How people change: Working with the stages and processes of change

While archiving a journal recently, I found an old photocopied article wedged in its pages. Upon re-reading it, I was struck by just how relevant (and now, mainstream) the ideas in this article were.

The article, from the September 1992 edition of American Psychologist, was entitled “In Search of How People Change” and was written by James Prochaska, Carol DiClemente and John Norcross. In it, Prochaska and friends outline their “stages of change model” which has become de rigeur knowledge for change agents over the past 20 years. Based on their work in the field of addiction, the model proposes five stages that people go through when changing.

  1. Pre-contemplation – where we see no problem with our behaviour or situation, and consequently have very little motivation to change
  2. Contemplation – where we are thinking about change, maybe wondering what’s possible, checking out options but not acting on it
  3. Preparation – where we seriously consider what needs to be done to bring about change
  4. Action – where we do what’s needed to change
  5. Maintenance – where we monitor and adjust our behaviour so that the change is sustained.

The Stages of Change are quite well known and often used as justification for why the cliche “a person has to be ready to change” is wheeled out when someone is resistant to change.

A less known part of the model is how it can inform the processes of change. Processes can range from consciousness raising and self-evaluation to helping relationships and stimulus control. Different processes help people move through the different stages.

For example, if you’re in Pre-Contemplation about your health, you’re quite happy to chow down at the greasy spoon for lunch everyday and not see it as a problem. But when you receive feedback from your GP (consciousness raising) that your cholesterol levels are above average, you may move into the Contemplation stage of “Maybe I should do something about my diet to improve my health?”.

It’s interesting but I’ve never read any coaching literature that explores what processes we use in relation to the stages. It’s probably because most of the people we work with are at the Preparation or Action stages and our processes help people get into action (and to a lesser degree, maintain change). I’ve been wondering how much better coaching could be if we gave more attention to what we could do in the other stages.

Revisiting Prochaska et al’s model has really opened my mind in relation to what’s possible with helping people change. I find this the mark of great research: it doesn’t just tell us how things are but invites us to explore what we can do with this knowledge.

The article is quite accessible and I’d invite you to read it for yourself and reflect on what it means for your own change or in working with those going through change. I’ve put a copy of it in the Studio.

This article was first published in the March edition of Design Notes, the newsletter of the Work/Life Design program.