Is our 21st century society a good fit for our ancient physiology? Many fitness professionals, eaters, and scientists are considering the question, including us.
That’s why, last month, we accepted an invitation to present at PaleoFX, an ancestral health event bringing together everyone from doctors and university professors to chefs and “natural exercise” advocates; all there to talk about what it means to eat, move, and live in in “Paleo”-friendly ways.
Now, let’s be clear. At PN, we don’t necessarily identify with the more dogmatic “Paleo” factions, which is one reason we like to use the terms “primal” or “ancestral” instead of “Paleo”. (For more on our thoughts on the topic, click here).
However, we do think everyone can learn from the primal or ancestral health movement. Heck, we even incorporate many elements of this approach in our Lean Eating Coaching Program, the world’s largest body transformation project.
That’s why we chose to present. We wanted to share what we’ve learned from our 8,000-plus clients. And show how understanding the reality of change can help us incorporate the best elements of life-changing, research-driven nutrition coaching for everyone… without getting bogged down in details or dogma.
If you’re interested in learning how we — as coaches — can adapt the ideas of healthy living (including ancestral health) in a way that supports a client’s own ability to change, this is a must-see video series.
But even if you’re not a coach, you’ll gain some important insights on how the change process really works, and how you can use it to set yourself up for success.
To get started with Part 2 of this presentation, click the play button below. (Click here for Part 1). Today’s video is about 10 minutes long.
Why do we do what we do? (How coaches can help)
As discussed in today’s video, a person’s behavior serves one (or all) of the following purposes:
- it solves a problem;
- it expresses our priorities and values; and
- it serves as a coping mechanism.
So, when looking at our own behaviors (or the behaviors of our clients), it’s important to realize that the choices people are making aren’t “stupid”, “lazy”, or “illogical” — even if they seem that way at first glance. Instead, they’re serving one of the three purposes above.
For example, have you ever done something you knew was “wrong”, but:
- it made you feel better, even temporarily?
- it helped you get through a tough moment you weren’t sure you’d make it through?
- it reflected competing values in your life?
(e.g. you gave in to “keep the peace” instead of standing up for yourself )
- it solved one problem in your life even though it created another?
(e.g. drinking to avoid feeling anxious, even though you felt lousy after)
Yep. You’ve experienced this. And so has everyone else. But why do we always forget that people’s choices are really the result of ambivalence and competing priorities?
It’s that reliance on reason, again. We just want people to be logic machines. And that’s just not how we’re engineered.
In the end, if we really want to help people change their habits and practices, we need to somehow intervene in these three critical areas above. Either we need to:
- change the problem, or help them solve the problem a different way;
- change their priorities/values, or work with the priorities/values they already have;
- help them change the coping mechanisms that they rely on.
We don’t do this, by the way, by shaming or berating people for choosing those coping mechanisms.
In fact, berating and shaming approaches are doomed to fail, even though they seem to make sense. I mean, if we just make people feel bad enough, they’ll want to change, right? Not so much.
Change FAIL: How not to coach change
According to the literature, well-meaning people often try several methods to help others change. They might:
- explain why it is important for someone to make a change
- advise that person to make the change and discourage them from delaying
- warn the person what will happen if they don’t change
(for example, “You’re going to die of a horrible disease if you don’t do XYZ!”)
- make suggestions about how the person can go about making the change
- direct or tell the person what to do (e.g. “You should do this”; or “You mustn’t do that”)
- disagree and offer logical counter-arguments if the person resists or gives excuses
- analyze what the person’s “real” issues or conflicts may be (e.g. “You’re lazy”)
- reassure the person that s/he will be successful in making the change
All of these seem like logical approaches. Just one problem: Most of them usually don’t work.
And not only don’t they work at helping people change. They often make those same people less likely to change in the future. Oops.
The rider, the elephant, and the path
One of the best books on change out there right now is the book Switch by Chip & Dan Heath. They use a metaphor of someone riding an elephant to describe how we act and how we change.
The rider is our rational, thinky, judging brain — our late-evolving frontal cortex. This part of our brain (the rider) easily gets tired and overwhelmed. That’s why he/she can’t rely on “willpower” or “motivation” alone. Unfortunately, when trying to make (or coach) change, people spend a lot of time talking to the rider.
The elephant is the emotional brain — our deeper limbic systems. This part of the brain (the elephant) strives for connection and security. The part also represents the powerful drive for homeostasis – this is embedded in our cells, so we’re going to have trouble overriding it. When trying to change, the elephant is powerful and often overwhelms the rider’s best intentions.
The path is our environment. This external force is often even more powerful than the elephant since it influences the elephant’s behavior on hundreds of small ways. Make no mistake: We are deeply aware of and connected to our surroundings even though we aren’t always aware of the impact they have on us.
Right now, in North America, almost everything in our environment mitigates against the kind of change we want – especially when it comes to exercise, nutrition, and health. Work is stressful. Food is plentiful. Cars rule the roads. Our friends and family might not be very healthy. They might not support our good nutrition and exercise habits.
So, in order to change, we have to do three things:
- Talk to the rider…but not too much. We don’t want to overwhelm her/him.
- Guide the elephant…gently.
- Shape the path…adjust our environment, routines, and life structures.
And one more thing: we have to shrink the change.
Shrink the change
According to the best change literature, change has to happen in small steps. One habit at a time.
This is one of the best ways to keep the rider from spinning his/her wheels with “what if” analyses. And the elephant from rearing up and/or turning around. We’ll discuss more in Part 3.
For now, just know that “one habit at a time” forms the very foundation of our coaching programs. No, it’s not necessarily glamorous or exciting. But it works like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Summary and quick take-aways
That does it for Part 2 of this video series.
In Part 3, we’ll go back to our client case studies (presented in Part 1), to show how we apply the strategies discussed today. By doing so, we’ll put to work the powerful human forces that can “boost” the change process.
For now, here are today’s take-aways:
- Behavior has three purposes: it solves a problem; it expresses our priorities and values; and it serves as a coping mechanism. Even seemingly “illogical” behavior has a purpose.
- In order to change, we have to do four things:
- Talk to the rider… but not too much. We don’t want to overwhelm her.
- Guide the elephant… gently.
- Shape the path…adjust our environment, routines, and life structures.
- Shrink the change…make each step as small as possible.
- Do one thing at a time
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