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Five Stages Of Lasting Change

by Daron Dickens

I am obsessed with the topic of change. As a marriage and family therapist and pastor for 20 years it is intertwined with my daily life. For a while, I even wanted to change my job description to change agent. The reason I didn’t was because change is not always looked on in a positive light. In fact, many would say change is very scary for them. Unfortunately, both my spiritual gifts assessment and personality profile say that the thing that irritates me most is when people don’t accept change as fast, as I think they should. In therapy terms, we call these people “resistant.” In the church world they’re called “Christians” (just joking . . . kind of). Ultimately, regardless of where you’re coming from, change is an inevitability of life. What’s more, your body and mind were created to change constantly at a molecular level. One could make the case that without change there is no health.

One of the best tools for embracing and understanding how change works is Prochaska’s Stages of Change taken from his book, Changing for Good, based on his extensive research into the subject. Below is a brief summary of each of his stages as well as a question to use to help approach the person in each stage. Whether you are a teacher, volunteer, parent or practically anybody else, I hope this will be beneficial as you tackle the topic of change.

Pre-Contemplative, the Window Shopper

A pre-contemplative person isn’t sure that there even is a problem. Much like a person that is window shopping, they’re not sure if they need any new clothes let alone whether they want to go into the store. If you were to go outside as a shop clerk and ask them if they needed help, they would run away from you as fast as they could. It’s the same with someone in the pre-contemplative stage. They may acknowledge that there’s a problem in general, but certainly not with them. If you asked them to work on the problem they would disconnect and might even become belligerent. When approaching people in this stage it is best just to help them reflect on the problem. I often see adolescents in this stage in therapy. Trying to convince them that they have a problem and need to work on it does nothing but make you tired.

Question: “If you did have a problem what would be happening (what would it look like)?” In this way, you are having them define the problem. When they run into the problem that you know they will, they’re better able to recognize their role since they defined the problem in the first place. This may sound passive. However, most of us have a hard time accepting a problem if it is thrust at us. We are much better able to see its effects when it impacts us directly.

Contemplator, the Browser

The person in the contemplative stage has entered the store but they’re “just looking.” If a salesperson approached, they’ll be quick to tell them they are just looking as they are moving away. At this point they’ve embraced the existence of a problem, but haven’t accepted their role. They’re open to listen, but slow to accept ownership.

Question: “If you woke up tomorrow and the problem didn’t exist, what would you be doing differently?”

This will help them see that they do have a part in the dance. At the very least they will be able to have a concrete role to act on. Often, it doesn’t matter if someone takes ownership of the problem as long as they’re working on the solution.

Preparation, the store hopper

The person in the preparation stage is like someone who is going to many stores to make sure they find the perfect item. They are definitely in the mode of buying, but want to do what’s necessary to make the purchase count. In today’s terms, this might be someone who wants to pour through hundreds of reviews before making a purchase. If you try to push them to make a purchase they will tell you that they’re “just not quite ready.” They‘re going to act, but just not right this minute.

The person in the preparation stage realizes that there is, indeed, a problem. What’s more, they also acknowledge that they have a part in that problem. In this stage they’re doing the preparation they feel it will take for them to make the change count.

Question: “What will be a sign that it is time to act?”

Action, the Buyer

This is the stage we want everyone to be in. This is the shopper who has money burning a hole in their pocket. They come in to the store having done the research and knowing exactly what they want. They go straight to the item and take it directly to the register to purchase it. A sales clerk might not even have time to approach. The person in this stage of action is ready to change. Sometimes, they accept your suggestions for change so quickly that it’s easy to think that they’re acting rashly or not thinking about the decision. However, in reality they’ve processed through many other stages and at this point all lights are green. One misstep is to take on the act of changing for them. Often parents fall into this trap. Once the person has been through all the other stages they’re ready to own this problem themselves. It’s important to let them take the action.

Question: What can I do to help you as you make this change?

Maintenance, the Repeat Shopper

You might think that once a person has reached the action phase that they’re done. This is not the case. There’s a lot that goes into making sure changes are sustainable and beneficial. I think we’ve all known people who made a sudden change only to hit an obstacle and quit. I see this often in the church world. Many accept Christ thinking it’s the last decision they’ll need to make. However, this one change moves all the other pieces on the board. I also see this very often with people deciding to get help for an addiction.

Question: “Knowing yourself as well as you do, If you were going to sabotage yourself how would you do it?”

Bonus alt question: “What obstacle to this change can you perceive coming up in the future?”

Double bonus question: “What would you need to do to make sure this change lasts?”

Daron Dickens serves as a marriage and family therapist in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife, Margaret, and his two kids, Truman and Carter. He also served as a pastor for over 20 years. He loves reading, all things baseball and the heavenly blessing of coffee.

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