I’ve been checking out an unusual and interesting online coaching system for personal development, called ProStar Coach. I recently spoke with the creator of this program, Denny Coates. He has some insightful things to say about habits and behavior change. That’s of particular interest to me, with my focus on breaking down large goals into smaller pieces in order to form habits for real, lasting change.

In addition programs for business and careers, ProStar Coach has a program called Strong for Parenting and Denny’s points are applicable for anyone wanting to make changes in any part of their life—personally or professionally. Enjoy!

David: I’m a huge proponent of personal development. ProStar Coach is different from anything I’ve seen. How did you come up with the idea?

Denny: Several years ago there was a flurry of business books about how organizations waste $100 billion every year with learning and development programs that don’t change behavior. They blamed a lack of follow-through reinforcement and made a number of recommendations. But because none of the books explained why reinforcement is needed to change behavior and because no technology existed to support the follow-through, not much changed. So we began working on a system to enable the follow-through.

David: That’s a great idea. Whenever I speak to groups, I always start by telling them that I don’t want them to only walk out with a bunch of great ideas, but also a game plan for making changes. I give them some tools for tracking change, but the follow-through is on them. Tell me more about coaching follow-through.

Denny: Knowing isn’t the same as doing. You can know what to do but that doesn’t mean you’ll make it your habit to do it. Even a five-day training program can only convince people that there’s a better way. They learn what they should be doing, and they may even be excited about doing it. But that rarely transfers to doing it on the job.

David: Why do you think it’s so rare for people to follow through with changes?

Denny: The problem is that your behavior can be caused by three things. One is emotion. Something happens and you react strongly to it and that triggers your behavior. The second is a conscious decision. You might feel a surge of emotion, but you take time to think things through before deciding what to do next. The third is habit. Over the years, your repeated behavior has stimulated the brain cells to link together in a circuit, which automatically enables the behavior. Once the pattern is ingrained like that, you just do it without thinking about it. In a typical busy workplace, there’s not much time to think, and most behavior kicks in from habit, the way you’ve always done things.

David: So why don’t people ingrain new habits from the good things they learn in training?

Denny: It takes time to rewire the brain for a new skill or habit. No training program lasts long enough to do that. A well-intentioned employee may try the new skill at work, and that’s great. That’s what you want them to do. But because of the pressures of work, they’ll sometimes forget. And because the skill is new, their first attempts are likely to be hesitant and awkward. These shortfalls can be discouraging. Meanwhile the old habit is always there to fall back on, and that’s what people usually do. They give up and go back to what’s comfortable, even if it sometimes causes issues. I call this the “crunch point.”

David: I know that applies to personal life changes as well.

Denny: Yes. It’s like quitting smoking or changing the way you eat. People might be motivated to give a good idea a try, but they probably don’t understand that there’ll be frustration, mistakes and failures at first. They don’t appreciate that changing a behavior pattern is a journey and that progress will be slow, at best. If they don’t push past the crunch point and fight against their old habits for quite a while, they won’t repeat the new skill often enough to rewire their brains and behavior change won’t happen.

David: Changing behavior is a real challenge. I urge people to break their goals down into pieces and to make one small change each 21 days.

Denny: In ProStar Coach we also recommend you focus on one skill or strength at a time. Then it’s a matter of doing it in the real world, and then reflecting on what happened when you tried, so you learn from that experience. In ProStar Coach we call this process Focus, Action and Reflection F-A-R. It isn’t easy, as anyone who’s tried it knows. But even though behavior change is really what organizations want, they can’t afford to hire coaches for all the participants of their training programs. Maybe for some top executives, but not for everyone.

David: So that’s why you came up with ProStar Coach. Because it coaches the user, right?

Denny: Yes, we built this networking feature called the Coaching Network, which puts learners in touch with real people who care about their success. Plus there are also half a dozen other virtual coaching technologies built into the system.

David: I saw that it has a lot of content. What kinds of behavior change are you trying to achieve with that?

Denny: Good question. Actually, our content is focused in two areas: people skills and personal strengths. Personal strengths are behavior patterns that people need in order to deal with the regular adversity and challenges of work and life. For example, a sales rep can learn some good rapport-building skills. But what happens when the prospect is difficult or there are unexpected problems? The answer is, the sales rep will need to be patient, not give up, be compassionate, get creative, take initiative, and so forth. These aren’t sales skills. These are personal strengths. We’ve identified about 40 personal strengths that apply to the world of work.

David: What about the people skills?

Denny: We have content for over a dozen people skills. All the basics are covered, things like listening, dialogue, conflict resolution, and feedback. And quite a few more, including communications skills for parents and leaders. We use instructional videos to describe the best practices. Our approach was to focus mostly on the how-to in an engaging way.

David: Denny, I like the way you use your technology to get people to use the system. Can you please explain that?

Denny: To help people get into the habit of using the system, we have a 30-session introductory program that sends email tips and reminders on a daily basis. After that, we help them stay on track with weekly reminders, a program we call High Fives.

David: Excellent. Now, how can someone get ProStar Coach?

Denny: The program is available as an online service with a one-year subscription, which can be renewed. The best first step is to go to www.prostarcoach.com and find out which version would be the best fit.

David: Terrific. I hope my lifelong learner readers will check it out this great way to work on their life and work habits. Thanks for sharing this, Denny.

Denny: My pleasure, David!

You can check out the ProStar Coach site here.

And please share your thoughts about the interview with Denny by joining the conversation with your comments below…

Best regards,