An unmotivated loved one can drive us all to the brink. When someone we care about continues to make “stupid” decisions, or simply won’t get off their butt and do what needs to be done for their own benefit, we often despair. So what is motivation? And why is it so hard to force someone to change?

Motivation is essentially a combination of two emotional states: courage and desire (sometimes referred to as “confidence” and “importance”). If both of these emotional states are strong, then motivation will be high. If even one of them is low, motivation is adversely affected.

In most of the cases I’ve dealt with people were naturally tuned towards being anti-authoritarian. This is why trying to force motivation into someone doesn’t work. It’s also why giving advice to an unmotivated person only makes them less likely to take action. By trying to force your idea of what is “right” on to them, you are triggering their defense system, and they will feel a strong impulse to do the opposite of what you advise.

When you try to force someone to act, you reduce their desire; to them it feels like a chore. Or, you end up reducing their courage by making them feel like it’s too hard. Either way, you both lose.

So if you’re ready for a different approach, try my six-step Motivational Interviewing pattern, as follows:

Step 1: Listen

The philosophy behind Motivational Interviewing is that you are not the one telling the unmotivated person what to do. Ultimately, you want to encourage them to tell themselves what to do. This is how you develop powerful, intrinsic motivation.

It begins with listening. Somewhere in their mind there’s a reason why they won’t change. That reason is likely to be strongly linked to desire (they don’t want to) or courage (they don’t believe they can), or both.

Ask them why they don’t want to change, but ask in a non-judgmental way. Be open to the idea that their reasons are valid and worthwhile, rather than just thinking they are being pathetic or stupid. If you feel superior to them, they will sense it, and there goes your window of opportunity. You must take your ego out of the situation.

Enter into the conversation with the attitude of, “I may think I know what this person needs, but they know better than me, so let’s see if I can help them find their own answers.”

Step 2: Reflect

Before someone will take your advice they need to feel they can trust you. More importantly, they need to trust your intentions, especially if they are resistant. If they think you have an agenda – i.e. you want them to change for your benefit – they will dig their heels in.

When you’ve listened to what they have said, reflect it back to them so they know you’ve heard. Try to allow them to hear themselves. This doesn’t mean parroting back their exact words. You could try summing up, identifying the underlying emotion, or even getting quite provocative. I like to exaggerate what my coaching clients say, to help them take a stand and define what they really mean.

If they’re disagreeing with how you’ve heard them, at least you two are having a real conversation. Ask them to correct you; ask what it is you are not hearing. You want to get to the point where you both agree on what they are saying.

Step 3: Create “cognitive dissonance”

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling caused by two opposing beliefs conflicting. Creating this feeling inside someone else is my favorite and most powerful motivation technique.

To do this, once they are done telling you why not, change tack and start asking questions that get them to reveal what they want out of life, and from themselves. What you are looking for is a conflict between what they want versus this change they refuse to make.

You’re looking for what I call the “keystone.” It’s the thing they desire in their life that they cannot have unless they make the change. This is where we get to tap into their intrinsic motivation. We have located the internal reward and no longer need external rewards to drive them.

Side note: this is also a great way to get people to truly appreciate external rewards (e.g. money), by making the link between the external reward and intrinsic desires. It’s not just about more money, find out how they want to spend that money to better their lives, and remind them of that.

Let’s look at an example: someone who refuses to stop abusing alcohol. If you can get them to make the link between wanting the best for their children and the negative effect their drinking has on that desire, without telling them, you can create cognitive dissonance. Basically, you want to lead them to tell you that they have to choose between the two: drinking or a good relationship with their children. Help them see that they can’t have both.

Again, it’s crucial you remain non-judgmental. When someone is unmotivated they become hypersensitive to unwanted influence, always looking for an excuse to avoid doing whatever it is they know they need to do. The easiest excuse is to think whoever is trying to help them is actually just an annoying know-it-all.

Keep reflecting back to them so they understand they are saying these things, not you. You’re just asking the questions, don’t give the answers (yet)!

Step 4: Weigh up costs versus benefits

Now that you’ve identified your keystone, it’s time to turn the screws a bit; time to put some positive pressure on. Start asking them questions about the costs and benefits of the two different choices they are now facing. If they “do it” (change), what are the likely outcomes compared to if they “don’t do it?”

If you dig and reflect more deeply on two specific factors – the costs of not changing and the benefits of changingthey will start to convince themselves of what they need to do. You’ve now put them in a position where they can clearly see the consequences of their behavior and choices.

This is the key driver of Motivational Interviewing in effect: they have now told themselves what they should be doing.

Step 5: Elicit a commitment

Now you finally get to be more direct. Talking about change is all well and good, but ultimately all that matters is taking action. Without that, you’re just chatting.

So ask them: “What do you need to do?”

At this point, if they have bought into this process, they may turn to you for assistance. Lack of motivation is also a huge killer of creativity, so they might need a hand. You can offer your advice now. Just preface it with something like: “I have some ideas, would you like to hear them?”

Don’t rush into this though, give them time and space to work it out for themselves, or just gently lead them to an answer/action. They will maintain motivation longer if they problem solve the situation themselves, and you don’t want to create dependency.

Teach them to fish rather than just feeding them!

They need at least one tangible, measurable action to take. Just one is enough to break them out of the rut or harmful pattern they are in. Then, you can both build on that later, adding more actions as time goes on and motivation increases.

Most of all, if you are truly dedicated to helping them, prepare to be patient. This whole process will not happen in just one discussion, particularly for the highly unmotivated. It could take days or weeks. It’s up to you, but just know that every conversation helps, even if you give up later on.

Step 6: Follow up

If they now trust you to help them, you need to hold them to account. Follow up with them after the action they were supposed to take happens. Make sure to praise any action, even if it ended in “failure.” Don’t let them off the hook though, ask them, “What next?”

If they didn’t do what they committed to do, ask them what happened. Use the same non-judgmental questioning pattern above to elicit what stopped them and how they can overcome that barrier in the future.

Just remember:

  1. Don’t tell them, get them to tell you
  2. Don’t dictate but do lead
  3. No judgements
  4. Assume deep down they know what is best for themselves, help them to find it
  5. Be patient

One last note

I have worked with some of the most entrenched and dangerous offenders in New Zealand. Some of them were full-blown psychopathic murderers. Others were highly manipulative sociopaths, severe Borderline Personalities, and predatory sex offenders. While I believed they could still be changed one day, some of them were beyond the psychological knowledge of today – too broken to be fixed.

If you have been trying for months to change someone, and they keep making promises without taking action, then it is time to walk away. Either you are not the person to help them, or they simply will not submit to help. While I do believe it is possible to motivate any human who is at least capable of basic brain function, this cannot happen if they really do not want to change.

Don’t burn yourself out on someone who refuses to live a good life. Save your energy for someone more deserving.

Featured photo credit: Brian Smith via flikr

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