by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Wellness staff have a reputation of being the “nice” people in an organization — the ones you expect to break into a chorus of Kumbaya to convey their compassion and empathy for those seeking behavior change support. But is this Mother Teresa approach the best way to guide health improvement or would a little more Donald Trump work better?

There’s no 100% foolproof way to know when it’s time to take a more direct, tough love approach with participants. But here are a few signs that more hugs aren’t going to work:

  • I don’t have time.” Anyone who has counseled more than 2 people to start exercising has heard this excuse. In the participant’s mind, it’s absolutely true. And discussing time management techniques with these folks is usually futile. If they understand the only way to make the change is to move it up in their priority list, and they still don’t get it done, offering solace for their busy lives only validates their perception. You may need to tell them: “You do have time. You have all the time there is. Until you decide this is more important to you, you’ll use that excuse your whole life. When you’re ready to make this a priority, I’m ready to help you. But I can’t give you more time; only you can do that.”
  • It’s my (fill in the blank)’s fault.” Often used in combination with “I don’t have time,” people will blame demands from their boss, spouse, kids, pets, or parents — saying they keep them from making a change or deal them a bad hand in life that prevents changes. While it may be true that they’re in a crappy situation, they really are the only ones who can do anything about it. The options are to continue playing the victim or to take charge of what they can control. (Individual health choices are seldom out of their control; it’s as easy to eat vegetables as it is to eat junk food.) You might need to remind them it’s their life, their decision.
  • I’ll get started when... this project is over, the New Year arrives, I get a new boss, my wife works part time, the kids are in school, the weather warms up.” Milestones are important for starting to work on a change. But if they’re used repeatedly, pushing action farther into the future, tough love might be needed — or, ultimately, the end of that sentence is “’s too late.”

None of us can truly walk a mile in another person’s shoes, so your approach shouldn’t come across as judgmental or in any way a put-down. That’s never helpful. But stating the fact — they’re the only person who can do anything about the situation — may be the best advice you can give. Let them know you’re there to help when they’re ready to get serious.

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