Trying to help someone change can be sanity-straining. Even when people face serious health scares they often don’t do enough to alter their habits, like they’re stuck on some monorail track of doom.
That said, we often go about trying to help in all the wrong ways. We know that lectures probably don’t help — but we often find ourselves doing it anyway. It’s like the reasons we give them for changing have almost no effect at all…
And, actually, that’s close to true. So what’s the answer?
Hundreds of years ago, famed mathematician Blaise Pascal said, “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”
And the latest science is showing he was pretty much on the money. Change happens when people talk themselves into change. You trying to do it is often counterproductive.
People are simultaneously smarter and dumber than you think. They often know what they’re doing is bad. They’re not usually lacking information. The issue is motivation. Overcoming ambivalence. Once people get motivated, they often make the change themselves with little help.
So how do we motivate them and get them to commit to change? Therapists call it “Motivational Interviewing”. It was originally designed to help addicts quit drugs. And it works:
That was our experience in a rather confrontational 21-day residential alcohol treatment program where adding a single MI session soon after admission (in a randomized trial) doubled abstinence rates after discharge relative to treatment as usual (Brown & Miller, 1993).
It can produce results in as little as 15 minutes. It can improve relationships. And it can stop you from wanting to scream into a cushion. The book we’ll be drawing from is “Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change”.
Let’s get to it…
Do parenting advice books sell? Absolutely. Okay then — go up to a parent and tell them how to raise their kid. (I do hope you recover swiftly from your injuries.)
We all want help but we want to retain our autonomy even more. So just telling people what to do rarely works. We often think expressing our lovely opinions is all it takes, but that just creates resistance. Telling people what to do is the opposite of empathy.
If you’re arguing for change and they’re pushing back, you’re doing it wrong. When we give people freedom and control, they relax. That’s why the backbone of MI is questions, not statements. I apologize if I sound like an inspirational poster in an HR office but people don’t need a good “talking to” — they need a good “listening to.”
Now some are probably thinking, “Sounds nice but how does that actually get them to change?”
Fair question. Telling people what to do is “directing” and that rarely works. You “following” sure doesn’t help either. What we’re looking for is “guiding.” Think of a tour guide in a foreign country: they help, but in the end the decision is yours. And you don’t feel pressured.
When people are ambivalent about change, therapists hear two different kinds of speech: “change talk” and “sustain talk.” Clients want to stop drinking… but they also don’t want to stop.
So what’s the solution? Pascal knew the answer. Don’t tell them to change. Evoke the reasons for change that are already in their head and support those. This is what motivates people to make a shift without resistance.
The first step is asking people about their values. When you understand what people value, you know what motivates them. And when people hear themselves saying what they believe, they have a natural desire to be more consistent with that. This is the leverage we’re going to use going forward.
(To learn more about how you can be a better communicator, check out my new bestselling book here.)
Okay, you’re not threatening their autonomy, you’re listening, and you’ve clarified their values. Good. How do we evoke change?
The four primary skills of Motivational Interviewing are: 1) asking Open questions, 2) Affirming strengths, 3) Reflective listening, and 4) Summarizing.
Open questions are questions that can’t be answered with a single word. They often start with “what”, “how” or “why.” This gets people talking, provides you with information and allows them to feel understood. Most importantly for MI, it lets them lead versus you starting a 12-part lecture series on the importance of exercise.
But asking question after question can turn a conversation into an interrogation and provoke defensiveness. So you want to use reflective listening about twice as often as you ask. This is our most commonly used tool in MI. Basically, it’s making a guess about what the person means, to reflect what they just said. “So you’re feeling uncomfortable.” This clarifies and communicates understanding.
It’s also where the magic starts. Just listening to people isn’t going to get them to change. Heck, it’s equally likely to get them to talk themselves into not changing. What you reflect is a strategic choice. You’re not shining the spotlight on everything they say; you get to pick. By what we choose to reflect, we can move the conversation in a direction to achieve our goal. In general, you want to reflect “change talk” and ignore “sustain talk.” That’s the witchery that separates MI from merely listening.
But just because someone gets more motivated to change doesn’t guarantee they’ll feel they can actually accomplish it. And that’s where affirming comes in. To recognize and highlight the positive about the other person, their good traits and intentions. By affirming, you’re building their confidence.
Finally, there’s summarizing. You’re drawing together what they’ve said and presenting it to them. It’s a more muscular version of reflection. You’re giving them an overview of their position but in a more structured fashion vs the ambivalent mess in their head. It shows you’re paying attention and understanding. But, more importantly, we can use the same reflection-Jedi-Mind-Trick here. There’s power in what you choose to highlight. You’re not just summarizing — you’re subtly building a case for change but with their own words.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Sounds good, right? But how do we use reflecting and summarizing to build the case for change?
People become more committed to what they hear themselves say. You don’t want to deny “sustain talk”. You want to evoke and explore their “change talk”. We have a darn good method for that, and that’s exactly what you need to remember: DARN.
Change talk takes the form of DARN: Desire, Ability, Reasons, Need. You want to elicit these types of statements because they will move people in the direction of change:
But, again, we can’t push too hard. Remember, threatening autonomy creates resistance. We need to evoke these statements from them.
So use DARN questions to evoke some DARN change talk so they’ll change their darn behavior.
Those aren’t the only questions you can ask. They’re just examples. But the point is rather than explaining what they already know, you’re getting them to say it. And when they do, you want to reflect it, to shine that spotlight on it: “So getting more exercise is important for you.”
When your darn efforts start showing some darn results, hit them with a summary that assembles their darn responses.
No, it’s not always going to go that smoothly. It’s a dance. There’s some back and forth. If you encounter resistance, you can use a verbal judo move based our knowledge of autonomy and resistance. Good ol’ reverse psychology. If they push back with sustain talk, reflect that to create resistance against the sustain talk.
THEM: I don’t think my anger is really an issue.
YOU: So your anger hasn’t caused any problems for you.
THEM: Well, I mean, of course it has. Anybody who is causing conflict is going to face some grief.
Boom – you just changed sustain talk into change talk. Quick, get Christopher Nolan on the phone, Inception works.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Make sense, right? But what’s the end goal we’re aiming for?
Research show one of the primary motivators for change is someone noticing the discrepancy between their goals and their behavior. It’s uncomfortable. And to relieve that discomfort, our behaviors usually change before our values do.
You usually don’t need to point out discrepancy. They’ll usually do it themselves with enough discussion. Again, don’t say it; evoke it.
A good way is merely asking them what they know about the subject at hand: “Tell me what you already know about alcohol and how it affects people.” No demonizing – they’ll probably do that for you. You’re not lecturing or telling them to change. They’ll likely start the DARN process on their own.
Or you can take another approach. Remember how you asked them about their values? And then you asked questions that evoked change talk? Okay, explore their values again here and create a juxtaposition without you lecturing. It’s natural after they talk about change and you asking about values for them to mention the elephant in the room.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
Once they’re addressing discrepancy, the battle is more than half won… but not fully won. They may not feel they can actually do it. But we’re going to help with that too…
The best way to get people’s confidence up is to ask them about previous challenges they successfully overcame.
“What changes have you made in your life that were difficult for you? Or what things have you managed to do that you weren’t really sure at first you would be able to do?”
Ask them about how it happened and reflect their strengths and positive traits back to them. Then you can roll this straight into the current issue.
“Suppose that you did succeed, and were looking back on it now. What most likely is it that worked? How did it happen?”
This gets them envisioning success and feeling confident. It also starts them toward formulating a concrete plan.
But be careful. At some point it’s very likely that they’re going to ask you for answers. This can inadvertently set up an autonomy challenge and resistance. They’re not aware of this potential pitfall. You need to keep evoking, not lecturing, even if they ask you to.
If this happens, respond with a question to make sure they’re still leading and you’re still guiding. If they ask you what to do, summarize what they’re presented and ask, “Do you seem to be leaning in one direction?”
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
They seem ready to make a change and you’ve instilled hope. We’re almost there…
Sustain talk has diminished. Change talk has increased. They’re imagining positive outcomes. Now’s the time to hit them with the key question to build a plan:
“So what’s next?”
You’re not pressuring them; you’re curious. Give them a big pause here to let it sink in. If everything has gone well, they should respond with some DARN change talk at the nuts and bolts level.
“That’s what I’m going to do: designate 6PM to 8PM for studying.”
Help them clarify the battle plan by asking questions.
Once it seems real, summarize the plan. This is powerful. When it’s ideas they came up with, that means they’ve approved them. You repeat them back in a structured way and it’s like a formula for success has magically appeared.
The final step is to help them troubleshoot. You want to present potential problems so that they can offer fixes. “If X happens, what do you think you’ll do?” The goal isn’t to stump them. It’s to strengthen the plan and to get them thinking resourcefully so they feel ready when something (inevitably) goes awry. If they immediately start coming up with solutions, they’re ready. Success.
At this point you’ll want to lean back, tent your fingers and smirk. Don’t. Instead, be happy for them.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, time to round everything up. And if you have any lingering doubts that you’ll be able to do this, well, I’m going to prove to you that you can…
Here’s how to get people to change:
Yeah, it’s a little ironic that I’m telling you what to do while telling you not to tell people what to do. Hopefully the limitations of this medium haven’t caused me to veer into self-parody. So if your efforts to help someone change sound anything like my blog posts, you’re probably doing it wrong. Evoke, don’t lecture.
The above can happen quickly but it also might take a while. And until you get the hang of it, MI can be tricky and less than intuitive. You might be questioning your ability to execute it.
Yes, it takes practice but there’s an element much more important than skill. And if you’re using this to help someone you care about, it’s something you are already likely an expert in:
Studies showed it was the single most important predictor of MI success.
Of the clients who had worked with the therapist whom we all agreed had shown the highest level of empathic skill, all had good success in managing their drinking. In contrast, only 25% of those working with the least empathic counselor had good outcomes.
Yes, the reflecting and summarizing and all those other DARN skills are powerful. But the most powerful thing is to care. Might sound cheesy but it’s true. Think about it from the other person’s perspective for a second…
Imagine there was something you wanted to change about yourself but you were ambivalent. Somebody starts lecturing you on how important it is, guilts you for not having done it yet, aggressively gives you a list of reasons why you absolutely have to do it now, and pressures you to get started immediately. How would you respond?
Probably not well. You’d probably feel overwhelmed. You might get angry. You’d be defensive. Maybe ashamed. And you’d resist.
But what if a friend asked you about what was important to you. Asked why you wanted to make the change. They helped you realize all the positive qualities you had that could lead to success. They didn’t lecture or pressure you. They were curious about what you could to do to achieve your goal. They showed empathy.
And then they said, “So what do you think you’ll do?”
Which of these two situations would you rather be in? Who would you rather talk to?
As Bern Williams said: “Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life.” But, more importantly, Goethe said, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
The list of people and things telling us what to do is endless. Nobody needs more of that.
What we need is someone to believe in us – especially in those moments when we don’t believe in ourselves.