Sure, we aim to accept others complete with all of their drawbacks. But, I’d love if my dad exercised a bit more often and my mom used her spare time to volunteer at the local charity rather than worrying about my love life. My brother could do with a little less whining. Oh, and I would appreciate if my best friend called more often.
Thing is, I care about the people in my life. I want to be able to see them grow. But here’s the catch: it’s hard to make them realize that they need to change a few things about themselves.
So, I began asking myself: what’s the secret of inspiring others to change? I spoke to experts—psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists—to understand how the human mind works when it comes to changing habits.
While you may have good suggestions on how to improve your child’s studying habits, they may not necessarily buy into them. “When we give someone advice, we are operating from our own perspective,” says Hannah Roberts, Psy. D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “We are telling the person ‘here’s what I think would work for you.'” You may have done your research and carefully considered your recommendations but that won’t necessarily inspire her to act on them.
It can be a frustrating process, but try to steer clear of nagging and bribing. “Unfortunately all of those things just make a person feel hopeless and stuck,” says Roberts.
Instead, offer sincere concern. “Verbalize that the advice is coming from a place of genuine caring for whoever is being spoken to,” says Christine Weber, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist based in Seaford, New York.
If you want to learn more about what motivates another person, listen and inquire carefully. “What we know is that changes have to come from internal motivators and we are highly unlikely to make changes just because someone recommends them,” says Roberts.
Ask questions rather than rushing to dole out advice. “Asking curious questions helps the person better understand why they need to make the change and how they might go about implementing changes,” she says. When a client shares a goal to stop procrastinating or drinking, Roberts says she generally follows up with questions such as, ‘Why is that change important to you?’ and ‘What have you tried so far?’ Next, she helps brainstorm possible solutions.
Remember: this is about them, not you.
Let’s say you want your partner to eat healthy food. But if you survive on pizza, pasta, and burgers, they might be less likely to take your advice seriously. “One way to inspire people is by being a role model for them,” says Simon Rego, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “So I should be doing some of those things or all of those things that I am asking other people to do.”
In fact, go a step further—plan activities and invite them along. If you want your partner to become physically active, encourage them to accompany you to the gym. “[If] people experience it directly and … feel good afterward, they are more likely to do it again,” says Rego.
There’s another benefit to doing things together: “When we have a social commitment with someone else by partnering up or doing something in a group, we feel more of an obligation to the group or the person and that helps us push through times when we might not feel as committed to doing it,” says Rego.
Offering support in smaller ways can go a long way. “Sometimes the best way is indirectly,” says David M Reiss, M.D., a San Diego-based psychiatrist. “Just do little things to make it more enjoyable.” Don’t confuse that with giving rewards—that’s manipulative. Think of it as back-end support. “As a person gets back from the gym, have something nice for them to eat or get them some nice music for their workout,” explains Reiss.
Different people may appreciate different styles of support.”They may need a different type of help than what you’ve been giving,” says Sharon Martin, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist based in Campbell, Calif. “For example, my husband would find it off-putting if I scolded him whenever he eats cookies, but he might appreciate it if I didn’t bring any cookies into the house to tempt him.”
You may offer excellent insight, and your loved ones may still ignore your efforts—change can be hard despite the best intentions. “People do not listen to sincere advice for a variety of reasons,” says Weber. “Taking advice generally requires some type of life change, which can cause an increased amount of fear, anxiety, and stress.”
It may not be an ideal time for the other person. Notice their verbal and body language cues. “Pay attention to the responses … Is your loved one receptive and eager for your feedback or ideas? If not, take a step back,” says Martin.
Even if your advice isn’t well received, try to offer consistent support by listening and providing space. It’s crucial to remember our individual agency and act respectfully. “Sometimes if you just validate the struggle people have by listening to them, it opens them up to being less defensive, and then in the future, you can encourage them when they may be more willing to try something,” says Rego.
Artwork by CHLOE INSALL-JONES