How do people really change?

All our work is based on helping people to learn so that they can make better choices for themselves and create the life that they want. We have numerous techniques, tools and concepts available to us from the practice of NLP and our own life experience.

Over the years we’ve noticed a common pattern that is essential for sustainable change. It’s 4 steps and if any one step is missing or diluted in some way then a real and sustainable change is unlikely to happen. Perhaps you’ve tried to make change happen in your life and have been frustrated to make early progress then find yourself back where you started. Perhaps you are in the business of helping people change and are wondering why, sometimes, whatever you do just doesn’t seem to work. We hope this short post will be helpful and either accelerate change in your life or help others around you to learn.

Step 1: Accepting Reality

This is the hardest step for most people. When they feel stuck and stressed by what is going on it can be quite a challenge to literally step back and see the big picture. However this is essential because if you are working with surface systems rather than underlying causes then any change simply will not be sustainable because you haven’t resolved the underlying source of the problem.

This needs space and an environment where a person can be completely honest, really see what’s going on for themselves and find a way to face the reality of the situation. If challenged too much, or if asked to change too fast, then resistance will result. In this case you might find two other post of interest; The 4 D’s of Defence and Breaking Habits and Keeping the Benefits.

Step 2: Noticing the Triggers and Systems in place

So the reality of the situation has been established. Underlying causes are clear and understood. There is a deep desire to change and learn. There are still a couple of hurdles to face.

The existing system, including the triggers for the undesirable behaviour are still there. The next step is to notice what the system is and what triggers start the undesirable behaviour. And that’s all. Just set the intention to notice. This in many case will have the side effect of changing the behaviour but the most important thing to do is just notice.

Take the example of someone who drinks too much for their own liking. They’ve faced reality and come to the conclusion that carrying on as they are isn’t healthy and isn’t what they want. So now it’s time to notice when they drink too much and how. What is in the system that triggers the behaviour they don’t want? Is it stress, habit, joining in with others, not wanting to feel left out, loneliness and or one or many other factors.

This is part of accepting the reality of course. However where as step 1 is all about facing your reality. Step 2 is about recognising and understanding the reality of the wider system.

Step 3: The Practice of Change

If step 1 and 2 have been successfully completed then now is the time to make changes. Keep in mind though that you may need to cycle back through step 1 and 2 as more information comes to hand or the system changes – or perhaps simply because step 1 and 2 haven’t been covered thoroughly enough.

As much as we would like change to be quick and easy (and sometimes indeed it can be) sustainable change often needs sustained practice until a new way of being becomes a habit and the ‘new normal’. Tools and techniques in NLP genuinely do offer a quick way to make change happen. However the mistake many people make is to assume that because they feel different ‘now’ then next week they will feel the same. Life and the systems around us have a tendency to resist change and push us back to where we were – often ending up feeling worse in the process. That is why we recommend that you need to find ways to keep the change on track until the change simply becomes part of the new you. And by this time the system will have adapted and changed in response. This too is one of the reasons why we favour a modular approach to NLP training. Each module reinforces the desired change and helps supports individuals in understanding the reality in which they exist. The alternative is a quick high which fades fast and leads to disappointment.

So step 3 is to see change as a practice rather than an overnight thing that just happens. Even if a change feels instant then practice needs to be built in to consolidate the change and keep it in place.

Let’s take losing weight as a classic example of what we mean. Motivation for losing weight usually comes from feeling bad about being overweight. This motivation is the driver for buying those diet books, setting goals and getting started. Initially you might feel well on track as those first few pounds fall off. You start to physically feel better and you start to see the results. However as you lose weight the initial motivation for getting started also lessens. The reason you started the new health campaign disappears and what happens? Well what usually happens in over 90% of cases is that you return to old eating patterns but because your metabolism has taken a hit from dieting you end up weighing more and feeling worse. Great for the diet book industry (which is massive) but not good for getting where you need to go.

Let’s look at how losing weight can work using the first 3 steps of this process:

Step 1: Face the reality of unhealthy eating and what it will do for your system. Face the reality that unless you have a completely different life-long relationship with food you will not be able to live the life you want. Also face the reality that it’s not just about food but the relationship with your self, exercise and other people that needs to be looked at and changed permanently.

Step 2: Notice all the things around you that encourage and sustain your current eating patterns. Notice particular stress points, the certain types of food you’re drawn to, the relationship systems you exist in that keep you as you are and all the other triggers and patterns that exist that need to be modified, re-framed and communicated to others.

Step 3: Now one by one, at a pace that is workable, start to change the patterns that exist in your life and adopt new practices that sustain the change you want. Look at slip-ups and set backs as lessons to be learnt to improve your new practice for the new life you are creating. Permanently change your relationship with food and your own health one step at a time until you are eating more healthily, exercising more and this has become the new normal.

Compare this to:

Feel bad because you look and feel overweight. Feel bad enough about it to get a diet book and start to follow the advice religiously. Notice early progress and feel better because at last you are getting on top of your weight – even though there is a long way to go. Struggle through denying yourself the food that you like and persist a little longer. Relax a bit because you don’t feel so bad any more and let some of those favourites back in to your diet. Relax a bit more and creep back to old eating habits – feeling at least a little bit pleased with yourself because you’ve lost some weight. The weight creeps back on and you end up weighing a little bit more than when you started. Feel bad because you look and feel overweight…

Step 4: Celebrate the learning

Time to celebrate or at least reflect on the changes you’ve made. We spend too much time beating ourselves up about things that we should have done or done better. This is energy wasted on the past, a past that can not be changed. The energy of regret, remorse and guilt is useful and often essential for motivating change in the first place. However if carried forward it steals energy from keeping the changes you have made and focusing on the future.

Change is never ending and as we transition through life we will meet many challenges. It’s better to look forward, taking your learning from the past, and prepare yourself for those challenges. So when your sure that change you’ve made is truly part of the new you then find some way to celebrate the learning and close that chapter so you can begin the next part of your journey unburdened.

Finally a very short story which we use regularly in our training:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

by Portia Nelson

Chapter One

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter Four

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five

I walk down another street.

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