Welcome to our Leadership Club. I thank my father for writing this article. He was born in Canada 87 years ago and grew up on a farm with horses, cows and chickens. As a young boy, he and his brother and sister rode a cart pulled by their horse to school every day. My father is on the left in this photo. He is a skilled medical doctor and during his 60-year career, he has treated many thousands of people. However, instead of just giving medicine, my father has always encouraged his patients to stop bad habits that cause disease. His goal has been to help people feel good and enjoy long, happy lives.
In America, there is an old saying: You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. I have had horses and I know from experience that sometimes you cannot even lead them. You might pull or push but they stand still or move away. It is the same with people. Getting them to do what is good for their health can be difficult. It might even be impossible, but we should do our best to try.
Many diseases that cut life short are the result of risky health habits such as:
These bad habits can be changed as people learn to control themselves, but the trick is getting them to want to change. One of our responsibilities as doctors and health care workers is to help people understand the negative results of risky, unhealthy behavior in a way that makes them want to learn and change the way they live.
Healthy habits can significantly increase the length of our life. But more importantly, healthy habits increase the quality of life—especially as we are in our later years.
Through simple but skillful communication, people can be influenced to do things that will make their lives safer, healthier and longer. You will do a great service to your family, friends and patients if you know how to lead and encourage them to drink the water of life.
Leadership is not pulling or pushing. It is informing, educating and encouraging. As much as we understand the terrible health risks of a habit like smoking, we cannot force people to quit. That does not work. It would also violate their dignity and freedom of choice. The only thing we can do is gently show people the long-term results of unhealthy activities.
Knowledge is what motives the desire to change. When our patients understand the damage bad health habits cause and make the choice to live better, we are there to show the way and cheer them on.
Motivation is important in successful behavior change. The way we share information shapes the attitudes of those we are trying to help. The words and actions we use can increase or decrease people’s desire to live healthfully. If we push, they can become angry. We must be kind, gentle and understanding of how difficult habits are to change.
As a health expert, you are in an excellent position to encourage people to believe they have the ability to replace bad habits with good habits. Help them see they have the skill and ability to climb over barriers between them and success.
To enjoy the best success, I recommend that you match your helping activities to the three stages of change.
When people are not interested in changing a bad health habit the only thing you can do is help them understand how it might directly affect them in the future. For smokers, you might discuss the risk of serious disease and give printed education materials. If you are the smoker’s doctor, you can order medical tests that may show early signs of future disease. It can also be effective for smokers to hear other smokers talk about the health problems and disease they suffer as a result of their habit.
If a smoker is thinking about quitting, gently encourage them to set a goal or a date to quit. They will be struggling with thoughts as they compare the benefits of quitting against the benefits they will lose—the pleasant feeling of a nicotine high, the energy boost cigarettes provide and the social benefits of smoking. Smokers in this stage need help focusing on what is most important:
When a smoker is ready to quit, help by showing them a friendly but firm way to refuse cigarettes offered by friends. Help them plan and prepare for a quit date. Teach them simple techniques to fight the sudden craving for a cigarette. These include deep breathing, drinking water, eating candy or chewing gum, and changing routines that trigger the desire to smoke. Encourage them to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked as they prepare to quit.
When people overcome bad habits like smoking, give encouragement. Remind them they are on the way to better health. If they go back to smoking, do not be angry. Tell them many smokers quit several times before they are successful. As children learn to walk they often fall. But they do not give up. It is the same with health habits. Several attempts may be needed for success, but the effort is worth it.
A horse might not want to be pulled with a rope around its neck. But as a young boy I learned that when I held an apple to my horse’s mouth his attitude quickly changed. When I moved ahead, he was happy to follow. Humans are the same. If you gain trust by being friendly and helpful, they will be motivated by your encouragement.
Thank you for using your power as a health care expert to be a gentle influence in the fight against smoking.
By Marlin Gimbel
Leadership Club Program Director
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