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  • Joshua Wilson

What blocks you from making a big change?

Many people think change on a personal level works the way things do in the physical world. If I want to move a chair out of my way, for example, I form the intention, I give the chair a push, and the chair slides happily aside. So if I want to change myself, it follows that I would similarly pick a goal, give myself a push, and see results. For example, I might decide to exercise more. I tell myself with firm conviction that exercising will now happen. I get a gym membership or buy some jogging shoes. I go once, and then . . . things peter out a bit. Sound familiar?

The “push” or “direct” method of change actually works well for many small challenges— minor changes that don’t require you to rethink who you are in any meaningful way. But it won’t work as well for bigger changes. For those, you need what we call an “indirect” approach: rather than pushing, you’ll need to instead clear away things that are blocking you.

Why? Because the big changes affect your identity, your beliefs about how the world works, or where you think you fit in your community. You could say these beliefs are you. They’re so important to who you are that if feels threatening if someone is asking you to change them, even if you’re the one asking yourself to change!

For example: for exercising to happen regularly, you might decide you need to rethink how you use your mornings. Instead of sleeping in, you need to be disciplined, wake up an hour earlier, and get a jog in before work. For a lot of people this isn’t that hard. Deciding to do it is enough for it to happen. But if you feel a kind of queasy feeling about waking up early every day, and find yourself forgetting to set the alarm, or hitting snooze, or scheduling other activities, and you’re not sure why, then something about who you are might be affected by making this change. Maybe you have always been annoyed by people who exercise and don’t want to be one of “them.” Maybe a parent was in the military, was highly disciplined, and you formed your identity in contrast to that. Maybe the idea of enduring 30 minutes of discomfort while jogging is overwhelming. None of these beliefs is necessarily true or even consciously held. They often would look silly to an outside person, but if they’re held deeply, they can be powerful change deterrents nonetheless.

For the big changes, you have to change your beliefs before you can change your behavior, because otherwise the beliefs will outlast your will to change. How do you do it? We like the simple method described in the classic book Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, and we use it often with clients individually and collectively. In this method, you use a simple diagnostic tool called the “Immunity Map” to get a sense of which beliefs might be blocking you from changing, then you do some “testing”—designing and conducting small activities intended to get you information about the particular behavior.

For the would-be runner who is worried about enduring the physical discomfort of jogging, a simple test is to learn more about how other joggers feel when they run. Hearing other joggers say “once I get warmed up, I actually feel really good,” or “yes, it’s a little uncomfortable, but I find I can tune that out” helps weaken the belief. Additional tests gathering more data showing they can probably tolerate more discomfort than they think would follow. Eventually the resistance to running would decline, perhaps without actually running! This is the indirect method.

Normally we like to offer with each of our posts a simple exercise you can undertake without a lot of preparation or support; the follow-up on this one isn’t something that’s easy to do on your own. Reading Immunity to Change is a good start, but we think you’d do best with some kind of trained coaching support from a coach or consultant who’s familiar with indirect change. Fortunately we are! So contact us if you’d like to learn more.


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