A man accidentally falls off the platform and gets stuck in the rails of the London underground. A train is fast approaching. Another man crouches down and calls: “Give me your hand!”
To his astonishment, the man refuses.
His would-be saviour shouts more desperately: “Give me your hand!”
But again the man declines.
The train is now practically bearing down on him, a great wave of roaring steel. Suddenly, a third man shouts: “Take my hand!” The stuck man takes the proffered hand and is hauled to safety in the nick of time.
The second man is amazed and asks the rescuer: “How come he took your hand but not mine?”
“Ah, well, I know him! He’s a tax collector. You said ‘Give me your hand’ and he couldn’t bring himself to give anything; I said ‘Take my hand’ – and he found that much easier!”
Yes, it’s a joke. But it illustrates how important language is as a motivator.
From early childhood onwards most of us have been conditioned, whether we noticed it or not, to link such terms with the idea of deficiency or lack or weakness. And we don’t like deficiency or lack or weakness. And we don’t like not having something that we used to have (even if it was bad for us).
This can present the therapist with a challenge when a client turns up who wants to ‘lose weight’ or ‘give up smoking‘. The very words they use hinder them from getting what they want – and need.
Like that tax collector. He probably didn’t know why he couldn’t bring himself to grab that saving hand, either.
Here’s two tips on using the language of gain to maximize client motivation
1. Switch the focus from ‘loss’ to ‘gain’
Words frame ideas and ideas power motivation… or not.
A middle-aged woman I worked with spent a long time telling me about her ‘year of loss’. She’d ‘lost’ her pet dog. She’d ‘lost’ her job. She’d ‘lost’ her son when he moved out. And now she wanted to ‘lose’ weight.
This meant she was using the most negative term possible to describe something she supposedly wanted.
The idea of getting rid of something can provide some motivation, but not nearly as much as the idea of getting something.
So I didn’t talk to her about losing weight at all. Instead we spoke plenty about:
- getting slimmer
- having more health and fitness
- gaining a new sense of herself
- claiming her real womanly shape… and so on.
Why talk about ‘losing’ anything? As she got slimmer over the weeks, we spoke about how she could ‘notice herself getting lighter and firmer’.
Don’t let the subliminal associations some people have with the concept of ‘loss’ get in the way of making life enhancing changes.
2. Look forward to ‘becoming something new’
I doubt that the average caterpillar does any logical thinking, but if it could, would it think in terms of ‘giving up being a caterpillar’ or would it be looking forward to ‘becoming a butterfly’?
Now think of the language smokers use when contemplating the extremely important task of saving their lungs: stopping, quitting, giving up. It’s all looking backwards, at the pain of leaving the past behind.
I like to get them to focus on what they’ll get and become. So I talk about:
- becoming a natural non-smoker
- reclaiming the oxygen needed by lungs, eyes, skin (and sexual organs)
- looking forward to feeling healthy and strong in mind and body.
So-called ‘self-defeating behaviour’ is often just fear of losing the familiar. It’s odd that we can become ‘familiar’ with something that might be killing us, but at least when you know what’s going on you can choose your words more carefully and craftily to help with the transition.
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