June 07, 2012

Let's Talk Change

Setting goals is easy, meeting them is hard, and not achieving them is discouraging. What's the best way to set realistic objectives that we can feel confident about meeting?

I learned a trick that's been useful in helping clients set and achieve goals. Say a client sets the objective of meditating for ten minutes five times per week. I'll ask him "On a scale of 0-10, how confident are you that you can achieve this goal?"

How does this question help?

1) Eliciting change talk. Say my client replies that his confidence level is six out of ten. My next move is to say "Hmm, six out of ten. Why not zero? Why is your confidence level at six instead of at two or three or even zero?"

This question may seem counterintuitive, but if I say "Why not seven or eight?" my client will produce a list of reasons why he can't meet his goal: he's too busy; he's not sure he'll be able to fit it in; he's not sure that meditation is for him. Suddenly he's resisting his goal. If I say "Why not two, three, or even zero?" the client will produce what's called change talk: it's not that hard, it's only ten minutes per day; he's been wanting to try meditating for a long time; it seems like something that could help him with stress. Suddenly he's making declarations about why he chose this goal and why it's important to him, boosting his own motivation.

2) Evaluating realisticness. Say my client replies that his degree of confidence in meeting his goal is one out of ten. I could still go for "Why not zero?" but it's important to consider that if his confidence is so low, the goal may be unrealistic and need adjustment. If my client has three children and works full time, meditating five times per week may not be possible for him. If we adjust the goal (e.g., meditating twice per week) and his degree of confidence increases to five or six out of ten, we're on the right track. I can then ask "Why not zero?" and he'll produce change talk: it's only twice per week, the kids go to bed at 8pm, leaving time for meditation in the evening; it will help him unwind at the end of the day.

The 0-10 confidence scale technique comes from motivational interviewing (MI), a coaching/counselling approach designed to increase motivation for change by helping people explore ambivalence and other barriers to change. MI incorporates the stages of change model, recognizing that people who want to make behaviour change or meet new objectives aren't always completely ready to do so.

I like to use the 0-10 confidence scale on myself and often find that low confidence is a symptom of an unrealistic goal (e.g., not eating out at all this week). I try to adjust my objective (e.g., eating out no more more than twice this week) until my level of confidence is at least six or seven, and then ask myself "Why not zero?" until I hear myself saying things like: I have the time this week to shop and prepare lunches; I actually prefer eating at home most of the time; I can put the money I save aside for my upcoming vacation.

Try it out!

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