Stages of Change

Why is so difficult to help others change? Why is so difficult to change ourselves? Why are some people so resistant to change?


There is the promise of a butterfly in every caterpillar”… we can change ourselves and others with compassion or we can try forcing things. Change may happen by social or peer pressure but is that a real change? Is it lasting and is it rewarding?

As many readers of these blogs know, I have been talking of necessary change myself, but for one reason or the other, I have advanced only tiny little steps, sometimes sitting in the fence indefinitely.

One of the things I know I need to change is my health routine, or how do I take care of myself. I have now a few mentors and one of them (Susun Weed, the well known herbalist and women mentor) shook my foundations last week: she ask me to take specific steps towards my health and self-care, and she accepted no excuses. Only time will show if that strategy helped…for now, I can only say I needed it. I had been in the contemplative stage for too long…

It is said that nobody can really change anyone else, only themselves. However, there are ways to support people through change: whether you are a career or life coach dealing with resistant clients, a partner dealing with a spouse’s challenging transition, a parent of a stubborn child, a member of a grassroots group that seems stuck in the wrong rail or deal with a difficult co-worker or boss, learning to identify where in the process of change each one of them are will help you to minimize anxiety and decide the next steps.

The stages of change happen to us too, so if you are struggling with change yourself, this may help you to seek help, explain what you need or even see your blind spots: those areas everyone else seems to see (and the need for you to change) except yourself!

Why do people change and how change works?

People change when the cons of staying on the current situation outweigh the pros of the new or are bigger than the perceived discomfort that change may bring. In other words, people change when they feel uncomfortable enough with the current situation or way of being.

In general, change may be supported by:

  • Increasing awareness of advantages of new behaviour, situation, etc.
  • Providing coping strategies and supporting confidence by reminding them inner strengths and skills
  • Helping them o identify and reduce, avoid, mitigate or accept risks
  • Encouraging self-evaluation: who they want to be? What values are they supporting with the current behaviour or situation?
  • Allowing them to see how their change (or being stuck) is affecting others they care about
  • Creating environmental changes to support them (changing where they live, work, etc. to avoid slipping back and encourage change by imitation)


According to the authors of “Changing for Good” , people go through six stages (and in many cases, can become stuck for ages in one of them, regress, etc.):

Pre-contemplation: “change, me?” “Why?” “There’s nothing wrong with my situation/behaviour/etc.” “ It’s ‘X’ fault not mine””I was born this way” “It’s in my genes”(ignorance is bliss? resistance to  change)

Usual behaviours: avoidance, denial, rationalization, internalization (self-blame, low self-esteem), passive-aggression and displacement (blaming others), resistance, withdrawal, demoralized (they may think/feel the situation is hopeless)

In this stage the person (you, others you try to help) don’t see the need for change or think is impossible. They may get some nagging from those around and that starts discomfort, but there’s nothing inside the person that triggers change…why? because they are comfortable or obtaining more rewards (even if negative) from the present situation and underestimate any potential rewards from changing.

What you can do to help:

  • Validate their lack of readiness
  • Remember that is their decision, not yours
  • Encourage re-evaluation of current behaviour
  • Encourage self-exploration
  • Explain and personalize the risk of staying the same

What not to do:

  • Don’t nag
  • Don’t push into action
  • Don’t give up
  • Don’t enable

Contemplation: “I want to stop feeling so stuck” “Change is too risky, difficult, challenging, I don’t know how to go about it” “what if I change and things are worse than now?”(sitting on the fence)

People in this stage may want to change but find it overwhelming. They may see the pros and cons as weighting the same. They may still need time…some have indefinite plans but don’t feel yet ready.

This stage can last years and make both the person and those around her, feel despair

Usual behaviours: complaining, making excuses, anxiously looking for more information, taking more courses, researching more, accumulating more without actually making the change.

What you can do to help:

  • Understand they are still not ready
  • Remember decision is theirs
  • Encourage evaluation of pros and cons
  • Show result of change in others, promote positive outcome

What not to do:

  • Don’t force action, they are not ready, be empathetic
  • Don’t give advice or quick solutions, be there to listen
  • Don’t impose conditions on your support
  • Don’t confront or threat

Preparation: “I’m trying but I’m still scared and unsure” (testing the waters)

People at this stage are starting to take small steps, even if that only includes telling their loved ones that they want to change.

Behaviours: announcing the change, ambivalence. Going cold turkey (not recommended in all cases as it may bring them faster to relapse)

How to support them:

  • Identify and assist in problem solving: worst case scenario, risks and how to minimize or avoid them, obstacles
  • Help them to identify support networks: family, friends, organizations, etc. who may be able to support her through this process
  • Help them to gain confidence by assessing together the skills and strengths that they possess and will help in this process
  • Encourage and support small steps

What not to do:

  • Don’t keep asking how they are doing
  • Don’t nag
  • Don’t abandon them at this stage, they need you more than ever
  • Don’t minimise their efforts, tell them how proud or happy you are with their advances, even the small ones

Action: “I am practicing the new behaviour, lifestyle, etc.” (practice makes perfect)

People at this stage have already changed but change is still too new and they may feel that they don’t have the strength to continue changing or resist slipping back to old behaviours.

Behaviours: removing tempting stuff, getting away from what needed to change, visible showing new behaviours.

How to help:

  • Provide ideas to restructure structures and processes around that may help to stay committed (example, diminishing triggers, moving, rearranging routines, etc.)
  • Help them deal with obstacles
  • Combat feeling of loss that may arise and reiterate long-term benefits

What not to do:

  • Don’t let them alone in this moment: offer to do things with them (example, if someone wants to do more exercising, offer to exercise with them to support their efforts)
  • Don’t provide triggers: don’t come with a beer to a friend who just left drinking!
  • Don’t ignore efforts: encourage them to put things in writing or take pictures or share in social media
  • Don’t let guard down: stay aware and vigilant and help them to cope with potential relapse
  • Don’t blame or allow them to blame for what was before

Maintenance: “This is the new me, but when I see ‘X’ I fear I’ll fall back” (relapse is always a risk)

People in this stage have changed some time ago but stressful or challenging situations, people and structures may send them back to relapse.

How to help:

  • Be there when they need you
  • Reinforce internal rewards of change: they didn’t change to please others
  • Bring up the possibility of relapse and anticipate it by sharing coping strategies

What not to do:

  • Don’t abandon them now. Don’t withdraw your support and encouragement
  • Don’t think is over and time to move on. They can still relapse. Be “on call” for them and review the ways you can still support them
  • Don’t bring triggers and temptations to go on the old behaviour or lifestyle

Relapse: “I went back to my old ways, I can’t help it” (fall from grace?)

In this stage, people may have slipped back once or more times, or even regained the old behaviour altogether. They may feel guilty or inadequate, as a failure and may react with resentment or being passive-aggressive or withdrawn.

How to help:

  • Help them evaluate triggers of their relapse
  • Reassess motivation and barriers
  • Plan stronger coping strategies

What not to do:

  • Don’t blame or complain
  • Don’t nag or withdraw your support now, they are not “weak”, they may require extra help (professional or long-term)
  • Don’t challenge or threat them to leave. If you need to leave, don’t use their relapse as an excuse

For more specific details in how to help (yourself or others) through change, I recommend the book “Changing for good” by James Prochaska, John Norcross and Carlo Diclemente

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