Fag Packs, Oscar Wilde and Motivation

I often get surprised by what pops into my head during a coaching session. But the warnings on cigarette packets and Oscar Wilde made an odd combination even for me.

I’ve recently been working with someone who wants to change certain habits that he feels are holding him back from achieving his plans. In previous sessions we’d clarified his goals, making them as vivid as possible. We’d also looked at whatever it was he was getting out of his current behaviour and if he needed to build anything else into his plans to compensate for its loss.

Although this was all going well, it was clear that the motivation to make any changes wasn’t getting from his head to his heart.

To some extent, we’d already explored the subject of motivational direction. Some people are motivated towards a desired goal, while others move away from a problem. A lot of goal setting assumes a towards approach – make the goal attractive enough and the rest takes care of itself. The problem with this is that it can all get a bit gung-ho, letting enthusiasm take over where an element of caution might be advisable. The problem however with an away-from strategy is that people sometimes jump to avoid the pain without any idea of what they’re replacing it with (this is often seen when someone leaves an awful job only to find themselves in a different awful job).

My client was clearly not a towards guy – his goal sounded really attractive, but not attractive enough in itself for him to make the necessary changes. His current situation however wasn’t uncomfortable enough to motivate him to change either. Which is where the fag packs and dear old Oscar came in.

The idea behind having pictures on cigarette packets of the terrible health consequences of smoking is that these are more powerful than words alone. In a recent American study, a public health researcher noted that “smokers told us that the pictorial warnings didn’t make them feel any more at risk of harm from smoking. However, the pictorial warnings made the harms of smoking ever present and vivid, while the usual text warnings were bland, stale, and easy to ignore”.

I’m quite used to getting people to describe their goals in vivid detail, making them as attractive as possible. I can’t however remember ever before getting anyone to visualise in full gory detail what their life would be like in 10 years’ time if they didn’t make certain changes. As well as reminding me of the power of visual health warnings on tobacco packaging, it felt a bit like something out of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, except that the individual was painting their own portrait of what they might be like if they didn’t change certain self-destructive habits. Rather than hiding the picture away in a locked room to be visited only on rare occasions, I also encouraged my client to bring it to mind regularly in full glorious colour (interestingly, while the 1945 film version of the story is shot in black and white, glimpses of the decaying portrait are in colour to heighten the effect).

I don’t normally like clients to leave subdued. This time however, it seemed appropriate that he appeared a little shaken and more reflective than on previous occasions. It felt that we had finally found the key to his motivation.