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Life Coaching for Problem Habits:

A Model of Change

This article looks at the model of how people make changes proposed by the psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente and considers how it can be used by life coaches as a framework for structuring coaching intervention. The model is particularly helpful in situations where a client is seeking to break away from a habitual form of behaviour which is creating repeated problems for them. It has been applied to working with a range of habitual problems, including:

* Smoking or misuse of alcohol

* Difficulties in relationships where there are repeating patterns

* Lack of assertiveness

* A tendency to procrastinate

* Situations where a person repeatedly jumps to erroneous assumptions or interpretations of events.

Prochaska and Di Clemente’s Model

Prochaska and Di Clemente’s model has been set out in a number of different ways to illustrate the stages that a person often goes through on the path to change. One possible way of listing these stages is as follows:

Pre-Contemplation: Client is not thinking at all about changing their behaviour. After Pre-Contemplation, at some point the client then moves into Stage 1 of the model.

Stage 1 – Contemplation: Here the client is in ambivalence – i.e. they can see some benefits in changing but also are aware of or experiencing the benefits of not changing, so as yet they haven’t started to change and are a stage of indecision.

Stage 2 – Decision: The client makes a decision to change. Usually this occurs after some specific triggering event, which increases their motivation to change – for example, if smoking cigarettes is the problem behaviour, then an event such as a relative or friend experiencing serious health problems from smoking might trigger the client to decide to cut down their own smoking.

Stage 3- Action: The client now begins to act. This may be by stopping the problem behaviour altogether (e.g. by ceasing smoking) or by reducing it (e.g. not giving up smoking altogether, but reducing it).

Stage 4 – Maintenance: If things are going well, then the client maintains their progress in stopping or cutting down the problem behaviour.

Permanent Exit – If the client is able permanently to avoid returning to the problem behaviour then they can be said to have permanently exited from the cycle. Usually they may be said to be controlling or managing the problem rather than that it has disappeared. For example, they might still get cravings to smoke, but so long as they avoid actually smoking in practice they will avoid the harmful physical effects associated with smoking.

However, in most cases before they achieve permanent exit, the client will experience Stage 5:

Stage 5: Lapse: The client slips back temporarily into the problem behaviour (e.g. perhaps they are particularly stressed one night and they have a cigarette).

Prochaska and DiClemente themselves represent the stages 1-5 as a wheel or cycle which people generally go round several times before they are able to exit permanently. The model is therefore sometimes referred to as "The Wheel of Change", but should not be confused with the ‘Wheel of Life’, with which most coaches are familiar as a common tool for initial assessment of different areas of a person’s life!

The 'lapse' stage in Prochaska and DiClemente’s model is sometimes called 'relapse'. I prefer to call it ‘lapse’ and to define ‘relapse’ as being a situation where a temporary slip or error (i.e. a lapse) becomes something more longstanding or permanent. This distinction can therefore be used to highlight to the client that if they have a slip-up or lapse, they have a choice – they can either:

  1. Get back on track, recognise their progress and try to learn from the experience of lapsing as to what they might do differently the next time to avoid lapsing again in a similar situation OR
  2. Lose heart and see the lapse as a sign that they will never achieve change in which case the lapse may become a permanent relapse.

If the client does lapse, then the coach can encourage them to respond to the situation practically – rather than see the lapse as a sign of failure of will power, just see it as a natural stage in the process of change and encourage the client to see that they have a choice about whether to get back on track.

How can a Coach use Prochaska and DiClemente’s Model?

A coach can use the model when working with a client either by overtly sharing it with the client or else as a framework to work to behind the scenes. In my experience it is often very helpful to share the model overtly, because it helps the client to achieve a greater understanding of what they are going through and gives them a process within which they can locate their progress. The client can be explicitly shown the model of change, asked to locate what stage they feel they are at currently and what stages they have moved through, and to elaborate on circumstances and their thoughts about this.

Often, seeing the model of change and the stages involved, enables a client to feel that their perceived problem is not so extraordinary or unnatural as they may initially think and that they are actually following quite normal stages in working through their problem. Explaining to a client that a lapse is normal and doesn’t have to lead to a relapse, can assist the client in dealing with potential feelings of guilt, shame or inadequacy at not progressing faster. Seeing the stages of the model set out and explained clearly can also help a client to feel that the situation is not hopeless or beyond their control. Instead, it is a situation where they can progress if they are patient, set realistic achievable goals and don’t panic when they lapse, but try to adopt a mentality of learning from experience without judging themselves.

The model also takes the pressure off the coach to solve all the client’s problems immediately. Instead they have a clear framework within which they can encourage the client to locate their problem behaviour and select strategies. At any stage in the coaching process where the client appears to be blocked or faltering in progress, the coach can go back to the model and reassess with the client what stage they are at and what may be appropriate strategies for them therefore to adopt. Different strategies are appropriate for different stages of the model and some are set out in the table below.

Practical Strategies Appropriate for Different Stages in the Model

Stage Appropriate Strategies

Client not considering trying to achieve change

For someone at this stage, appropriate information as to why change may be helpful for the client, provided in a non authoritarian manner by way of simple information, may be of use.

Stage 1 - Contemplation:  

Client sees some benefits in changing but is also experiencing or aware of benefits in not changing.

Encourage the client to:

1. Analyse the arguments for and against change (e.g. to complete a list highlighting and weighing up both the advantages and the disadvantages of making the changes they are thinking about)

2. Reflect on different options for change and the likely effect of them.

3. Consider whether there are any very small ways they could begin to take steps in the direction of change, which seem reasonable and achievable to them.

Stage 2 - Deciding to try to achieve change

Encourage client to:

1. Plan change carefully rather than make a decision as a knee-jerk reaction.

2. Break the plan down into achievable goals.

3. Write down commitment to change.

4. Think about where they can get support for following their plans.

Stage 3 - Acting to achieve change

Encourage client to:

1. Follow their plan, monitor and review progress.

2. Reward and congratulate themself on successes (even small successes).

3. Remind themself of the benefits that will ensue if they achieve goals and acknowledge & identify those benefits as they happen (even if only partially achieved)

4. Pace themself at a level where they will be able to sustain motivation & if possible allow themself some time to relax when they are not focusing on their plan – Recognise they have a life outside the plan.

5. Learn from things which don’t turn out as they expect.

6. Make use of appropriate support.

7. If they lapse, try not to return back to where they started from but instead recognise the progress they have made, revise their plan if necessary, learning from the lapse, and then get back on track.

Stage 4 - Maintaining change

Encourage client to:

1. Recognise that development is an ongoing process.

2. Maintain and review plans until absolutely sure they are no longer required.

3. Again, if they lapse, try not to return to back to where they started from but instead recognise the progress they have made and implement a new plan, learning from the lapse.

4. Think about whether there is a way they can help others make positive changes in the light of their experience..

Stage 5 - Lapse


See comments under the heading 'Stage 5: Lapse' above the table.



Prochaska, J.O. & DiClemente, C. C. (1982) “Transtheoretical therapy: Toward a more integrative model of change” from 'Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice', 19, 276-288.

This is the text of an article by David Bonham-Carter, published in the Summer 2007 edition of The Association for Coaching's Quarterly Bulletin under the title: "Life Coaching for Problem Habits: Using Prochaska and DiClemente's Model of Change".


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