“Yield and overcome.” — Lao Tzu

You may think that doctors’ work is primarily diagnosis and treatment. The truth is that first and foremost we’re change agents. Day to day, moving our patients to healthier habits and lifestyles, the psychological and communication process is the most challenging thing we do. Picking the right medication or diagnosis is often just a matter of good training and experience. Determining the motivational lever in someone’s behavior is art, science, psychology, salesmanship — and often more difficult by far.

Changing others’ minds and behaviors isn’t just the realm of doctors, therapists and other health professionals, of course. Parents must figure how to deal with a picky eater or balky adolescent, business and sales professionals must convince others of the value of their strategies, goods and services. How about those in politics convincing skeptical voters? Everyone needs to do this at some point.

In his recent book, “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind,” Dr. Jonah Berger of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania expounds on his research on how to persuade others to change. He uses the chemistry analogy of catalysts — substances that when added to a chemical reaction accelerate it by removing energetic barriers.

His approach to change is to identify and remove barriers in people. Active and mindful listening is essential. A key question to pose is, “Why hasn’t this change already happened?”

In medicine, we teach a process called motivational interviewing that does just this. It explores the patient’s readiness to change, the importance of change to them, their confidence in making the change and the steps that make change happen. They make the decision to change, or not, themselves. This method has widely been applied to addictions such a smoking cessation and is useful in enabling change in many areas of lifestyle and health-related behavior: weight loss; exercise; improved nutrition; stress management; altering fluid, salt, or sugar intake; and more.

Dr. Berger REDUCEs his principles to these: Reactance, Endowment, Distance, Uncertainty, Evidence.

• Reducing reactance includes helping people stay in control, noticing the dissonance between what they want and what they’re doing. When pushed, people push back.

• Easing endowment means helping folks realize sticking with the status quo where they’re comfortable isn’t necessarily the best long term. Doing nothing feels costless, but it isn’t.

• Shrinking distance identifies a “zone of acceptance” for change that’s close enough to where people are now that it’s familiar. People tend to disregard things that are too far from their backyard, .

• Alleviating uncertainty reduces perceived risk by offering a way out, a trial period — easier to try, more likely to buy.

• Corroborating evidence helps support change by offering examples of others trying a change strategy with success. Some things need more proof.

These principles can help you and others catalyze change that is health and life promoting. A good read for parents and anyone who needs to change a mind or two, maybe even your own.

“Habit is habit and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.” — Mark Twain

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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