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Stubborn Mules: Motivational Interviewing for the Completely Unmotivated

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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.

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Featured photo credit: Brian Smith via flikr

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Last Updated on November 18, 2021

10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

  • honest
  • reliable
  • competent
  • kind and compassionate
  • capable of taking the blame
  • able to persevere
  • modest and humble
  • pacific and can control anger.

The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

Abigail Van Buren

3. How does this person take the blame?

Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

5. Read their emails.

Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

  • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
  • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
  • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
  • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
  • Too many question marks can show anger
  • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

6. Watch out for the show offs.

Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

8. Their empathy score is high.

Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

“One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

Stendhal

 10. Avoid toxic people.

These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

  • Envy or jealousy
  • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
  • Complaining about their own lack of success
  • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
  • Obsession with themselves and their problems

Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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