How Can Persuasion Help People Deal With Change?

Ideas. Insight. Inspiration.

How Can Persuasion Help People Deal With Change?

October 27, 2008 Persuasion 5

In his book ‘Changing for Good,’ James Prochaska offers a model of change that identifies five stages that people move through before a change is firmly entrenched in their lives. While his model was developed for working with people who have substance abuse problems, I have found that the model has a broader application that is both incredibly interesting and useful. I think you will too!
Stage one is IGNORANCE.

Ignorance is that state of mind where you don’t know what you don’t know. And sometimes, as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. Until you’ve presented your idea, insight or information, it is useful to assume that your persuadee is ignorant of it. This may not turn out to be true, so you want to pay attention for signals that they are farther along in their understanding than your initial assumption. The value of assuming ignorance is that it forces you not to get too far ahead of yourself, and serves as a reminder to speak clearly, carefully, and coherently in order to bring your persuadee to the next stage, recognition.


Recognition is that moment when it dawns on a person that there is something he can do and he wants to do it. He sees the light, and it beckons him on. The result of recognition is that he begins to seek out new information about options, opportunities and possibilities. You know that someone is at this stage if he starts asking questions about how to go forward. If you listen well and provide the information he seeks, your persuadee moves on to the next stage.

Stage Three is PLANNING

Planning is the mentoring and modeling stage, where your helping hand is all that is required. In this stage, your persuadee begins to organize information for action, access resources, and plot a course. Your persuadee is getting ready for action.

Many failures of persuasion happen in this stage, because the preparation was inadequate for change.

Stage Four is ACTION

With a plan in place, your persuadee is able to move forward, one step at a time. This is his chance to try on the change for size, find out what happens, then learn from the experience and improve on it. Don’t be surprised if there are a few false starts at this stage, because when people try something new, things rarely go as expected. Reliable feedback is invaluable at this stage.

Doing something once doesn’t guarantee that your persuadee’s change is going to be set for the rest of their life. You can’t just walk away believing the situation is handled. Well, you can, but you’d be mistaken. Instead, you must go on to the fifth stage of Repetition.

Stage Five is REPETITION

For a new behavior to become habitual, it must be repeated repeatedly. For a new way of thinking, to become habit, a person must think that way over and over again until the thought becomes firmly established. Human beings are creatures of habit, and habit is created through repetition and intensity. Until you can do it without even thinking about it, until it is as normal as flossing every day, stage five must be considered to still be under way.

Stages of Change in PRACTICE

No one goes from ignorance to habit in one move. Instead, don’t push the river, as they say. Patience is truly a virtue. If someone is ignorant, your sole purpose is to introduce meaningful information, not to get a change. If they’re in the recognition stage, all your efforts should focus on accessing resources and making a plan. If the person has a plan, all your efforts should be on getting them to take a step forward, to take some action, no matter how small. If they’re taking action, then your focus must be on reinforcement.

And there you have it. The Five Stages of Change is a powerful model for moving people from ignorance to habit. My question to you is, which stage of change matches your understanding and use of the Art of Persuasion? I’d love to hear your comments!

be well



5 Responses

  1. Rick: James Prochaska’s list is a great start. What seems to be missing is how to handle it when we fail at changing? All too often we start the change process; however, somehow we get lost or confused as we move through the change and revert to our original behavior. There needs to be a clear way to get back on track when this happens…

    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Communicator Blog

    • Hi Jim, thank you for your comment.

      I plan to return to this topic in my next post. Please check back late Tuesday night or early Wednesday for part 2 in a 2 part series on the stages of change.

      Ok, now that the plug is out of the way, I think that falling back to the more familiar is a familiar pattern for most people. It tells me the plan left some secondary gain unattended to, or there wasn’t enough repetition and intensity to lock in the change. So I would cycle back to my plan and build in repetition and intensity, while taking that secondary gain (the hidden benefit of the old pattern) into account.

      How’s that?
      be well, and do come back

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    Hey Dr. Rick –

    Great stuff. I finally get why the repetition is so important. It’s about moving from the intellectual stage to the emotional stage and then the physical stage, where it’s burned in (muscle memory and basal ganglia). In performance, they would call this “fluency.”

    I wrote a relevant post on 2 reasons why people resist change that you might be interested in.

  3. J.D. Meier says:

    Here’s the keys:
    1. Attention effort.
    2. Errors between expectation and actuality.

    Here’s the link:
    Two Reasons Why People Resist Change –

    It’s actually part of the reason behind why I drive my teams with “solution focused” questions over simple directives or statements.

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