Why no one ever takes your advice (and how to fix that) cover image

Why no one ever takes your advice (and how to fix that)

Dorian Minors • March 19, 2016

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

I want to tell you why quitting smoking is so hard, or sticking it out at the gym. I want to show you why your friends never take your advice and why your family keep making the same mistakes with their lives over and over (hint: it's the same reason you do). I want to show you why people find change so difficult and, as usual, show you how to conquer it for you and for the people you care about. To do that, I'm going to roll back the clock to 1983. By the early 80's, at any given moment between 1-5% of the U.S. population were dying from smoking-related diseases. Attempts to solve this problem were about as effective as an ashtray on a motorbike. So as tends to happen, a group of researchers clustered around the issue and in 1983 came up with what's commonly known as the Stages of Change Model. For the last 30-odd years, counsellors and psychologists have used this model to help people stuck in a rut to break through and make major change in their lives.

sunset-summer-hipster-pipe-large The studies, unfortunately, didn't account for the proliferation of hipsters.

Stage one: Resistance and denial

At first, people are completely uninterested in changing. Referred to as the 'pre-contemplation' stage, people won't recognise a need to change or have any intention of doing so. If they aren't avoiding the subject entirely, they're defending their behaviour and will reject  any arguments to the contrary.

How you can help:

There's not a lot you can do at this juncture, unfortunately, except point the issues out where they are obvious and difficult to deny. It might not seem to have an effect, but stick with it.

Stage two: Recognition

The next stage is one characterised by thought. The need for change is recognised, although perhaps not entirely, and they've started to weigh up whether or not to do anything about it. Known as the 'contemplation' stage by researchers, while it sounds like a huge step forward from the outright denial of before, it isn't necessarily. You see, people are undergoing what is essentially a cost-benefit analysis and unless they can see that the pros of changing outweigh the cons of remaining the same then nothing will change. However, if they stick with it, people tend to become more and more open to change.

How you can help:

This stage is still often characterised by resistance. Overt signs of encouragement might be seen as 'pushiness' and defensiveness will result. Quiet support and agreement when they indicate they have an issue are ideal here. Try to avoid raising issues that they haven't.

bench black-and-white man sitting lonely Think of this stage as the angry teenage phase of the process. Annoying, defiant, and not doing nearly enough to clean their room.

Stage three: Preparation

Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell's 'Tipping Point'? Well, this stage is that - the elements have aligned and the person has teetered over the edge. The need for change has been accepted and the person is starting to make the necessary preparations to enact it. However, it's often a time of turmoil as they come to grips with what needs to happen and nailing them down on deadlines or action plans can be difficult.

How you can help:

This stage is often overwhelming. Ever start a new project or assignment you have no prior experience with? Overload, right? So support is obviously a key. But specifically, support them to develop plans. Help them see that it's not as impossible as it feels. Give them the sense that victory is just around the corner.

Stage four: Action

Preparations are complete and the plans are enacted. While there is a great deal of openness to change, temptation to relapse is high here and people often encounter resistance to change from other people.

How you can help:

Ball's in their court now. All you can do is sit back and encourage where you can. If you see an opportunity to help, ask, but don't force yourself on them. If they don't achieve a sense of mastery over their own path to change, the chances of relapse are much higher.

Stage five: Maintenance

This basically refers to the portion of a person's journey towards change in which they are trying to maintain their changes. Clinicians normally classify someone as having moved into maintenance after about 6 months. Chance of relapse is still present but decreases over time.

black-and-white person woman silhouette stretching yoga outdoors pose Think of this part as though they've taken up a new hobby. You know they like it because they talk about it all the time. You know they see the benefit. But just like starting yoga, or going to the gym, it's just as easy to fall off the horse.

How you can help:

Same as before. Let them do their thing and only help when you're invited. Encouragement, however, never goes astray - especially support them when they express fears about relapse.

Stage six: Relapse

Yes, this is a stage. As you might have guessed, this model isn't quite as linear as one might like. Relapse can happen any time, although it becomes less likely as time goes on. However, relapse isn't always a bad thing. In fact, it is usually a helpful learning point. One can use a relapse to identify where plans were over-ambitious, or where the sticking points exist. It's a setback, but sometimes setbacks are necessary to clear obstacles.

How you can help:

Those experiencing a relapse are very likely to see themselves as failures. This could manifest in a number of ways; dismissal and avoidance for example; or sadness and guilt. Don't feed into it. Help them see that it can be a reflective experience - something that will help them do it better next time. Don't forget, relapse is a common experience of almost all pathways to change - normalise it for them. Make them realise that it's not unusual and they just need to get back on the horse like it's no big deal. The key is to reframe the relapse as an opportunity.

firefighters-equipment-portrait-training It doesn't matter how badly they've messed up. If you care about them, let it go and help them learn from it.

Final word:

Remember though, that this model is a guideline. Like almost all of the stuff you'll find here, it can only help you so far. Each person's path will be different and almost no one goes through this model in a completely linear way, hitting all the timeframes and benchmarks. Use discretion and personalise your support. Or if it's you on a journey to change, recognise what aspects of this pertain to you and reach out to those you trust for the support you need at that time (get them to read this article, even). In a counselling environment, clinical or otherwise, this model is widely used. But all mental health professionals will recognise that some sessions will be a success and others will feel like a failure. Don't. Give. Up. Or else, they might. Speaking of reasons people don't take your advice, learn how 'common sense' advice is often bullshit. Or maybe you want to be better at advice giving? Learn the seven kinds of psychologist so you can pick the approach that suits you. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.