There are many ways to help people to reach their goals. This article outlines one approach we used in a therapeutic community for young people I ran 40 years ago.
Whilst the model may seem a bit simplistic and rather dated, it seemed to work. If you are interested, you can see an excerpt of how the young people applied the approach during the group work sessions. This old footage can be found on YouTube at:
Background: The Responsibility Approach
The therapeutic community was based in Richmond, London. It was for young people between the ages of 14 and 18. They came to us from broken homes, detention centres and psychiatric wards. We encouraged the youngsters:
* To take responsibility for shaping their futures.
People were expected to deal with their feelings – and shape their futures – in a responsible way. There was a policy of no drugs – not even prescribed aids, such as tranquilisers. Resorting to violence or other anti-social behaviour meant leaving the community immediately.
They were not seen as ‘neurotics, psychotics, addicts, obsessive-compulsives’ or whatever label they had been given. People we seen as individuals who could take responsibility for shaping their futures.
* To encourage other young people in the community.
This called for being supportive, yet sometimes tough. We aimed to maintain a values system in a peer group where people were encouraged. They got time from each other by behaving in a positive way, however, not by relapsing into behaviour that had got them into trouble.
* To develop healthy ways of working towards achieving their life goals.
The young people had got into trouble because they had learned unhealthy ways of trying to satisfy their needs. Partly this was because of having poor models in the families or institutions where they had grown up.
The only people who could develop their lives, however, were themselves. Within the framework of an encouraging community, they were given the opportunity to develop healthier ways of pursuing their life goals.
Imagine you want to adapt the responsibility model in your own way. You might be running a community, conducting a self-help group or enabling people to shape their future lives. There is one key proviso – the people you are encouraging must be prepared to work hard to succeed.
Certainly this happened in the therapeutic community, because many of the youngsters saw it as their last chance. Here is a framework you can use to help a person to work towards their goals.
1) You can invite the person to focus on the ’What’.
There are many questions you can use for helping a person to set goals. These include, for example:
“What do you want to achieve in your life? What are your life goals? What is your picture of success? Looking back when you are 80, what do you want to have achieved by then that will mean you have had a successful life? How do you want people to remember you? What do you want to be your legacy?”
Looking back at the therapeutic community, each applicant went through a group interview with the entire community. Sounds tough?
Perhaps, but the youngsters were both challenging and fair when questioning the candidate. They could gauge whether a person was honest about their desire to live in a healthier way or simply going through the motions. The first question candidates were asked was:
What do you want out of life?
This shocked some applicants who thought they could simply recite their ‘case history’ and get in on the sympathy vote. The community members would help out, however, by sharing some of their goals in life, such as building better relationships.
(This process may sound unreal. But if you watch the YouTube clips, you will see how the youngsters quickly got to the heart of matters.)
During the interviews many applicants returned to the eternal themes regarding their life goals. Like most people, they wanted to be loved, happy and successful.
The youngsters were in trouble, however, because they had hurt themselves or other people. Their symptoms included drugs, violence, crime, illness or retreating into themselves. They came to the community to find healthier ways of achieving their goals. The alternative was staying in prison or mental hospital.
Imagine you want to help a person to clarify their life goals. What questions would you ask? What other things would you do? Try completing the following sentence.
2) You can invite the person to focus on the ‘How’.
People make choices and each choice has consequences – with both pluses and minuses. People do not always choose what happens to them, but they do choose their attitude towards those events. The choices they then make are, of course, governed by several factors. These include:
* Their personality – they will have certain personal attitudes and abilities.
* Their patterns – they will have developed both successful and unsuccessful patterns.
* Their previous models – they will have learned from both good and bad models.
If a person grew-up watching their parents fighting all the time, for example, they will have a limited repertoire of options to choose from when resolving conflicts.
The therapeutic community encouraged the youngsters to do three things. We aimed to help them:
* To develop the positive sides of their personalities.
* To develop their successful patterns – and find alternatives to the unsuccessful patterns;
* To expand their repertoire of choices for dealing with difficulties.
The young people could then make better decisions. How to make this happen? Once the person had decided on their goals, they were asked:
How can you get what you want out of life?
Sometimes the young person was a little hesitant in replying. After all, many people know how they fail, but not how they succeed. With some prompting from others in the community, however, the young person might say something like:
“I can get up early in the morning; help to cook the breakfast; volunteer for the house-cleaning; and work to find a job I like. When I have a problem, I can ask for help from others in the community. Doing these things will help me to feel better about myself and also build better relationships.”
Certainly this sounds ‘politically correct’ speak. It is useful, however, to see things in context. They were teenagers trying new kinds of behaviour to see if these brought better results. Certainly behaving differently felt difficult at first.
Whilst understanding the logic behind taking responsibility, they also found it challenging. This was only to be expected. Frequently they had taken a delinquent role in the past: something that was rewarded by their old friends but punished by society.
Now they were living in a community that rewarded taking responsibility and caring for other people. As the new habits became more ‘natural’, the youngsters improved their relationships and lives.
The community was based on the idea of ‘choices’. People could choose to take charge of shaping their future in a healthy way – or they could relapse into old behaviour. And with each choice, of course, came consequences. So we also asked each youngster another question:
How can you stop yourself
getting what you want out of life?
Many found this much easier to answer. So the person mentioned above might say:
“I can lie in bed in the morning; not eat properly; be lazy; and get stuck in a dead-end job. When I have a problem, I can be violent, steal and blame other people for how I feel.
“That may give me a short term fix, but my only ‘friends’ will be those in my old gang. Most of those are in prison and I don’t want to end up there myself.”
Why ask these questions? We wanted to ensure that each young person realised they had a choice. They could choose to increase or decrease their chances of getting what they wanted out of life.
The youngsters wanted to stay out of institutions. So they must ‘do’ things differently in the future. They needed to take responsibility for themselves, their feelings and their actions.
This stretched to ‘minor’ things – such as washing up their own tea cup, rather than leaving it for others to wash up. If somebody left a tea cup lying around, they were immediately confronted. Sounds intense? It was. But many youngsters felt they learned an enormous amount quickly.
The whole community was geared to people taking responsibility for their actions: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and for the rest of their lives. Each young person had clarified their goals. They had also gained insight into how they could succeed or fail. So we then asked them:
How do you want to try to
get what you want out of life?
The young people focused on the patterns they wanted to follow to reach their goals. Later they would translate these into daily action plans.
Imagine you want to help a person to clarify: a) How they can get what they want out of life; b) How they can stop themselves getting what they want out of life; c) How they want to begin working towards getting what they want out of life. What other things would you do? Try completing the following sentence.
3) You can invite the person to focus on the ‘When’.
It was then time for action. The young people made concrete action plans for aiming to get what they wanted out of life.
“Dream, do and deliver,” we are told. Many people have dreams – but the key is to do and deliver. This calls for following daily disciplines. Another saying is: “Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it does make permanent.” So the youngsters translated their goals into action plans they could follow to develop new habits each day.
The responsibility model is just one approach to helping people. Like all models, it has both pluses and minuses. Providing it is used properly, however, it can enable people to achieve ongoing success.
Imagine you want to help a person to move from thoughts to action. What questions would you ask? What other things would you do? Try completing the following sentence.