Persuading our loved ones to make healthy choices is an art. Our approach can encourage or alienate them. Here\’s how to be helpful, not pushy or preachy.
It can be tricky to encourage the people you care about to make healthy choices. It’s about listening with a compassionate heart and giving with humility. You want what’s best for them, but you don’t want to risk upsetting or alienating them with your suggestions.
Being truly helpful
“Motivating and supporting a person toward healthy choices is a delicate art, based on the intricate dance of relationship and depth of emotional attachment and connection,” says Judy Chan, a registered professional counsellor in Kelowna, BC.
When Chan’s 24-year-old daughter was recovering from a terrible car accident, for instance, Chan was mindful to move at her daughter’s pace as she took healthy steps toward healing. “I affirmed and validated her progress,” she says. “I learned to practise more patience than I thought possible, with no limitations and no expectations.”
Offering helpful, gentle support to loved ones involves avoiding the negative energy of demanding, making comparisons, setting expectations that are too high, being impatient, or making critical or condescending statements. And, being humble is critical! Sometimes we assume we know the reasons for a person’s choices or situation, and we forget that they’re coping with emotions and experiences we may not fully understand.
No matter what situation you’re in—whether you’re supporting a family member through a health crisis, a teenager who isn’t interested in exercising, or a co-worker who wants to stick to a healthy eating plan—these tips will help you master the art of persuasion.
Gwen Bevan is a social worker who counsels outpatients at the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Vancouver General Hospital. She works with people who are recovering from heart disease, are at high risk for heart attacks, or are scheduled for open heart surgery. Her job involves persuading patients to make healthy choices and teaching family members how to be supportive.
“If you want a loved one to make healthier choices, be patient and practise perseverance in a kind way,” Bevan advises. “Know when to pull back. You don’t want to be a nag or push too hard. Check in gently. Look for invitations and openings to offer support. For instance, if someone expresses curiosity about your lunch, say, ‘Can I email you a recipe on how to make this spinach and strawberry smoothie?’ instead of just giving them the information.”
Both Bevan and Chan stress the need for patience and perseverance when encouraging people you care about to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
Avoid “you” statements
Nancy Cusack, a counselling therapist in Saint John, New Brunswick, says any sentence that starts with the word “you” should be avoided—especially with teenagers. Statements such as, “You should get more exercise,” and “You shouldn’t eat that,” will backfire and possibly even harm your relationship.
“The less controlling words you use, the better,” says Cusack. “A discussion that allows an individual to come up with his or her own plan is best. Discuss options and choices, not your preferences or plans for them.” (See sidebar on “Questions to ask.”)
Find ways to lend support
Find out how you can best provide support. For example, would they like help researching different nutritional or health supplements that might help them move toward a healthier life? Do they need a hiking or walking buddy, or an accountability partner? Perhaps a gentle daily email reminder would be most helpful; it depends on the person and what their needs and goals are.
For close family members or friends, sometimes honesty is the best policy. Bevan says she encourages her father, who has a recent history of heart disease and hospitalization, in ways she might not practise with her clients.
“I tell my dad that if he doesn’t take steps to cut down on his salt intake, he’s putting himself at risk for a heart attack and will possibly end up back in the hospital. That affects all of us, not just him. He has to make changes in his life if he wants to feel better and be healthier,” she says.
Consider the big picture
It can be effective to remind some people that their lifestyle choices aren’t just about them. Continually choosing unhealthy foods and activities can have a devastating effect on the whole family. If someone you love says they’re too busy with kids or work to exercise or eat healthfully, you might ask them who will take care of their responsibilities if they get really sick. An individual’s health—or disease—affects his or her family, relationships, career, and future.
Practise what you preach
Being a positive role model is one of the best ways to gently persuade people to make healthy choices. “The more you model healthy choices and live the positive results, the greater the impact of your life message,” says Chan. “Plus, with role modelling you won’t create those negative vibes associated with irritating behaviours, such as nagging or acting like a know-it-all.”
Bevan agrees, saying it’s often effective to invite your loved ones along when you go for walks, do yoga, or try a new type of food. “People really like support, and don’t want to feel like they’re doing it alone.”
Establishing a relationship of trust and love is important if you’re role modelling healthy choices and a positive lifestyle. If your friends and loved ones trust and connect with you, they’re more likely to follow in your healthy footsteps.
It can be challenging to find the balance between motivating your loved ones to be healthy and letting them be accountable for their choices and lifestyle. However, if you honour their individual journey and let go of expectations or judgment, you’re on your way to mastering the art of gentle persuasion.
Questions to ask
Begin a health conversation with your loved ones by asking an open-ended, nonthreatening question, such as:
- How do you feel about your health?
- What are your goals?
- What’s worked for you in the past?
- What personal strengths will help you achieve your goals?
- Would you like help to create an action plan?