One of the most powerful words when people are talking about motivation is the word, “should.” “Should” usually means “if I don’t I’ll feel guilty” and is a hallmark in Self-Determination Theory research of what is referred to as introjected motivation. Introjected motivation is internal, but non-self-determined because it still feels controlling. Should means “someone else thinks I should” and while it can be motivating at first, over time “should” is a poison that could eventually make your clients quit. So how do you draw attention to the fact that a client is relying solely on guilt and get a conversation started on other ways to motivate themselves without telling people they “can’t think that way” (which is not just patronizing but incredibly controlling and the opposite of what we want to do as coaches). I use a tool I simply call “hashes.” Let’s say you are reviewing a client’s food journal, and they start berating themselves for screwing up so much. Every time they use the word should, just draw a little hash mark on a piece of paper. These usually add up quickly. Eventually, the client will ask you about the hashes (or you can point them out) and you can tell them, “oh, these are every time you used the word ‘should’ in our conversation about food.” Do not tell them that should is “good” or “bad,” simply and non-judgmentally ask your client, “I get that you think you should, but what are some other reasons that you want to eat [more vegetables, more protein, etc.]?” I have used this tool in one-on-one sessions, and in large groups and the turnaround is immediate. People start reaching for more positive, internal, and self-determined reasons why they are engaging in the target behavior, without dwelling on the negative, external, or controlling reasons. If you are having a tough time with a client who cannot see how their words are influencing their behavior, try making hashmarks the next time you’re listening to them talk about their week and see where the conversation goes.

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