right, I think more clearly, and I finally can get a decent nights sleep! I feel better and I'm more confident...

    So when I talk about how happy being healthy has made me, it feels like a double edge sword. On one hand, I feel like everyone should give this a try because it's such a great way to improove quality of life... but on the other hand, I never want to sound preachy or like I am boasting / bragging, so more often then not I won't say much of anything at all unless it's to another friend of mine who already see's eye to eye on being fit and active
  • I agree with your entire article. I have several friends that wish they could lose weight but when I tell them what I do, the typical response is "oh I can't do that''. Maybe they can't do exactly what I do but they can do something to move toward the healthier choice in food or exercise. This article confirms my thoughts that the immediate reward is outweighing the future results. Thanks for your article.
  • CHRISTINASP
    A very good article, thanks.
    What is confusing to me is that some people keep SAYING they want to live healthier, quit smoking, stop using weed etcetera. They ask for help, even. Then when I say yes to their request for help and offer suggestions of what they could do, they don't do it, and some even start argueing with ME for 'wanting to change them'... telling me 'I don't know what it's like to be addicted' (umm yes I do).
    I'm slowly beginning to learn to turn away at that point. Because they apparently prefer to spend their energy argueing with me over DOING something about their problem...
    I'd love an article / elaboration about what to do when people insist they want to change and then... don't do it.
  • AZURE-SKY
    Trying to get someone else to stick to a diet is like trying to get someone to quit smoking. If that person does not have the desire and self-discipline to do what needs to be done, all the prompting, encouraging, example-setting you do, won't make a bit of difference.

    Each of us had to have that AHA! moment when we choose to take control of our health. We might need some guidance or assistance to make better choices - but the final choice remains ours. Just like I can't make my husband use less salt (high blood pressure), he can't make me give up my favorite dessert - only I can do that.

    Sometimes our motivation is high, other times we make the wrong choices - but it is up to the individual to make the right decisions.

    So, the next time someone asks you to motivate them, tell them the only one who can truly motivate a person is him or herself.
  • ALDEBARANIAN
    *Sigh* With Coach Dean's articles I always have to slow down and read more carefully. And then put a little soothing ointment on the sore spots. Why is the real stuff always harder than cotton candy cliches? Thanks Coach.
  • Enjoyed this article and the excellent advice really resonated. Thank you!

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.