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Management by Coaching

Game changers

What good coaches know about the art of changing behavior

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

If you don't like something, change it. Aaah, if only it were that easy. Whether it is our own thoughts, feelings and behavior or someone else's, change is hard. Statistically, the deck is stacked against us. Consider this example: Research shows that when presented with the choice of changing their lifestyles or risking premature death, only one in ten recovering coronary bypass patients makes and sustains the lifestyle change that his or her doctors say is imperative.

Even when the motivation is as powerful as life itself, the ability to change still eludes many.

Maybe I'm a “half glass full” kind of girl, but the fact that one in ten people does succeed is proof that people can and do change. In my own coaching practice I see it every day. If you want to be among the successful, the answer lies in understanding the cycle of change and how it works.

Based on 12 years of research with 30,000 participants, James O. Prochaska, Ph.D., John C. Norcross, Ph.D., and Carlo C. DiClemente, Ph.D. have determined that there are six well-defined stages of behavioral change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination. Knowing which stage a person is in and the support that is most helpful in that phase can accelerate the process and make it far less painful.

Recognizing the stage a person is in and how to help

Pre-contemplation—People in this phase don't think they have a problem and have no intention of changing. They resist change—believing that others, not they, are the problem. Despite ample evidence, they live in denial. Their denial filters out information that might lead them to change. As a result they are surprisingly uninformed. Pre-contemplators rarely take responsibility for their own actions. They will change only when there is great and constant external pressure. The minute the pressure stops they quickly return to their old ways.

Getting pre-contemplators to recognize the problem—One of the most common mistakes people make is trying to push pre-contemplators into action. A pre-contemplator isn't ready for action but possibly may be ready to consider changing. Encourage this inclination. The most important thing you can do at this stage is to help them recognize they have a problem.

Avoid the temptation to sidestep the problem. Be clear and direct in addressing specific disruptive or distressing behaviors. Don't soften the consequences by minimizing the behavior. Ensure that each negative behavior is followed by a consistent consequence. Don't make excuses, cover for, or defend problem behavior. Insist that pre-contemplators accept responsibility for their actions. Don't nag but do be direct and consistent in urging them to change.

Contemplation—Contemplators know they have a problem and are beginning to think seriously about solving it. They struggle to get a handle on what's causing their problem and wonder about possible solutions. Many contemplators have indefinite plans to take action within the next six months or so. But that doesn't mean they are ready to take action.

Many people remain stuck in the contemplation phase for years. The research by Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente revealed that most smokers contemplated quitting for two years before taking any action. Common obstacles for contemplators are looking for absolute certainty before moving forward, waiting for the perfect time, wishing the change would just happen without having to do the work and taking action before they're really ready.

There are two clear signs when people begin to transition to the preparation phase. They begin focusing on the solution rather than the problem. They begin thinking more about the future than the past. The end of the contemplation state is a time of action, activity, anxiety and excitement.

Helping contemplators move to the next phase—The two major ways you can help a person at this stage is in sharing information and showing empathy. People in this phase are gathering information about their problem and exploring potential solutions. You can be a resource.

Your ability to walk in the person's shoes and show genuine empathy for what they're going through is invaluable. Most contemplators welcome the knowledge that others have experienced concerns similar to their own. When they hear that their ambivalence about changing is common, it can help them overcome their self-doubt and move forward.

Preparation—Most people in this phase have explored their problem and are focused on finding the most suitable action to overcome it. They are planning to take action within the next 30 days and are making the final adjustments before they begin to change the behavior. They may have already made small adjustments in their behavior. From the outside, the preparation phase looks like a dress rehearsal for action. Although people in the preparation phase appear to be ready to take action, they have not necessarily resolved their ambivalence. They may still need to convince themselves that taking action is what's best for them.

Keep in mind that people who cut short their preparation stage lower their ultimate chance of success.

Supporting the preparation phase—As people are shifting their routine and moving toward action, this is an ideal time to ask how to support them. It can be as simple as asking them for a list of “do's” and “don'ts.”

Action—The action stage is the one in which people most overtly modify their behavior. They start making those new business calls, pour the last beer down the sink, get to work early in the morning, organize their offices, or complete projects ahead of deadline. The changes are more obvious than in other periods.

Assisting people in the action phase—This boils down to two words: steady stroking. Recognize and reward progress no matter how small. When it comes to behavior change, reinforcement works far better than punishment.

Maintenance—The change process doesn't end with action. Forsaking an undesirable behavior is not enough to overcome it for good. In the maintenance phase, people work to consolidate the gains made in prior stages. They struggle to prevent lapses and relapse. Without a strong commitment to maintenance there will be relapse which can take people all the way back to the pre-contemplation or contemplation phases. Maintenance is a long, ongoing process, and it can last anywhere from six months to a lifetime.

Aiding in the fight to maintain positive change—People are often highly supportive of a change effort when it is the action stage. But once the new behavior takes hold, there is a tendency to take it for granted. Don't be lulled into complacency. The maintenance phase is a challenging one and your continued support is more important than ever.

Termination—This is the ultimate goal for all changers. What was once a problem is no longer an issue. The behavior will never return and changers have complete confidence that they can cope without fear of relapse. All of this holds true without any continued effort. While some change efforts may be permanent, many people will remain in maintenance mode forever.

People do change but it seldom happens overnight. While some people can change on a dime with little angst or struggle, they are the exception not the rule. For most of us, change is a process that unfolds over time. Think about a problem you've resolved. You probably know from experience that resolution didn't happen all at once. Chances are it took you a while to even realize you had a problem. Then you spent time thinking about it. Finally you summoned up the energy to do something about it. Maybe you tried something that didn't work or you got distracted with something else. Then eventually you came back and tackled it again and this time your approach worked. Change works in a similar way.

The path to change isn't a straight line. One stage doesn't necessarily lead to the next. Sometimes people get stuck. They move forward and then may go backwards. These setbacks may make you feel like your efforts have been wasted. You may want to give up on the person. Keep in mind that self-change is like climbing the leaning tower of Pisa. You walk up but as you approach the lower part of each floor you begin to head down. A few steps later you reach your ascent.

Progress isn't always obvious. In a business world that equates successful change efforts with concrete action, it's easy to overlook the hard inner work that precedes action and the resolve it takes to stick with newly adopted behaviors. Any movement from one stage to the next is progress. Take the time to recognize and reward it.

Most successful self-changers take more than one crack at a problem before they're finished with it. Relapse happens. It is the rule not the exception. When trying to change a problem behavior, people will inevitably slip and revert to their old ways. It is common for people to view the lapse as a failure and evidence that they can't really change. This can lead them to give up or feel like they have to start all over again.

You can't make people change. Ultimately, it is their decision. You can significantly increase the likelihood of successful change by understanding and helping them work through the stages of change. Your ongoing support, patience and belief in their ultimate ability to change can play an invaluable role.

The author

Kimberly Paterson is president of CIM ( She can be reached at


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