In health care, experts are typically in the driver’s seat when it comes to patient care. As wellness coaches, we are keenly aware that this approach is not effective in fostering long-lasting behavioral change. For clients to thrive and achieve optimal health and wellbeing, they must get into the driver’s seat, both in coaching sessions and, ultimately, in life.
Why Take the Wheel? According to proponents of the self- determination theory, navigating from behind the wheel is the most natural place for humans. We are self-determining beings, innately inclined towards psychological growth and development. We are happiest and most productive when we are in control of our lives. Richard M. Ryan, Ph.D., and Edward L. Deci, Ph.D., (2000) at the University of Rochester write, “The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. That most people show considerable effort, agency, and commitment in their lives appears, in fact, to be more normative than exceptional, suggesting some very positive and persistent features of human nature” (p. 68).
Please Drive Me Yet many of our clients surrender the wheel to others, causing them to become stuck, unable to move toward their desired destination. They take what appears be to an attractive but unproductive detour, seeing it as the “easy way out,” avoiding responsibility for the direction of their own lives. Some choose to ride in the passenger seat, while, even worse, some sit in the back seat. Veering off course, they are no longer true to their own internal compass, and soon feel lost and discouraged.
It is not difficult for coaches to differentiate between the drivers and the passengers. We have all seen clients who readily comply, doing what others say is good for them, such as taking their medications or eating broccoli. Others defy by resisting a request or advice. Either way, these clients are not acting autonomously. A coach will often hear: “My doctor is in charge, my genes are in charge, the experts and their prescriptions are in charge, my wife makes the health decisions, my job is in charge.” When other people or external forces are in the driver’s seat, failure is ultimately likely, especially for those who are trying to lose weight, get fit, or adopt any new habit. The best way for our clients to achieve their goals is to help them take their rightful place behind the wheel. We must encourage them to tap into self- motivation, which according to Deci and Ryan, “is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change (p. 9).”
Our Core Drives Deci and Ryan’s theory of human motivation asserts that human thriving results from satisfying three motivational drives: the desire to be autonomous (making choices that are true to one’s core, not imposed by others or one’s inner critic); to be competent (using one’s strengths, becoming skilled in life tasks); and to be connected (doing things that support others). These core drives are alive in our clients when it comes to taking good care of their mental and physical health. As coaches, it is our job to help our clients recognize, enliven, and strengthen them.
Coaxing Clients into the Driver’s Seat We can learn valuable lessons from the work of Deci and Ryan. First, it is important to acknowledge that, even as coaches, we are not able to motivate our clients. We can only create the conditions in which they will motivate themselves. Fostering choice will increase our clients’ intrinsic motivation. Taking our clients’ perspective not our own, we must encourage our clients to initiate, experiment, and assume responsibility. We must be willing to set limits while still supporting our clients’ autonomy — helping them discern where their rights end and the rights of others begin, while making sure the limits are as wide as possible and allow for choice. In addition, we must help them recruit sources of autonomy support outside the session. We also must be attuned to facilitating feelings of competence, which are crucial for intrinsic motivation.
Look, I’m Driving! According to Deci and Ryan, humans have an innate need to feel competent. Yet, we may be driven by a negative belief we have constructed about ourselves and be swayed by our inner critic: “I am a loser or a failure or inadequate because I cannot lose weight, stay on a fitness routine, meditate longer than a few nanoseconds, or avoid doughnuts when they are put on a plate in front of me.” To combat feelings of inadequacy, our clients must be encouraged to be proactive, taking on optimally challenging tasks with our enthusiastic support. Cheering on our clients to success, we enable them to feel competent, energized, and motivated. According to Deci and Ryan, feelings of competence are crucial and, when accompanied by autonomy, lead to increasing accomplishment and learning throughout life.
Conclusion If our clients are to achieve optimal health and well being, they must take charge of the wheel, figuring out what works for them as unique individuals so that it becomes part of who they are and non-negotiable. Coaches should encourage clients to act as though they are in the driver’s seat — to be the boss who solicits advice from the experts, then experiments, reflects, adjusts, and experiments again to arrive ultimately at the best choice for them. For example, “I want to walk three days a week because I can fit it in (the five days recommended by my trainer is too much). I am more relaxed and that helps me be more present and productive at work and home. I do not want to miss out on the benefits of my walks and I have backup strategies in place.” Seizing the wheel leads to authenticity and increased self-motivation. It fosters competence. It helps our clients build and sustain the energy and strength to handle whatever life throws their way—leading to a life of thriving and well-being.
Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column