Performing Inception or helping someone change their behaviour without being an ass.


If anyone is familiar with the Christopher Nolan directed film Inception starring Leonardo DiCaprio you will get the idea of trying to implant an idea in someones head without them knowing you have put it there. This is exactly the technique I suggest you use with loved ones and friends to encourage them to undertake some healthy change in their life. For some basic suggestions on what kinds of health goals can be worth attaining see this article. Understanding that these friends and relatives are not you is key in making sure your attempts are not met with blank stares, deflective comments or even downright contempt. Why you exercise or eat a certain way is in a sense the most relevant and potentially the least relevant thing to bring up. Understanding that in order for the change to be a long term one, external pressured motivation really won't cut it, strong and developed intrinsic motivation is more helpful for long term manageable change. The information provided hereafter is solely intended to encourage positive behaviour change and not to make someone love you or to do evil although it isn't exactly untested in these fields... LOL



Intrinsic and extrinsic are two simplest forms for understanding peoples basic motivations. They are not fixed states and are not likely to be completely independent of one another nor completely wrapped up together. Having a little understanding of what your target (saves me typing "friends and relatives" over and over...) is motivated by is helpful so long as you comprehend that you cannot possibly know their fullest motivations and should not assume you do. A little goes a long way as the idea is to let the target fill in the gaps in to your promptings and allow the idea to be their own once they are settled on it. Taking care not to be annoying is a good start. Taking into account the personality of the individual is the first and most obvious step. Most likely, I do not know your target so you are going to have to identify what they are receptive to and what is likely to raise their personal defence systems and shut you down before you even begin. The idea is to let the target know that health is their choice and their responsibility and a good first step is to set the foundations for building momentum. So don't presume to be allowed to pass comment on every single thing they eat and do to exercise. Be available for questions they may have, an indication of their interest in a topic is generally obvious when they ask a question or suggest they don't know anything about a topic they know you have a little knowledge about.


Knowing something of the expectations of the target is a very important thing. Assuming they have similar expectation to  you is a mistake, asking them is the most obvious route to this knowledge so ask. If they are unwilling to provide any do not press the issue, instead wait, bide your time. The right time to motivate is when they are receptive not when you are filled with enthusiasm from starting or have just achieved what you set out to.

Suggesting that their lifestyle is unhealthy or that it should be healthier are both dead ends in my experience. Often met with anger or disappointment the moral high ground is not where you want to be when offering an opinion, wait to demonstrate your value, don't assume your knowledge has any before offering it.

Try to avoid saying “You should...” Its rare that someone responds well to an uninvited “You should” comment.

If you want to get someone close to you to change to healthier behaviour, bring them into your experience of health. Not force, gently and at a pace you deem appropriate depending on their current condition and their mental state. Allow them to see the benefit you gain and enjoy from eating a certain way and from doing a certain type or amount of exercise. Expecting them to do the exact same as you, to adopt your approach is both selfish and useless as if its not their idea then they won't accept it for very long. Letting them plot their own course so long as its heading towards a place where they take their health seriously is fine. Ridiculing dietary choices which aren't low-fat, paleo or because they chose not to eat something that you make fit your macros is counter productive as you may be quenching their initial optimism with scathing remarks. They are not you, and they may not like you very much if this is your approach to "helping them be better".

This information is also useful to any health professionals who you may know as in my experience they often assume a huge degree of authority when offering lifestyle advice. I accept someone may be paying for your professional opinion, if that is the case it should be given professionally, never ridicule when your advice is not followed or guilt someone into taking your paid advice as that changes wholly the dynamic of the relationship. Insecure professionals operating outside their comfort zone or their scope of practise are often far more assured of their advice. Sadly those with more knowledge are often filled with doubt, that being the only sensible feeling to have when everything matters and everything is a degree of truth and everything can be a catalyst for something good or negative depending on how the receiver takes up the information. 

Practical tips

Now I hope I've built a sensible argument for why, how and when to offer some change advice some summarised practical tips;

  1. Sparingly offer information about the positive things you have learned from changing your own behaviour, don't over sell. i.e. "I learned how to press-up today!"
  2. Ask broad open ended questions about your targets choices with exercise, diet and health priorities avoid specifics i.e. Do say - "Have you every tried sweet potato?" Don't say "Why are you eating potato, don't you know...?" 
  3. Encourage them to join you in some sporadic activity, something thats less easy to decline and not to intensive i.e. "Lets go for a walk!"
  4. Get good at hints, useful ones. Small seemingly insignificant stories about your day when fitness played a role are some of my favourite, you don't need to make these up by the way, if you are really training and exercising to get stronger think of those times when strength and fitness was useful to you. i.e. "I would never of been able to walk 8 hours at the flower show without the training I've been doing"

So really helping people, not for your own reasons but because you generally care about them and you know the benefits. If improving health, wellbeing, strength and movement, eating well and taking responsibility for yourself is something you feel a friend or loved ones needs, don't be an ass and potentially turn them off the idea for good. Encourage, assist, inform and encourage them to take on the challenge, the benefits, the sacrifices and the process and you will have made a difference to their life and that of those around them.