Today I want to share a challenging coaching meeting I had recently with a lovely woman whose eyes brimmed with tears as she talked about her struggle to encourage her husband, who at 63 is 5’10” and over 300 pounds, to lose weight. Simply walking from the garage to the kitchen is a challenge for him, he’s in a-fib as we speak, he has diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and his health trajectory is catastrophic. And yet . . . the man, soft-hearted and loving, will go to dinner and order lamb chops with sides of both pasta and macaroni and cheese. He’ll stop by McDonald’s on the way home for a pre-supper snack. He’ll inhale 2–3 white-flour bagels at a time. He eats every meal mindlessly on the couch in front of the TV. He drinks two 2-liters of diet soda daily.
His wife, in contrast, has struggled with weight her whole life, but has always been able to find people and systems out there to help her get her eating and exercise under control. She is at a good weight now, wants to lose perhaps another ten pounds as a cushion, but she’s active and in good health. What is someone like her to do about the man she loves eating himself to death?
I regret that I have yet to find the answer to the question of how to motivate another human being to make change when they don’t want to. Actually, scratch that, here’s the answer: It can’t be done. Whether you’re talking about getting someone to lose weight, be more patient, be less messy, whatever it is—human beings don’t change unless the will is there.
So what is she to do? She is suffering and can see the health storm brewing—a storm in whose eye she will be ensnared as the spouse who will be obligated as caregiver and nurse. And I don’t mean to suggest her primary focus is the fact that his health will ruin her life, though of course it will. She loves him and can’t stand seeing his self-neglect.
Since it’s not realistic for her to sit back and do nothing, we talked about ways to approach her husband. First, and most important, she needs to try to grasp his values and goals. As Dr. Stephen Reiss, emeritus professor at Ohio State and motivation expert, has written, “To motivate another person, you have to appeal to their values. This may seem straightforward, but it isn’t. Too often we try to motivate others by indoctrinating them in our values rather than by appealing to theirs.” This is because “people have a natural tendency to think their values are best, not just for themselves, but for everyone . . . We have a tendency to try to motivate others by indoctrinating them in our values.”
He continues: “Some hardworking parents try to motivate their laid-back adolescents by telling them how important it is to be an achiever. But laid-back adolescents aren’t interested in success; if they were, they wouldn’t be so comfortable with their laid-back lifestyle. Instead, they value leisure and work/life balance. If you push them too hard, they quit altogether . . . Some employers use bonuses to try to motivate their employees. But only some workers are motivated by extra money. Others are motivated by a need to feel competent, and still others need to feel they are making a contribution to society.”
This is simple yet profound. “People are motivated to assert their values. So if you want to motivate someone—a loved one, a student, or employees—you would be wise to focus on what they care about.”
My client has some digging to do, and hopefully her husband will open up to her. In this case she knows that one of his highest values is family, so the second tactic is simply to invite him to explicitly consider how his behavior affects them.
- Do you understand the impact of your choices upon my life and well-being?
- Do you think it’s fair that you make light of this when I feel devastated and sick with worry?
- Do you want to be able to enjoy your grandchildren, the delight of your life?
- Do you see that you are modeling self-destructiveness for our children and grandchildren?
For his other values, she can pose similar questions to get him to start thinking and perhaps questioning his choices.
The third approach addresses emotional blocks, because when someone uses food in this way, there is likely pain, fear, and anxiety in play. This man’s family is of great value to him, but perhaps his current lifestyle seems to him necessary to support other things he wants such as pleasure or power or independence or vengeance. (In this case, there is a history of struggle with his parents concerning his unhealthy lifestyle.) Uncovering valid needs he might be trying to meet with his present behavior allows him to identify contradictions and help him discover a better means of satisfying some critical needs (e.g., feeling independent of his parents’ control and nagging) that do not threaten others (e.g., being there for his family). Some questions to ask:
- What does food really mean to you?
- Does the thought of changing your lifestyle scare or upset you for some reason?
- Do you worry you’ll feel deprived and miserable if you start to eat differently?
- What do you see happening if you do succeed at changing your eating patterns?
- What do you see happening if you don’t?
Perhaps you have tried these measures, however, and gotten nowhere. Sometimes this is because you are simply not the right person for the job. A spouse or parent or child may just feel nagged by you at the mention of their health, in which case it’s time to think of someone with less emotional baggage who might step in, a friend or perhaps even a therapist.
Finally, there is the possibility of food addiction, which has become a serious public health problem and is no less real than its counterpart with drugs or alcohol. The sugar, salt, and fat in today’s processed foods can trigger biological addiction, and sometimes saying no to food is no easier than forgoing a cigarette. Food addicts have a gene marker similar to that found in other kinds of addicts, and it runs in families, so if your obese loved one has relatives who are addicts of any kind, that is a red flag. If you suspect food addiction, consider a twelve step program like Overeaters Anonymous. I know people who have done so and succeeded brilliantly.
If you’ve dealt with any of these issues and had success in tapping into a loved one’s values, persuading them to see the situation from your standpoint, grappling with the emotional substrate of his or her food disorder, or finding a supportive friend, therapist, or addiction program that helped them regain control over their eating, please share it with us in the comments section (click on “comment” below). I would greatly appreciate it, as would my readers, as most people I know face this issue somehow, somewhere in their lives.