4 Steps to Helping a Friend Change

Listen to the audio version here:


God, it’s so frustrating trying to help a friend or loved-one change, isn’t it?

You can feel like you’re smacking your head against a wall and getting nowhere. The more you try, the more resistance they push back with.

You know them well and can clearly see where they are sabotaging themselves. Yet they seem to scorn your vantage-point perspective and choose instead to continue with their harmful patterns of behaviour. Then they complain to you about the results.

You’ve tried giving advice but they won’t take it. You’ve tried listening to them but they just repeat themselves. You’ve even tried punishing them by refusing to speak to them, or some other form of protest at their repeated stupidity.

But nothing has worked.

So what are you doing wrong?

I’d like to share some insights as to why you’re not getting through to your friend in need. I know that you have their best interests at heart… or at least you’ve convinced yourself that you do. I want to help you to stop sabotaging the support you’re trying to give.


The #1 issue I see most “helpers” suffer from is giving unsolicited advice; advice you weren’t actually asked for. You’d be surprised at how often you do this, because it’s so easy to mistake someone’s complaints as a request for assistance. Complaining is NOT the same as asking for help. Someone doing something “wrong” does not count as asking for help either.

If someone has not expressly requested your guidance, then you probably don’t have their permission to give advice. If you give advice without permission, you will automatically set off their defensiveness. Why? Because you are being judgmental.

When you give someone advice without permission you are saying to them “I know how you should live better than you do.” This is an attack. They will perceive this as a threat. Worst of all, they will resist against it even if they know it’s good advice! Their self-preservation will override their good sense, because they are already afraid of change and now they have someone to focus that fear toward.

When I was trying to quit smoking, the worst thing someone could say to me was “You should quit smoking.” I would immediately feel an irrational urge to smoke a whole pack, just to spite them. Yet when someone would say “Do you want some help quitting?” and not go any further until I said Yes, I would immediately open myself to advice.

Before giving advice, make sure you’ve asked for permission and received it wholeheartedly. They need to say “Yes please, tell me what you think I should do” before you even go near a solution.

However, even when they want advice, this is probably the least effective way to support them, because…


On the surface, it will appear that most people have a “how to” problem, as in they simply need instructions on how to do something. This is a common misunderstanding. Even if they do need how-to advice, that is not the most effective role you as a friend could be playing.

There are YouTube videos and Wikipedia articles for every how-to thing they’ll ever need to know, from fixing a car to starting a business to dealing with depression. You do not need to be the expert on any how-to (and you probably aren’t as knowledgeable as you think you are anyway, swallow your pride).

This information is available to them if they wanted to look for it, and most people already know this on a fundamental level.

The real issue is their resistance to figuring out a solution in the first place. This is where you can help them the most.

When someone is repeating a harmful pattern despite a tonne of evidence that it’s not working for them, the real issue is about their fear of change. Once you see this, you’ll realise that giving advice is not the most helpful thing you could be doing (there are exceptions).

I used to work with women who were victims of domestic violence. They didn’t want to get bashed, of course, yet they would remain in hostile dangerous relationships for years without taking clear opportunities to leave. Why? Because leaving meant going into the unknown, which was even more terrifying.

The bigger an issue is for someone, the scarier the unknown becomes, because they always think “What if change is even worse than my current harmful pattern?”

The most powerful work I do as a coach is to help people lift the veil on the big Unknown they feel afraid of. We explore it and assess it and come to know it as a friend. This allows them to feel the courage required to risk change.

Try asking your friend what is appealing about staying the same, and what is scary about change. Why do they think they continue to engage in harmful patterns? What’s the benefit for them not changing? These kinds of questions will give you both insight into how fear is controlling them.

Explore the worst case scenario to it’s very deepest core. Help them design a way to deal with it if they had to. Allow them to see that they could handle it if they wanted to take the risk.



The simplest reason people won’t change, as often described by Tony Robbins, is because they believe the pain of change outweighs the pain of remaining the same. Another way to look at this is the benefits of change are not compelling enough to go through the necessary growth-pain to achieve them.

A huge mistake we make when trying to help our friends and loved-ones’ change is that we do so for our own self-serving reasons. We often give people advice because we want them to change for our benefit. We want them to be easier to manage, complain less, and act happy around us.

This does not help them.

If you want someone to change, first you must accept the only reason they should change is because it will benefit them personally, first and foremost. If you can’t accept them the way they are, that’s your problem, not theirs. Stop being so blindly judgmental.

If they are going to change it will be because change will serve their needs, goals and values. Try to find the leverage point – what is the benefit they will clearly receive if they do change? You cannot tell them what this is, because that would only be your judgment. You need to ask them.

“If you changed, how would your life improve? If you stay the same, what suffering will you experience?”


For someone who is only just starting to contemplate change, they will face a repeated pattern of breaking away and then slipping back. Essentially a new, higher level version of themselves is now in competition with old ingrained patterns. During this conflict of change, they will become confusingly divided, and appear to contradict themselves often.

Think of a new male lion challenging the old veteran for dominance of the pride. The old lion knows how to fight, he has defeated many challengers before him, and his pride are used to his safe presence. The new lion is inexperienced, and represents change and the unknown, so the pride are fearful of him. The mind supports the leadership of fear in this way.

The old lion will not go down without a fight. Without control of the pride, he will die, and he knows it. Fear, with it’s ego-connection to identity, will not step aside without a battle.

When your friend is in the process of change, realise that they have now become two separate entities in a battle to the death. You must communicate with each differently. The Old will want safety, comfort and avoidance of growth-pain. The New will want change, insight and improvement. The person’s language and behaviour will tell you if Old or New is at the controls at any given time.

If they are avoidant, despondent and seem to be stuck, this is the Old in control. You can call this out. “I see the Old You is in control right now, that must make you feel like [insert change here] is impossible”. The Old needs care and love as he slowly accepts his death. To fight and challenge him will only aggravate his desire for dominance, and trigger your friend’s fear.

When Old is at the controls, show compassion. Allow them to see that you understand the challenge of the journey and the attraction of not changing. Care for them but without condoning harmful behaviour.

The challenge instead must be made to the New. Once you have shown acceptance and love toward the Old, you call out the New to take back the controls.

“What would you do if you had no fear right now?” you might ask. “If I could reach into your mind to remove hopelessness and replace it with power, what might your next move be?”

You care for the Old with love and kindness, and you taunt the New with challenges and encouragement. You are patient and kind without backing down. And you look out for their best interests. This is the recipe for true loving support.


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