Are SMART goals good enough?

Many therapists are taught to work with SMART goals – in case you aren’t familiar with this, it’s a mnemonic and stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. As far as therapists go, it’s a really good system which allows you to understand exactly where the therapy is going and to recognise when you get there. But as far as motivating clients goes, it can be a bit dry.

A client’s goals should be something they really, really want (to quote the Spice Girls). After all, they have contacted you to make life better. And something like ‘I will reduce my average daily calorie intake by 10% this week by cutting out cake and beer’ is more like a statement of fact than anything terribly exciting.

Building better therapy goals

So, if SMART goals are good for us but not so much for our clients, how can we build exciting and relevant goals for our clients to work towards? How can we use these to motivate them, and help them understand the ripple effect where making one small change can reach into many areas of their lives? This is definitely true by the way. I once had a client who, six months after getting rid of a phobia had taken up golf, lost weight and re-decorated her home – all things on her ‘to do’ list for a long time. Dealing with one issue gave her the mental and physical energy to tackle the rest.

I spoke at the 2018 UK Hypnosis Convention on this subject and showcased a protocol called Goal Modelling© which was developed by my husband and myself from a method used at Cranfield University to manage change within businesses. Now you might ask, 'Why is managing change within a business relevant to my clients?' Good question and I have an equally good answer (I hope).

Dave and I realised some time ago that we actually do very similar work, although I may have the easier version of it. He helps large organisations implement change. Within that environment, change is often decided upon at the highest levels but implemented by those who are closer to the 'shop floor' - the customer-facing teams and their line managers. If they don’t see value in the changes, especially if they feel that change has been 'imposed' on them without much consultation, they tend not to be motivated to put the new ideas in place or make them work. This is where Dave comes in - he helps management to analyse if the changes are the right ones to make, and staff to understand why they will benefit by making it work.

My clients come to me already motivated in many cases. In fact, many therapists would think twice before working with someone who says the only reason they want to change is that 'someone else decided I need to do this'. But even motivated clients benefit from understanding all the different effects the changes they’re implementing will have.

The Goal Modelling Protocol ©

The Goal Modelling protocol says that change has three results:
  • The features– the practical stuff that happens because you've made the change
  • The outcomes – the things that happen as a result of the features
  • The benefits – what the client actually gets out of the features and outcomes.
To give you an example, let’s say your client wants to stop smoking to improve his health. You ask for an example of improved health and he says ‘I could play football in the park with my kids without gasping for breath’. This could be something you’d use in your sessions, but we can do better. Look at this:

  • A feature of quitting is improved lung capacity, that happens for everyone
  • An outcome of that (for this client) is that he can play with his kids more easily
  • The benefit means taking this even further and saying why is that a good thing? What will playing football with your kids do to make life better? Most likely the answer will be along the lines of ‘Our relationship will improve’ or ‘We’ll have more fun together’. That’s the benefit and that’s also the client’s real goal. Quitting is just the way he’s going to get it.
So the SMART goal is your goal, as a therapist: it’s what you want to achieve within the therapy. Your client’s most compelling goals are the benefits he’ll get after that. 

Goal Modelling can help you identify the client's most desirable outcomes, and will also give you lots of information on which to base very compelling suggestions for your session. So both you and the client benefit.

If you are interested in learning more about this approach, there will be a CPD workshop available from 2019. In the meantime, I am happy to come and talk to peer support or supervision groups, schools etc. You can email me at to find out more.


Author: is an experienced hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook, both of which are available from Amazon.
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