My German Shepherds rarely follow my instructions. Simple orders such as “don’t chase the cat” or “bring me the newspaper” are ignored. No matter how rational or well-presented my commands might be, I get nothing but blank faces. Now that I think of it, trying to command behavior change has never gotten me very far.
When my son and daughter were younger, I attempted to discipline in a similar way. I would enforce household rules by pointing out behavior defects and trying to command compliance. Anyone who’s worked with teenagers will recognize this approach as the paragon of futility.
There have been other times where I felt it appropriate to tell friends they “must” stop smoking or “should” lose weight. While these friends were kind enough to refrain from calling me “self-righteous” to my face, I certainly didn’t move them along the path to healthier living.
So if my personal approaches to behavior change have been less than ideal, what does work?
My career has allowed me to observe many supportive programs in justice services, impaired driving, mental health, addiction treatment and healthcare. The challenges are often daunting, and yet so often I observe great things happening. Skilled professionals are able to start participants on the path of positive personal change without ever lecturing or commanding them. These caregivers seem to take on difficult work so naturally.
Research supports how gifted professionals are able to accomplish such great feats. William R. Miller, a creator of Motivational Interviewing, has helped The Change Companies recognize that one can’t push or direct another person toward behavior change. The caregiver succeeds by walking alongside his or her client.
Why am I so slow in applying these proven strategies to my personal life? Even today, my adult children chuckle when I lecture them on money management, my friends mock my “words of wisdom” and my German Shepherds continue to chase the cat.