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Stubborn Mules: Motivational Interviewing for the Completely Unmotivated

Stubborn Mules: Motivational Interviewing for the Completely Unmotivated

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on November 4, 2020

15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

Self-improvement doesn’t have to be big mind-blowing changes; it can actually be simple steps to improve upon what you already have to get you where you want to be.  However, what you will need is consistency, determination and wiliness to try some things that will stretch and challenge you.

Rather than setting your sights way off into the future, which leaves you feeling like you’ll never make it, you can start following these simple and effective self-improvement steps today.  So if you want to make an immediate impact on your life and are willing to take action, then keep reading— you’ll going to love these!

1. Be willing to work hard.

As with anything in life, if you want something, you’ve got to work hard to get it.  This doesn’t mean you burn the candle at both ends, leaving you exhausted and leaving your personal life in ruins.  It merely means that when you want something badly enough, you’ll put in the time to get there.  Action is what’s important here and the more ‘inspired’ the action is, the better the results in the end.

2. Make sure you have friends who you can talk to.

Sharing the load is important as with any self-improvement. If you can communicate with others and get feedback on how you are doing then that’s great.  We all need ‘cheerleaders’ in our corner to keep us going when times get hard, but you also need to have people who will tell you how it is even when you don’t want to hear it.  So make sure you have a good support network around you, especially those people whose opinions you respect.

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3. Adapt to your circumstances rather than over-thinking them.

Sometimes, we can hit a hard period. Perhaps you’ve lost your job or your partner has left you.  Instead of over analyzing the situation, learn to adapt to your circumstances and accept them as they are.  It’s not about making your circumstances into some kind of a drama; remember, what you focus on expands which means you’ll get more of it.  You then don’t become your problems and you’ll feel a lot less burdened by them.

4. Ensure that you use your time wisely.

Time is of the essence, some might say; whilst others will say that time is an illusion.  One thing we do know is that you have one life on this planet, so how you use that time is of the utmost importance.  So how can you use your time wisely? Only you know how to do that, but look at how you currently spend your days: do you sit working all day, get home, eat and then sit slumped in front of the TV for the rest of the evening?  Your time on this earth is precious, so isn’t it time to make use of the time you have left? Try something new, go for a walk, learn a new language or meditate but make sure it’s something you absolutely love.

5. Always be consistent.

A wonderful way to self-improvement is to make changes to how you do things.  For example, with your friends, are you always the unreliable one who bows out of an arrangement just before it happens? Or are you someone who starts a new exercise routine and then stops doing it 3 weeks into it?  Whatever it is and whatever you do, always be consistent. When you make a commitment, stick to it. It will improve your life immeasurably you’ll feel more confident and happier with yourself, especially because you’ll know that whatever you tackle, you’ll be able to consistently do it!

6. Go and find your happy place.

No, I’m not saying “place” as in popping to your local bar or restaurant and gorging yourself on your favorite drinks or food. What I’m saying is to find out what you love to do, what makes you happy and go there.  Your happy place is a place where you find peace, where you lose yourself and feel contented.  Meditation is a great way to find your happy place; it brings you back to you and ensures that you are always living in the present moment.

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7. Make sure you embrace all your emotions.

In life you are going to find that it throws you some difficult challenges, sometimes it will bring out your fears and lead you into uncertainty, and other times it will be joyful.  It’s important to embrace all emotions that come up in your life, embrace them wholeheartedly and understand why they are there and then let them go.  Try not to dismiss or resist them because remember “what you resist, persists,” so embrace them each and every time.

8. Always be prepared to step out of your comfort zone.

The idea of stepping out of your comfort zone for some people can leave you paralyzed with fear; however for any changing in your life, your comfort zone will always have to be stepped out of.  It doesn’t have to be something big, like doing a sky-dive or something just as crazy. However, it’s worthwhile to change something that you’d once have feared, like going to the cinema on your own or eating at a sushi restaurant when the thought of trying raw fish which would normally mean you running for the hills.

So try something new—it doesn’t have to be wacky, but it has to challenge you!

9. Be on hand to help others.

Whether it’s helping a stranger on the street or a family member or a friend helping someone else either in their time of need, lending a helping hand is a wonderful and simple self-improvement to make.  Giving to others is not only beneficial to those you are helping but also to yourself; it can give you a sense of purpose, of contribution and also takes your mind of your own troubles and worries.

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10. Live in the present moment.

A wonderful self-improvement tool is to live in the present moment, to live in the now.  It is within this moment that you’ll appreciate all that you have and see the beauty in the simplest of things.  Being mindful of your current circumstances and bringing your mind back to where it belongs will bring about a happier way of life instead of constant worry or stressing about the past or future—both of which do not exist. Only the present moment exists. When you get used to living that way, you’ll never want to go back!

11. Learn something new.

There is nothing so liberating as learning something new; it can lift both your confidence and self-esteem and give you a great reason to meet new people.  If you continually top up your brain activity by learning something new all the time, you’ll feel on top of your game and want to share the knowledge you have learned. There is nothing quite so empowering as learning a new tool in life that can either improve your circle of friends or raise confidence levels—or both!

Reading is also a great way to help you learn something new:

12. Exercise daily.

This seems an obvious one, but exercise is so important not only to your health but also to your spirit.  We all know that after exercise, the world can feel a brighter and more positive place, so why don’t we do it more often?  Exercise isn’t about getting the perfect body or losing weight; it’s more about feeling good inside and out!  With a healthy body comes a healthy mind—so start something today. Even if it’s just a daily walk, it’s better than staying on that couch, again.

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13. Go to new places, travel a bit.

I’m not saying go fly off to some far away distant forgotten land—although you can if you so wish. It’s more about going to new places and experiencing life outside of your own back yard.  Too many of us stay in one place too often. We only see the same people, the same streets and do the same things each and every day.  If you want to improve your life, get out there and see the world and what it can offer.  You can start by going to a town or city you’ve never been to in your own country and checking out the architecture, the landscapes and the people.  Anything new is good, so get out there!

14. Listen to uplifting music and dance.

If there’s one thing that can really improve your life and get you excited about it, it’s listening to great uplifting music and dancing.  When was the last time you really let go?  Let it all hang loose and got into a piece of music and let yourself go?  Dancing, like exercise, makes you feel great. It releases all kinds of emotions and can make you feel unbelievably good.  Self-improvement isn’t all about the serious stuff; it can be something as simple as finding new music, music that inspires you and makes you dance and have fun!

15. Get up earlier than normal.

This is the last one, and it’s last because it’s one of those self-improvement tips that we all know is a good thing, yet we seem to avoid it at all costs!  If you think about it, the earliest part of the day is when your brain is most active because it’s been turned off for the last 7 hours or so.  So don’t you think it’s best to get all those things above done in the morning?  Things like exercise, meditation and dancing, which can all be done in the first part of the day.  Take it from me: this early morning stuff can really get your day started with a bang!

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Featured photo credit: Laura Chouette via unsplash.com

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