John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
John's articles are here.
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s hard for a cool
Cool, cool change
~ Little River Band
Have you ever observed how people try to change their behavior and become increasingly frustrated while they keep on doing the same thing over and over – like Ground Hog Day?
Stages of Change
It’s no easy task to change an individual’s behavior. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, pioneer researchers in the area of health behavior change, have illustrated the complexity of undertaking change through their Transtheoretical Model of Change.
Based on decades of research on certain health behaviors, Prochaska and DiClemente claim that people go through predictable stages in the change process: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination. The model has a great number of helpful implications. Consider, for example, the frustration we often feel when an individual seems to lack motivation for change, or when that person’s progress is slow. Prochaska and DiClemente’s model assures us that people may have actually begun to change, even when there is no outward sign of change. We’ve studied this model previously in PPND articles about mental health and change, exercise and change, social support during change, and on focus. The model:
• Pre-contemplation – not even thinking about making a change
• Contemplation – thinking about making a change
• Preparation – an intention to make a change
• Action – making the change over a period of six months
• Maintenance – ensuring that the new behavior continues – being attentive to relapses
• Termination – extinguishing the old behavior
Processes of Change
Prochaska and DiClemente prepare us for the story of change –that it can be a spiral and that there are specific processes that support an individual in moving through each stage.
Usually, there are certain experiential events including consciousness-raising experiences, dramatic relief, and emotional arousal that nudge someone to the next level. Take, for example, the life of the resident “keeper of the nightmare” – a term coined by Terrence Deal. This person is continually pessimistic and is in the pre-contemplation stage – “I am as happy as I want to be.” There is no compelling reason to change.
However, when the pre-contemplator is provided with a consciousness raising experience, such as a diagnosed health concern or a major shift in a significant relationship, he or she may be more inclined to see the world differently. (Be aware that there are a variety of other factors that may impede change in the person – i.e. clinical diagnosis). When the person has found something that makes sense and inspires belief, he or she is in the contemplation stage. He or she is thinking about making a change. However, some people become chronic contemplators, paralyzed and ambivalent to moving beyond contemplation.
Moving from the pre-contemplation to the preparation phase, the processes is more behavioral in nature – commitment, stimulus control and helping relationships. When a person enters the preparation stage, he or she focuses on a plan that eventually leads to taking action. Action is where people exhibit the change – usually for six months, until they are ready to go into the maintenance stage and eventually extinguish the old behavior in the termination phase.
We all have different psychological accounting systems that nudge us in the direction of making changes. Sometimes there are lapses, re-lapses, and collapses in the quest of change, and this is all part of the spiral of change. Then one moves again from pre-contemplation up the food chain of change.
Change through Deliberate Practice?
Sometimes, it’s also helpful to have techniques to move through the change. People who have developed their character strengths can call on a foundation of well-formed habits in aspiring to move through the stages of change–especially from preparation through maintenance. People can continually stretch their abilities through deliberate practice–focused and effortful rehearsal. Deliberate practice requires a good degree of patience and perseverance. More often than not, the initial process of improvement, guided by practice, requires that people be willing to make choices different from what they feel like doing in the moment.
People who are committed to making change learn that one of the most significant sources of both difficulty and joy comes from the ability to rise to the challenge–they don’t back down from momentary lapses in motivation. The ability to stretch beyond one’s perceived ability or desire and to continue is contingent on asking, “What is the right action–what needs to be done at this time to make change.” And with this effort also comes the joy and satisfaction of the process. Amy Baltzell, a sport psychologist and faculty member in the counseling department at Boston University’s School of Education, claims: “When the body and mind adapt to higher demands, the adaptation leads, inevitably, to a heightened sense of engagement and enjoyment, a ‘dog-with-a-bone’ type of satisfaction.”
When people realize that the benefits outweigh the liabilities (or vice-versa) of certain behaviors, there tends to be a shift in behavior. Like water over a stone, the stages and processes of change are good benchmarks in helping people transform themselves.
Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.