A few months ago I wrote about the powerful positive strategies my physio deployed to get me to change my behaviour for the better. They revolved around appreciative inquiry, true collaboration, visualising wins, and instituting supports to anchor the behaviour into the new normal.

I’ve had a few queries regarding ineffective ‘traditional’ behavioural change approaches which I referenced in the article. Here’s some to avoid…

Ineffective ways to change someone’s behaviour

Behavioural shifts are temporary and short-lived at best – have you crashed and burned by using one of these tactics? There is a better way.

Tactic #1: Helpful

I think you should quit smoking. Do you know what really helped me? I have some great advice for you. I just want to help! If I were you I would just do a, b or c…

Someone in your life is doing something wrong. Why can’t they be more like you or do it your way? You know what works! So you offer advice, suggestions, send them tips, articles and books. Sometimes this is effective, but often the person returns to you with the same problems – repeatedly. You’ll just end up getting frustrated. Remember, the tipping point for everyone looks and feels different. What’s effective and easy for you, may not be for anyone else. You need to enter into two-way dialogue with them so you know what’s blocking the change.

Tactic #2: Incentivising

If you do all your chores this week, you can have an extra hour of Xbox time.

Yes, it’s obviously a parent-child example, but I’ve seen this happen with employees. We offer a reward for a change in behaviour. This is unsustainable in the long term as the reward loses its luster. Think of the good old’ retention bonus. Aren’t they a modern-day form of “paid servitude” where you buy rather than earn employee loyalty? Even if they stay, it doesn’t mean they are silent. What caused them to start looking elsewhere hasn’t been resolved, and it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs.

Tactic #3: Threatening

If you don’t vote this way, you will not eligible for promotion! If you don’t start saving money, we are going to have to sell the car. If you don’t stop eating lollies, you’ll rot your teeth and gain weight!

Fear mongering is a typical tactic usually deployed out of desperation or frustration. You get more bees with honey. Threatening only makes you the target of someone’s animosity. People who want to lose weight or eat less calories already know what’s at stake. Threats only add stress, fear and anxiety. This might work temporarily but could destroy your relationship. And if you don’t follow through with your threat? They’ll know they can get away with not changing, and you’ll still be there to pick up the pieces.

Tactic #4: Pleading

Do it for me! Do it for your future kids! Think of all the money we have spent, don’t let it go to waste!

When we are really desperate for someone’s behaviour to change, we plead with them. We beg them to change and point to a higher purpose—the future, money, religion, children, whatever. We hope that by tying the mission to something bigger it makes people pay attention. Typically this only serves to make someone feel more alone and disconnected like their own needs are not important or second fiddle. Begging and pleading while guilt-tripping them with a higher purpose won’t make them more inclined to change.

Tactic #5: Shaming

Your breath is horrendous. Your diet is appalling. Aren’t you embarrassed by your poor communication skills? I would be humiliated if I were you! I would never show up late all the time, it is so rude. 

Shaming is the go-to tactic for weight loss shows a la The Biggest Loser. Shaming can work, but the consequences on someone’s long-term health are often disastrous. When you shame someone into changing, it comes from a negative space and cripples their sense of worth. Even if they end up changing the behaviour, they often have near-impossible time getting back their self-esteem. Seen the follow-up episodes that track contestants a few months down the track? They’re often back to their original weight. And then some.

Speaking from personal experience, my own and that of my friends and family, a little ribbing about “soft” physical characteristics have resulted in extreme dieting, fainting spells, years of dysfunctional body image, bulimia and many more negative impacts. Don’t do it – shaming is cruel and cowardly.

Let’s recap and practice these steps getting someone to quit smoking as an example.

Tactics that don’t work:

  • Helpful: If you quit smoking, you’d have more money to spend and more time for other things.
  • Incentivising: If you don’t light up a cigarette for the next month I will take you out for a fancy dinner.
  • Threatening: If you don’t quit smoking, I’m leaving you/you’ll get cancer / you’ll be destroying your kids’ lungs via second-hand smoke.
  • Pleading: I am begging you to quit smoking; it’s so bad for your health.
  • Shaming: Your smoker’s breath is disgusting! It’s also discoloured your teeth, I would be too embarrassed to smile if I were you.

Steps that do work:

  • Pride: Thank you for always smoking outside, it ensures the house smells fresh and fragrant. You are so diligent with that, I also appreciate you being careful with the cigarette butts and making an effort to reduce your smoking.
  • Togetherness: I would love to help you reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke each day. What can we do to make that work?
  • Progress: I am going to keep a calendar of each day you go smoke-free. This way you know how far you’ve come, we can acknowledge your progress at the end of each day. We’ll also track how many minutes you can power walk without getting breathless. If we reach 7 days smoke-free, we’ll celebrate with something of your choosing.
  • Tools: I am going to get you some nicotine patches, a subscription to a mindfulness app and a list of Smokers Anonymous meetings. These should provide you with ongoing support and resources.    

Take a moment to think through how you can apply these principles to help someone change their behaviour.