It has been a long debate in behavior change to ask whether the best strategy is to focus on behaviors or on more conceptual shifts.   We are here deep into a course, teaching communication and facilitation skills to clinicians, experimenting with this question.

Aristotle had something right when he said (so they say) that the actions make the character.  I have always taken this to mean that if there is something or someone you aspire to become, then take small action steps each day to simply “act as if” you are that person or have that way of being.  Over time, through walking the walk, you will in fact become that person to which you aspire.  Simple examples:

  • If you want to become a gracious person, start saying thank you, express gratitude each day, and look for opportunities to do something for someone else. 
  • If you want to become an athlete, do something active each day. 
  • If you want to have meaningful therapeutic relationships, take a pause in each encounter to witness and acknowledge – verbally or nonverbally – the human being that sits before you. 
  • And so forth.

All of these examples make sense to me, to a point.  And yet, I think the rote doing of something needs to be coupled with some other kind of reflective practice to fully realize the potential behavior change and identity shift.  You have to notice what happens to you when you make yourself express gratitude, or workout regularly, or recognize the fellow human in the clinic room with you.  You have to notice that something is shifting about the quality of the experience you are having.  You may notice that you are becoming different, that things come more naturally to you in this new practice, new way of being.  To fully integrate this, thinking deeply about who you are becoming, and why it matters, will help embrace and deepen the changes you have triggered through the action steps you take.  What is your next step? 

Conversational Credit: Anthony Back, Bob Arnold, James Tulsky, Holly Yang, and the other good folks of the Vitaltalk network. 

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