Do you know someone who wants to make a change and is turning to you for help? Most of us have good intentions to help others but go about doing so in the wrong way. Here are four key strategies for helping people—family members, friends or ­coworkers—achieve their dreams…

Wait for a coachable moment 

It’s natural to want to help people overcome behaviors that are preventing them from achieving their goals and living their best lives. You may notice things they do that are self-sabotaging or misguided—and jump right in with advice. But they may not want your advice. People change their behavior when they want to, not when you want them to. Problem: Too often we impose our own values and desires on others in an attempt to “fix” them. Your loved one may go along with you out of obligation or respect—if the individual responds at all—but not from inner motivation. As a result, he/she will be unlikely to persist with the effort. 

Better: Before you start offering advice, stop and ask the person, “How can I help you now?” If you are invited to proceed, the person will be much more receptive to what you have to say. Seize on these moments when he is willing and able to consider an idea or information that could lead to a shift in his thinking. You could ask questions such as, “Can I share an idea with you?” or “Would you like to know what I am observing?” You need to choose the right time to broach the subject—when the person is willing to listen—and you can plant seeds to help him imagine a desired future and that may help him see how and why he may need to change his behavior. Driven by their own personal reasons for change, people are more likely to adjust their actions and perspectives. Igniting that passion for a long-desired goal—to open a business…lose weight…run in a marathon…leave an abusive relationship—helps people draw energy that will sustain their efforts to change even when the going gets rough. 

Be an active listener 

To facilitate change, you need to first understand what is happening with the individual. Don’t assume that you know what another person is feeling or thinking. Make your loved one feel supported by actively listening. Active listening is an art and skill that can be developed by listening deeply with thoughtful attention and positive intention. It takes some effort to be truly focused on the other person and not just be waiting for your turn to speak again. Here’s how to do it…

Tip #1: Aim to speak 20% of the time, and allow the person you’re talking with to speak 80% of the time. 

Tip #2: Remember the acronym WAIT, which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” to keep the focus on the person you’re trying to coach instead of yourself. If you catch yourself telling stories about yourself, stop and shift back to the other person. 

Tip #3: Don’t interrupt, challenge or check your phone or computer screen while listening. Sit near the person speaking to you…give him your full attention…repeat back what is said to you. 

Example: Greg, a plastic surgeon, felt dissatisfied with his life. Working 70 to 80 hours a week, he secretly knew he lacked work-life balance, but he wasn’t doing anything about it. His coach asked him, “What are things you like about your life?”…“What things would you like to have more time to do?”…“If you could live anywhere, where would you live?”…“What would your ideal job look like?”

Hearing himself answer these questions out loud, a light switched on for Greg. He realized that he wanted to move back to his hometown in Florida to be closer to family and friends, and he wanted to work fewer hours. Soon, he found a new position in Florida and was working part-time and seeing more of his loved ones. By asking the right questions and allowing the person you are coaching to reflect in a supportive environment, you allow him to begin to explore possibilities and solutions to problems. 

Uncover the person’s true needs and desires 

As a coach, it’s hard to help if you don’t know what challenges someone is facing or what drives that person to succeed. Example: Find out what matters to a friend or family member by asking him to complete an open-ended statement such as, “An ideal day for me is when…” or, “I wish you knew…” An open-ended sentence may draw responses such as…

“I would love to have a family dinner once a week.”

“I wish you knew how isolated I have felt since my husband died.”

Armed with this new information, you can tailor your strategies and be more supportive. 

Awaken Positive Emotions

Research at the Coaching Research Lab shows that the key to effective ­coaching is awakening positive emotions or feelings that help us move forward in life. We call this the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA). The PEA is anchored in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is where feelings of joy, hope, optimism and engagement are produced. In contrast, the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) is linked to the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with negativity, anger, defensiveness, anxiety and fear. We move between these two states constantly and subconsciously. We need the stress of the NEA to finish projects, juggle multiple demands and stay on task. But the PEA allows us to think creatively, imagine possibilities, demonstrate empathy for others and build relationships. The PEA activates our feelings of hope and helps us move from one step to ­another—which is why it is so important to awaken it. 

Extensive research conducted by our colleagues has shown that spending even 30 minutes talking with someone about a dream, core values or personal vision activates areas of the brain associated with the parasympathetic nervous system—in other words, it ignites positive action and passion. 

Try statements or questions that awaken positive emotions in the person you’re trying to help. If you won the lottery, how would it affect your life and your work?…If your life were perfect in 10 years, what would it look like? Although these questions seem broad, they can help people work though specific challenges that involve everything from ­career decisions (Would I be happier in a different job?) to lifestyle issues (Is it time to downsize?). 

Avoid negative questions that put people on the defensive like, Are you keeping up with all of your assignments? Why haven’t you put in for a promotion? Why don’t you get rid of all this stuff in your cabinets? 

By focusing on supporting, rather than leading or judging, the person you are trying to help, you will be acting out of compassion, helping to ignite the spark of positive change in friends’ and family members’ lives and encouraging strategies for achieving that change.