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Six tips for helping your loved one change unhealthy behaviors

About half of illness and premature death in the U.S. stems from unhealthy behavior that many of us wish we could change–habits such as smoking, being a couch potato, playing too many video games, skipping medication doses, or eating too much sugar.

If you are worried about the unhealthy behavior of someone close to you, you have probably wondered how you could help to change it, if you haven’t already tried. The next time you talk to that person, consider these concepts borrowed from a counseling technique used by professionals called “Motivational Interviewing*.”

  1. Ask permission first: “Are you willing to talk about” the behavior?
  2. Inquire about and then accept how the person thinks about the behavior. “What do you think about it?” “Are you ready to act and try to change it?” If no, that’s OK–accept the answer. Accepting the person’s resistance to change, rather than pushing against it, can be a way to open the door for future conversations.
  3. Ask, “What do you like about” this behavior? You may be surprised what you learn. You can follow that up with, “What do you not like about it?” Helping the person talk out loud abut the good and bad parts of this behavior can be useful to the person.
  4. Listen to yourself: Are you talking too much? If you find yourself pushing, persuading, arguing or explaining you may be headed down the nagging track. Your role here is to get your loved one to talk and feel understood.
  5. Try using open-ended questions starting with words like “what” or “how,” rather than yes/no questions. Ask for the person’s ideas about change and get the person to talk in positive terms. Here are some possible questions to ask:
    • What are your motivations to stop or change?
    • What might life be like if you changed this behavior?
    • What are some of your ideas to try to stop or change?
  6. Extend an offer of partnership, hope and support. In addition to affirming positive statements or plans, you might consider making a plan with the person to check back at a later time, or ask how you can help.

Remember that even baby steps are helpful when trying to work on behavior change. You may need to have multiple conversations, sometimes over weeks or months or years to support the individual. But have confidence in knowing that getting someone you love to even talk or think about giving up smoking, or getting out to exercise, is a step in the right direction. You are in it with the person for the long haul and let the person know that!

* Miller WR and Rollnick S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd Ed. New York: Guilford Press.


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