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On the Difficulty of Getting People to Change

Even extraordinary measures won't work if the client only claims to want change.

Elaine Bailey
Source: Elaine Bailey

Perhaps my most-liked tip is the "traffic light rule."

All my long-winded clients immediately acknowledge that their volubility hurts their life and they claim to appreciate my teaching them the traffic light rule: During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green. During the second 30, it’s yellow: Chances are increasing that your listener would like you to stop. After 60, it's red. Yes, very occasionally you want to run a red light, for example, when telling an engaging anecdote. But usually, at the one-minute mark, you should ask a question or stop. If the person wants to know more, he or she can ask.

Years ago, when I first began telling my clients about it, I assumed their enthusiastic reaction meant they’d implement it and that it would at least mitigate their long-windedness.

But I soon found that just minutes after they embraced the traffic light rule, they were back to long missives. So I figured I needed to offer them guided practice if only so they'd have a better sense of when they had spoken for 30 and 60 seconds. I ask an open-ended question, remind them to be concise, to self-edit, and that if a person wants more, he or she can ask. Then I start a 60-second timer.

Typically, they're shocked at how quickly 30 and even 60 seconds passes. We practice until they say they feel they have it down. One hundred percent of the clients then say they'd adopt the traffic light rule.

In the next session, most of them admit that soon after the previous session, they returned to their old ways. Even during the session, after I point out that they just "ran a red light" (and because it’s a counseling session, I typically wait three or more minutes before saying anything), they soon revert to long recitations filled with boring details, far-afield tangents, and unnecessary redundancies.

What’s going on? In some cases, the person simply doesn’t have the self-discipline to habituate it. Others claim to have forgotten about it. Others say (rationalize?) that it isn't important enough to habituate without formal homework. So, I often give an assignment. In its fullest form, I assign the person to practice for 10 minutes every day with a friend, to write “TL” (for traffic light) on their home mirrors, refrigerator, and palm, and make "TL" the wallpaper on their computer and phone screen. Plus, every time they’re about to drink something, they must look at their palm and say “TL.” That way, their desired goal stays top-of-mind until it becomes habit.

Sometimes, that symptom-treating approach is beside the point. The clients believe they derive more benefit from long-windedness than from concision. For example, they get to control the conversation, focusing on what they’re interested in and know about. That makes them feel smart. Also, in talking something out at length, they get to clarify their thinking.

So the client and I make a list of their loquacity's perceived benefits and liabilities. Usually but not always, they conclude they should at least moderate their chatterboxing because it has badly hurt their personal and professional life. Their prattling makes them devalued by coworkers and bosses and restricts relationships. A few clients have admitted to me that even their spouse tends to avoid them, not wanting to listen to their blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.

Seeing the pros and cons in black and white has made some clients realize that their bloviation is merely one manifestation of their self-absorption. That motivates some to change but more often makes them harden their position: They believe their selfishness gets them more of what they want. And in some cases, they’re right.

The takeaway

Engendering behavior change can be far more difficult than we might imagine. It sometimes requires not just guided practice in sessions plus homework, but an understanding of the psychological and practical gains the person accrues from their behavior. And we may need to accept that sometimes, our clients may claim to want to change but deep down don’t.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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