Do all clients begin at the same starting point? Understanding the Stages of Change – Part 3

By Dr. Joe Isbister
Photo by Ross Findon

Previously, I outlined how adopting a solution-focused mindset and using some of the techniques associated with Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) can be a powerful approach to incorporate into your work as a coach. This blog highlights the importance of being mindful of the nature of change itself.

When dealing with change, Solution-Focused work is a stickler for the first step. Solution-focused work argues that change occurs through a series of small, manageable steps and these small changes have the potential to lead to big changes. Notice how the miracle question asks about the immediate future, not the distant. Notice also how Solution-Focused work concentrates on finding exceptions. It presupposes that the seeds of change may already be present.

Solution-focused work relies on the basic assumption that clients must want to change. But change is hard. Hard to acknowledge. Hard to maintain. How many new year’s resolutions have you kept? How many diets you tried that you stuck at? Is there more to learn?

Motivational Interviewing & Solutions

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a counselling approach developed by William R Miller and Stephen Rollnick which began in the 1980s, in order to help people with substance abuse disorders, particularly problem drinkers. In their experience with this client group in particular, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick discovered that whilst working in a solution-focused way had some merit, despite the best of intentions, it did not necessarily lead to sustained action and sometimes, quite frankly, it did not work at all.

This led to the idea that, perhaps the reason for this lay in reconceptualising the nature of change itself. Motivational Interviewing (MI) is similar to solution-focused work in that in order for change to happen there is a requirement to focus on goals that are small, important to the client and orientated in the future. Crucially though, MI Is also different to other techniques in that it does not necessarily assume a person wants to embrace or start the process of change.

Photo by Gia Oris

MI incorporates the idea that every single person may be in differing stages of readiness levels and therefore anyone in a helping capacity may need to act accordingly.

In a very solution-focused way of approaching the subject of change, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick studied thousands of people and looked at what they were doing in order to make transformational changes in their lives. Looking for some type of pattern.

The Stages of Change Model

One of the aspects of MI which is most well-known is the Transtheoretical Model or the Stages of Change Model, credited to James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. This has become one of the most researched and scientifically validated models used to help explain change. The model asserts that change has a number of distinct phases each of us go through whenever we experience change.

Precontemplation: Where there is no intention of changing behaviour. The person may be unaware that a problem exists.

Contemplation: The person becomes more aware that there is a problem, but has made no commitment to change. A substantial amount of time can be spent on this stage because many people may not find themselves ready to commit to making a change. They remain in this stage, perhaps feeling stuck as they go back and forth between measuring the bests and costs of behavioural change.

Preparation: The person is intent on taking action to correct the problem and begins to mobilise themselves

Action: The person actively begins to change their behaviour.

Maintenance: Sustained change occurs. New behaviour replaces old ones over time.

Relapse: The person falls back into old patterns of behaviour. Relapses can and do occur at any stage. The person then needs to reengage and loop back into this change process once more.

Crucially, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente argue that clients will not progress through these stages in a linear way. Individuals will move back and forth through the stages. This can include periods of rapid and effective change, followed by almost inevitable relapses. Take a look at the following video which reiterates the different stages of change people go through by going through using a real-world example, in this case wanting to exercise more.

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I Accept

Does this resonate with changes that you may have tried to introduce in your life? Be aware of the difficulties / barriers that can occur when moving through the stages. Sometimes it can take a while to move from one stage to another. Be aware that the potential for relapse is there at each stage. In all aspects of change, people begin at their own starting point. This will be different for each person.

Change is hard. This is true in life. It is true too in the coaching context. The Stages of Change Model can be helpful in understanding difficulties you may encounter when helping a client to change. When this happens, take a moment to consider where your client might be in their stages of change. Would it be helpful to share this with your client? Can they themselves identify where they are on the change curve? It may, in turn, help you to determine how best you can further support your client and what else is needed to keep them resourcefully moving forward.

Perhaps you might be contemplating a change too?

Are you also ready for something different? If so, where are you in this change process? Perhaps some coaching might support you too? Why not, take your first step towards making that possible change and get in touch here.