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Modelling Change: Giving Up Smoking


Clean Language can be used in many different contexts and for different reasons. For example, you can use it simply to model different aspects of experience. I have always been very interested in how change happens, so decided to use Clean Language to model a change that my husband experienced…

John had been smoking for about 25 years when he first attempted to give up - and he finally managed it about 10 years after that. He tried to give up several times during those ten years - and before his final, successful, attempt, the longest time he’d gone without cigarettes was seven months. Now, eight years after he smoked his last cigarette, John believes he will never light up again; now, it’s easy not to smoke.

When I asked him what had happened, he said that ‘everything had fallen into place’. Interested in this obvious metaphor, I asked more questions. And gained not one, but two, descriptions of how this particular change came about - a conceptual description and a metaphorical one…

Conceptual Description

In the years before John finally gave up smoking, he had several realisations:

  • During a previous attempt, he’d used nicotine patches for three months - according to the instructions on the pack this was the maximum amount of time it was safe to use the patches for.

    “About three months after that I convinced myself that I’d given up so easily with the patches, that I’d be able to start smoking again, and then give up again, just like that. Afterwards I realised it wasn’t that simple.”

  • Later on, his doctor told him it would have been better to carry on with the patches for longer than 3 months. He said that the harm done by starting smoking again was far greater than the possible harm from continuing with the patches.

    “While this advice was rather belated, I did store it in the back of my mind.”

  • In a lot of pain after an operation, John was advised to take co-codamol every four hours and ibuprofen in between - also every 4 hours - which meant he was taking some form of pain relief every 2 hours.

    “This gave me an idea for a strategy for giving up smoking. I realised I could use nicotine chewing gum and patches to create a ‘smooth path down’. I’d be able to start with full-strength patches, interleaved with full-strength gum, then go to full-strength patches and low strength gum, then medium strength patches and high strength gum, right down to low strength patches and low-strength gum.”

  • John’s ready supply of cheap cigarettes - duty frees from friends’ trips abroad - was coming to an end.

Metaphorical Description

John’s metaphor for how he gave up smoking centres around the realisations and the circumstances that led to them. He says it is as though there was a ‘cone’ in his upper chest. Sand and cement were pouring into the cone, and this would set. Each layer represented one of the circumstances. Sand and cement would continue to fall into the cone until it was full and all the sand and cement was set. Everything had fallen into place.

The realisations are represented by a brick wall at the back of his head. This was built by a little man who stood on the sand and cement each time a new layer was set, and built a couple of rows of read bricks. Once the cone was full, the man could put a ladder on top and complete the wall. The brick wall fills the whole of the back of John’s head - there’s no room for any more bricks. Behind the wall is the thought, “I want a cigarette.” That thought has now been bricked up and can’t get out.

Since John gave up smoking eight years ago, a few tiny cracks sometimes appear in the mortar in the brick wall, and the thought, “I want a cigarette” slips through the wall to the other side. But because the sand and cement in the cone has set, the little man can stand on it, or climb the ladder, fill in the crack and brick the thought back in.

Modelling Change

For John, this change came about as a result of several circumstances which in turn brought about several realisations. When ‘everything fell into place’ he could use his ‘smooth path down’ strategy to achieve his outcome of not smoking. The whole process - from the first realisation until John could confidently say that not smoking is easy - took several years. And within that time there are several moments that stand out as important, especially the day he made the final decision to stop: he even knows the date of that event.

When psychologists Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente conducted a large-scale modelling project with over 1000 people who’d made positive changes in their lives, they defined six stages of change, each of which is characterised by certain kinds of behaviour:

(Changing for Good, 1994)

  • Pre-contemplation - not recognising any need for change
  • Contemplation - thinking about making a change, but not committed yet
  • Preparation - having decided to make a change, finding out how to go about it
  • Action - actually doing the behaviours that others would recognise as change
  • Maintenance - sustaining the behaviours, rather than slipping back
  • Termination - behaving as though the problem behaviour had never existed

It seems that John’s experience is a fairly typical one!

Image by diema from Pixabay

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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