“them and us”

How are you going with your resolutions?

It’s seven days into the new year, and if you’ve made New Year’s resolutions I’d like to bet that it’s around now that your resolve is starting to fade… Don’t worry, I’m not going to nag! I am going to point out just how difficult it is to stick with a resolution, goal, action, new habit – whatever you call it.

And take a moment, if you’re a health professional. Just stop for a moment and think about the resolution, goal, action, new habit you’ve just set with your last patient. What are the chances that person will stick with that goal for the week?

Add in the complexities of, perhaps, competing goals or actions set by other clinicians seeing that person concurrently. The thought records, or mindfulness practice, or the planning and prioritising and pacing. Add in the usual daily life activities that need doing: the washing, cooking, shopping for groceries, paying the bills, filling the car with gas, spending time with family (not just any old time, but quality time). And work. And remembering to take medications (even the ones that make you feel drowsy or nauseous).

And not sleeping, finding it hard to rest because pain gets in the way.

And guilt perhaps because why is this person not getting better?

Is it any wonder that the people we try to help seem “unmotivated”? Or that they appear not to be “adherent”?

I keep coming back to something that bothers me about our attitudes towards the people we try to help. There continues to be a sense of “them” and “us”, with “us” being all that is good, proper and right, and “them” being, because we’re humans who like dichotomies, the opposite. After all “they” are seeking help from “us” which automatically puts “us” in the authoritative position.

Now before I get harangued by people saying “oh but not me”, I wonder what it would be like to record yourself in conversation with your colleagues. You know the time at your breaks where you meet around the water cooler or the coffee pot, and you do a mutual moan about work. Check in with your discussion: how do you refer to the struggles of the people you see? Is there a chance, even inadvertently, to use a “should” or “must” word or two? Do you ever think not just about the things you do with the person you’re working with, but the things other clinicians are also doing?

Enough finger pointing. What can we do to (a) shift our own attitudes and (b) help the people we see stick to the things we hope will help them?

Attitude shifts

It’s a tough one. Shifting an attitude is difficult, in part because we don’t recognise we hold attitudes because they seem “normal” or commonplace – and the more ingrained or deep-seated they are, the more difficult it is for us to see them. Attitudes are complex – possibly partly based on memory and partly generated in the moment-in-time (Albarracin & Shavitt, 2018). They also change with difficulty – being in contact with “others”, for example, has been shown to influence attitudes positively, while even imagining positive contact showed about 14% of participants were more likely to explicitly state positive attitudes (Miles & Crisp, 2014). Overall, changes in attitudes based on an intervention or a message seems to have a small effect (d = 0.22) – but these seem to be quite durable changes.

But something affect our attitudes: if we argue for our beliefs, we’re likely to become more stuck in our original beliefs, we add new information to our explanations but don’t readily throw out old information. To shift attitudes, new information needs to provide a “causal alternative” to explain our mental models.

OK, so changing our own attitudes is tough but we can counter the stickiness of our attitudes by considering a few things:

  • Values – linking specific actions to important values helps us to shift our attitudes. For example, we could begin to value why we started to work in health: was it job security? desire to help people? because people are constantly changing and different and it’s an exciting intellectual challenge? Whatever the value, we can begin altering the way we act towards the people we see to embrace the similarities between “them” and “us.
  • Goals – we all vary in the level of general action we’re in. We range from being focused and both moving and thinking quickly to being completely inactive (such as when we’re asleep and not dreaming). Research has shown that if we want people to consider a new attitude, we need to frame this in the context of “being active” (Albarracin & Handley, 2011). Perhaps we need to think of the active part we play in pain rehabilitation – and consider the effects of our attitudes accordingly.
  • Language – metaphors are persuasive, and seem to affect the way our attitudes are formed as well as what we do about them. Metaphors provide a way for us to become more psychologically distant from a concept, or more aware of complex psychological constructs. We can use metaphors when we think about how we want to work with people: are we ‘advisors’ or ‘coaches’ or ‘instructors’? Do we work collaboratively – or do we expect obedience? Do we have a partnership, or do we “direct” treatment?

Helping people stick with actions/goals/new habits

There have been mountains of research papers on behaviour change within a rehabilitation context. We’ve all been drilled on the idea of SMART goals (whatever the SMART acronym is meant to stand for!). We are exhorted to “set goals” from the first visit, and in some situations (New Zealand’s ACC rehabilitation process for example) obligates us to “set goals” which then provide a marker for whether treatment has been successful or not. Problem is, as Gardner, Refshauge, McAuley, Hubsher, Goodall & Smith (2018) found, we tend to set goals that we want, in collaboration with the people we’re working with, yes, but not necessarily the goals the person wants. In fact, their study showed that the treatment orientation of the clinician (all physiotherapists in this instance) predicted the degree of involvement from the person, with those therapists holding a stronger biomedical model being less likely to incorporate the person’s own goals.

Now here I’m going to put some of my clinical experience to work rather than focusing on research, though I hope that what I’m suggesting ties into researched ideas! Locke and Latham (1990) are the godfathers of formal goal setting theory, albeit mainly in an organisational development context, however they have provided much of the information we use when working with the people seeking our help. If you’re looking for more information on goal setting, you should probably begin with their material.

What to try:

  • Begin with the end in mind. What does the person want to be able to do? Be wary of goals incorporating things no-one can completely control, such as “be able to win a race” – because someone else, on that day, may be faster that this person. Similarly, I’m wary of goals that talk about “pain-free” or “without flare-up” because we’re not always going to achieve this. Don’t forget to ask the person about what they want!! They probably don’t care too much about a 5 degree improvement in knee flexion – what they want to be able to do is go up and down stairs.
  • Check out importance and particularly confidence when it comes to goals. A goal that’s unimportant will likely fall out of someone’s brain because it doesn’t matter. A goal that’s too challenging will equally be avoided (often not on purpose but because we don’t really like thinking about things we fear we’ll fail at). If the goal isn’t important – tap into values and why it might matter to the person. Change the goal if the person can’t come up with a compelling (ie emotionally resonant) reason to do it. Build confidence by scaffolding support around the person – how can you make it so that the person feels they can be successful? Begin with their ideas first so you build on their sense of self-efficacy.
  • Generate actions to do rather than goals to achieve. Actions are done or not done. Dichomotous. Goals may or may not be achieved depending on a whole bunch of factors. Make the things the person needs to do simple and yes/no.
  • Reminders or cues help. It’s easy to forget to do your pelvic floor exercises after birth, right? But a whole lot easier to remember when they’re tied into every time you use the toilet! Tie the action to an existing habit like when you’re waiting for the jug to boil, you can do your mindfulness. When you’re cleaning your teeth is a good time to do some squats (try it!). Use a cellphone appointment reminder. Record when the action is done. Set a specific time of day – ahead of time.
  • Tracking actions helps keep on track. Graphs are great! Seeing your progress is reinforcing. But make this process easy – can it be done on the phone? Can it be recorded in a simple notebook? Check up on progress often. Problem solve when things don’t go the way you hope.
  • Problem solve the factors that might interfere with doing the action ahead of time. This might mean posing scenario’s – what would happen if the weather was bad? What would you do if you had visitors? What might get in the way of doing this? What could you say to the person who says “Oh come on, you can leave it for today?”
  • Have days off. Absolute goals that are very specific and must happen every single day are likely to fail, and then we fall into the “what the hell” effect – oh I didn’t do X, so what the hell I might as well not do anything. I recommend for daily actions, that we have two days a week where they don’t need to happen. You might want to plan for five walking sessions, and do them all in the first five days – and then have two days off for good behaviour, or even decide you’re on a roll, and do two extra days. Whatever, the person wins because they’ve achieved the original action.

There is no doubt that changing habits is tough. It’s even tougher when there are a lot of changes to implement. And even tougher still when the therapist sits in judgement of the person who is trying to juggle everything while not being at full capacity. I wonder if we as therapists could begin to view our work with people as a truly collaborative affair, where we recognise the incredible challenges the people we see are dealing with. Maybe our New Year’s Resolution could be “how to be a better therapist”.

Albarracın D, Handley IM. (2011). The time for doing is not the time for change: effects of general action and inaction goals on attitude retrieval and attitude change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(6):983–98

Albarracin, D., & Shavitt, S. (2018). Attitudes and Attitude Change. Annual Review of Psychology, 69(1), 299-327. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011911

Gardner, T., Refshauge, K., McAuley, J., Hübscher, M., Goodall, S., & Smith, L. (2018). Goal setting practice in chronic low back pain. What is current practice and is it affected by beliefs and attitudes? Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 1-11.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Miles E, Crisp RJ. (2014). A meta-analytic test of the imagined contact hypothesis. Group Process. Intergroup Relations. 17(1):3–26