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Where Are You in The Stages Of Change?

Posted Oct 29 2008 12:45am

When you find yourself with an underperforming employee,  or when you’re  not getting the results in your own work that you think should be possible, that’s a good time to use the stages of change I talked about in my last post.  The art of persuasion often involves moving people from the first through the fifth stage, one stage at a time.  Here, I’ll review the five stages and amplify them a bit.

Let’s review. The first stage is ignorance, and sometimes, ignorance is bliss.  This is a delicate stage for introducing information, as the right kind of information is required.  For example, maybe your employee is ignorant of his or her own behavior, or shortcomings.  In that case, you want to introduce behavioral specific  information in a context of receptivity.    Or maybe they know about the problem behavior, and the desired change, but are ignorant about how to go about it. In that case, information has to be about options and methods.  Or maybe they know what the change is and how to go about it, but don’t know why they should care.  In that case, information should be motivational, that speaks to their interests, values, and sense of purpose.

Whenever I engage with someone in order to facilitate change, I assume they are at the ignorance stage about all of these until I’m certain that they’re not.  Assuming ignorance is not the same as assuming someone is stupid.  The smartest people in the world have their own areas of dumb.  My wife thinks me amazingly intelligent about everything but the most basic and obvious things.

If you read my previous post, you will recognize that the second stage of change is recognition.  That’s when the person you are working with or seek to persuade can see the light.  It dawns on them that there is something they can do and want to do.  At this stage, they start seeking information about their options regarding the desired change, and asking questions about how to go forward.

This is a great moment in the change process, the AHA moment, the transformational moment.  This is when a person realizes that a change is possible, or realizes that the method for a certain change is something they can employ, or they recognize that there are very good reasons to care about making the change.  listen well and provide great information, and they move to the next stage.

The planning stage comes next, because an idea is worthless unless you know what to do next.  At this stage,  a person begins to access and organize the information and resources available, to plot a course, to develop at least the next step or two of moving forwards towards a desired change.  At this stage, offering a helping hand is all that’s required.  I like to think of this as the mentoring and modeling stage.

The fourth stage is action.  With plan in place, they move forward, take the step. They try it on for size to find out what happens, then learn from the experience and improve on it.  Don’t be surprised if there are a few false starts at this stage, since they’re doing something new, and things rarely go the way people expect.  This is a stage for offering reassurance and encouragement.  A stage for giving support, helping them make sense of wh’ats happened and fine tuning their efforts.  Reliable feedback is invaluable at this stage.

Doing something once doesn’t mean they’re going to be set for the rest of their life.   Starting takes a lot of energy, keeping something going takes less, but it does take energy and commitment.  You can’t just walk away believing things are handled.  Instead, you go to the fifth stage of Repetition.

The fifth stage is repetition (did you notice it?) , where they engage in the new behavior or thinking over and over again, until it becomes completely normal.  You do the behavior until you can do it without even planning or thinking about it, until it is as normal as flossing every day.  Now that I’ve repeated the five stages of change, it should be more familiar to you, right?  Should seem obvious now, doesn’t it?

The biggest mistake I find that most people make in faciliating change in another person’s mind, or behavior, is that they expect people to go from ignorance to action in a single step.  The result is that they wind up introducing so much dissonance into a person’s thinking that the natural impulse is to deny, ignore or overwhelm the information with counterexamples in order to discharge the dissonance.  THe end result:  Nothing changes.

The second biggest mistake is the assumption that going through these stages the first time dials in and nails down the actual desired change.  I find it a more useful assumption that the first time through is a test drive.  You shake out the kinks and iron out the wrinkles, notice where there are hidden gains in the old patterns that haven’t been addressed, and update your desired outcome to take them into account. 

Maybe you can apply this to yourself, see where you’re at in a particular change process in your own life.  But here’s why I’m telling you this.  Whenever you seek to persuade others, you can’t leap from stage one to stage five, or even three.  You move one stage at a time.  So it’s important to gauge at exactly which stage a person is at regarding the change you want to persuade them to make.  Whether you’re trying to persuade someone to vote for a particular candidate, or seeking to get your spouse to relent on a request to go somewhere, moving through the stages of change is your best bet to get where you want someone to go.  

As always, I’d love to hear your comments on this subject!

be well,
Rick

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