Making behaviour change sticky

Here’s a question… What do you do after learning something new? Answer: I bet you go back to doing what it is that you usually do the whole time thinking, “that was nice”, “interesting”, “informative” etc. What you probably don’t do is implement the information fully, whether immediately, later, or in some cases… ever! The same applies to men in groups. We can have all of the factors that contribute to effective group work in place; a programme based on research and best practice, excellent learning environment, solid group culture, effective facilitation etc., but, and this is a big but, when the men leave will they use what they have learnt? We think, some of it, but perhaps not enough to consolidate long-term behaviour change.

So why does it happen like this? It may not be because they don’t find the information valuable. Most men will acknowledge there are at the least, one or two useful strategies they could use to improve safety within their families. So what’s the problem? In a broad sense, we believe that life simply gets in the way. In this case, the immediacy of issues that arise, replace any good intentions to utilise safety strategies. Put another way, other needs take priority at the front of the ‘cognitive queue’, thereby relegating the things we want to be front of mind, to the back. Now, this isn’t all bad, as it doesn’t mean that men forget what they have learnt, it simply means that learning isn’t being used in the right place, or at the right time. Ironically the next time they are likely to think about these things will be at the next session, which is still a good thing but only as a starting point.

Ultimately we think that men are willing, and in most cases able to implement what has been learnt in groups, but when crunch times occur they forget, or they are not mentally prepared enough to use strategies effectively ‘in the moment’. Consider the following question, “How do we keep the key ideas and strategies learnt in programmes, at the front of the minds of men attending them?” Now, this isn’t an issue exclusive to men who attend behaviour change programmes. I am sure the expression “life gets in the way” resonated with many of you reading this. How many times have you had good intentions about changing something, say changing how much exercise you do, or altering your diet, only to find yourself no further along the change process weeks or months later? So, what is it that we are doing, or not doing, that means more often than not we don’t succeed in following through with change?

To answer that question I would like to ask you to do something in an attempt to break this process down. I want you to think about the last “semi-serious change” you attempted but didn’t manage to make. I’ve already mentioned diet and exercise, which will be relevant for many of you, but there will likely to be other common changes attempted as well, for example, getting more sleep, communication with kids/spouse, stress-related changes, etc.

Once you have something in mind, consider these questions:

  • What did you do before starting (or prior to your “intended” start) that built up your motivation to make this change? Or, put another way, how did you build up the importance of making this change?
  • What did you do in terms of planning or preparing for change? This could refer to things like thinking about how you might go about doing it, researching, seeking expertise from others, freeing up time within your schedule, buying equipment or gear needed to make the change
  • What did you put in place to ensure that once you had planned for and prepared for change, you would follow through with it? How did you develop accountability in other words?

Let’s review by exploring these questions in a little more depth, starting with the first question, “What did you do before starting, that built up your motivation/importance to make this change?” This area is largely about generating initial motivation and building the importance of any proposed change so as you can really hit the ground running prior to starting. I am predicting that not many of you spent a lot of time here, or any time here. We are calling this aspect of change “I’m here”.

What about the second question, “What did you do in terms of planning or preparing for change?” This is typically the area we spend the most time considering. It’s the most comfortable area for us to work in as we have typically had the most practice working here. I reckon there may have been a bit of activity in this space. We are calling this aspect of change “I can”.

That leaves us with the last question, “What did you put in place to ensure that you would follow through with it? In a way, this is the forgotten aspect of change or is the area we think will somehow just happen despite not considering it. What I am picking is there was probably not a lot of action in this space, which we would consider pretty typical. We call this area “I will”.

The question for programme design and implementation is how do we ensure that we track across these three aspects in any behaviour change. If we slip in any one area, then it is likely that longer-term change will be compromised.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Published on Wednesday, January 25th, 2017, under Family violence, Offender work, Practice tips and techniques

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