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Changing behaviors

Dec. 1, 2011
Give me a treadmill, an elliptical, or a stair machine, and I’m on it. No nagging required. Strength training, on the other hand ...

Lessons learned from personal training

by Carol Jahn, RDH, MS

Give me a treadmill, an elliptical, or a stair machine, and I’m on it. No nagging required. Strength training, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Over the years, I’ve stopped and started strength-training
programs numerous times, even though I know it’s important to overall fitness. That’s why I decided to use a personal trainer. I needed the accountability, and I knew if I had a scheduled appointment, I would show up faithfully, no matter how much I hated it.

My trainer was Jane, who is 38, fit, and very enthusiastic. After a couple of months of working together, Jane felt I’d progressed enough to set goals beyond building overall strength. I knew my weakest spot was my core, so I asked to work hardest on that area, and I said I wanted to lose 10 pounds.

I knew I was in trouble almost immediately when she replied, “Oh, that’s easy, you just need to tweak your diet a bit and you’ll lose two pounds a week.” I’ve done enough dieting in my life to know that the words “easy” and “diet” do not belong in the same sentence, especially when one is over 50. Each session, Jane had more advice about weight loss. There were lectures about things I was already doing, such as counting calories, and things I knew I could never do, such as restricting my daily caloric intake to 1,000.

Even though I really did like Jane, I began to dread my visits with her. Clearly, I was not losing weight, and moreover, I’d lost interest in trying. I realized that as the conversation centered on dieting, the focus on improving my core had gotten lost. One day, as I hit the treadmill for some post-training cardio, I watched Jane with her next client. She put the person through the exact same workout I had just done. I watched more closely, and realized the training I was getting was not “personal.”

As much as this annoyed me, I knew I was guilty of the same behavior both as a clinical hygienist and in the corporate setting. Well meaning as we may be, it’s easy to don the “expert” hat and roll ahead with our own agenda. We tell ourselves it’s part of doing our job, and it’s what people expect. But the truth is, unless the message feels relevant to the listener, it doesn’t matter how many flossing reviews we give or how many times we tell someone about the 50+ studies on the Waterpik® Water Flosser — nothing different is going to happen.

Wait a minute, you might think, did she really say “feels"? Yes, I did. All the thinking/educating in the world won’t make a difference unless someone feels an emotional connection to changing. Yet for most of us, when we can’t motivate people, we want them to know what we know, so we continue to help them “know more.” Most of the time, we’re left bewildered about why it didn’t work.

In my case, Jane kept trying to “educate” me, but I already knew most of the things she told me. The feeling she created was irritation, not motivation. Is there anything she could have done differently? For starters, she could have asked me what I was doing or what I had tried before she gave me advice. This small difference could have created a partnership and feeling of collaboration. Instead, I felt like a disobedient child.

Have you ever asked your patient, “What do you know about periodontal disease?” or “What do you find challenging about dental floss?” before launching into patient education? I’ve found that simply asking patients what they know about the Waterpik® Water Flosser, or how exactly they would like me to help, produces more productive and satisfying conversations for both of us. More importantly, I have to listen first, and I believe that makes a big difference.

Another tool that has been shown to be effective is to ask permission before launching into patient education. Whoa, you might say, patient education is my job. Yes it is, and there is every chance when you say, “Can we talk about the numbers I read out?” or “Can we talk about the condition of your gums?” that your patient will say yes. But asking permission can be a psychological game changer. When people visit the Waterpik® booth, I ask them if they want to hear about the product before I tell them. The only time I might get a no is with a long-standing, well-informed customer who simply wants to order. Bottom line — no one wants their time wasted, and we waste both theirs and ours if we talk about things they already know.

Another thing that Jane could have done differently would have been to tailor my training to my specific needs. She would probably be surprised to know that I observed this. You might even think, “How would my patient even know?” I think I suspected Jane did this because her lecture just had that broken record feel. But most importantly, if you are saying/doing the same thing for each patient, it loses relevance, and they know it.

So, did I fire Jane? I didn’t have to. She got another job and I got a new trainer, Sue. Sue is quiet and reserved, and at first, I wondered about our compatibility. But a few weeks in, my worries ceased. When I mentioned my challenges with weight loss, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “I know exactly what you mean. Losing and keeping weight off is so hard.” And in that moment I knew what had made my interactions with Jane so challenging; she was not empathetic to my situation. When there is a lack of empathy, people tend to feel criticized or judged. I know I did with Jane, and that flat out eroded my motivation. On the other hand, when people feel acknowledged or validated, defenses go down, and moving forward becomes possible.

If this all seems a little unnecessary — that adults shouldn’t behave this way when they are being told something that’s in their best interest — I agree! I was annoyed with myself for reacting as I did, and yet resistance is part of human nature. The good news is that within each of us lies the power of empathy. Whether it surfaces naturally or we have to look for it, we all have empathy in our reach. Expressing it can be as simple as saying, “You aren’t the only one who has challenges with that.” I’ve had hygienists tell me they didn’t learn anything about the Water Flosser when they were school. My response has become, “I understand. I didn’t either.” When they hear that, I can almost visibly see their bodies relax. And I have found that the mind relaxes too, defenses go down, and learning becomes possible.

It’s not easy to change the way we’ve always done something. It can feel tedious, awkward, and time consuming. I’d love to say that now that I’ve started with a new trainer I’ve lost those 10 lbs., but I haven’t. But what has surfaced is my motivation. With that, anything is possible!

Carol Jahn, RDH, MS, is the senior professional relations manager for Water Pik, Inc.

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