Motivate Others to Want to Change

When our efforts to get others—including other advocates—to change are not effective, we can end up causing them to feel defensive and to react accordingly. And the most common method most of us have learned to use in order to influence others’ attitudes and behaviors has been shown to be counterproductive.

So what approach does work?

Research shows that the most effective way to elicit change in others is through compassion and encouragement. Specifically, rather than trying to convince and persuade or shame someone into changing, we’re much more likely to be successful if we motivate them to want to change.

Motivational interviewing

A large body of research has found that the most effective change strategy is motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing is discussing an issue in a way that encourages the other person to feel intrinsically motivated to change, by helping them see the value in changing so that they want to change.

Motivational interviewing has been proven to successfully help people struggling with alcohol and substance use disorders, gambling addiction, eating disorders, and more. It’s helped people to improve their diets and exercise habits, effectively navigate interpersonal conflicts, and reduce prejudice.

The practice of motivational interviewing was initially described in 1983 by William R. Miller, a clinical psychologist who worked with people suffering from alcohol dependency. Miller’s approach evolved from the client-centered approach introduced by psychologist Carl Rogers. In stark contrast to the authoritarian approach to bringing about change that was being promoted and practiced by some of his peers, Rogers proposed a collaborative approach. For Rogers, the role of the counselor was to create an environment in which a client could become their better self—in which they’d be more likely to want to grow and change for the better.

Motivational interviewing is discussing an issue in a way that helps the other person see the value in changing so that they want to change.

In Rogers’s view, effective counseling isn’t based on a top-down, authoritarian dynamic between an “expert” who has all the answers and who dictates what’s right and true for their “patient.” Rather, counseling should be a collaborative process between two individuals. The counselor listens to the client (who isn’t pathologized as a “patient,” and who’s recognized as having the inalienable right to self-determination) and helps them develop insights. By creating an atmosphere where the client feels secure rather than defensive, and by asking questions that help the client to self-reflect and to see their thoughts more clearly, the counselor enables the client to access their own intrinsic motivation to change for the better.

The importance of listening

Studies have shown that simply listening to someone—with empathy and attention, and without judgment—can help that person develop more clarity about their attitudes, with less rigidity around and attachment to those attitudes.

Simply listening to someone—with empathy and attention, and without judgment—can help that person develop more clarity about their attitudes, with less attachment to those attitudes.

Research also shows that when people are asked to reflect on the nuances in their thinking, their views become more open and less extreme, and that when we reflect back to someone how arbitrary their beliefs are—how, for example, sexist or carnistic beliefs are, essentially, an accident of birth—the person is more likely to reconsider those beliefs.

For example, you might point out that if a man had been born a woman or if an American had been born into a culture where people eat dogs, those people’s respective attitudes toward women and eating animals would be dramatically different.

Empathy and authenticity are key

When a counselor uses motivational interviewing, they interview the client—asking questions, listening carefully to the answers, and reflecting back what they hear. If and when the client decides they want to change, the counselor helps guide them through the change process.

Rogers said that to create a secure atmosphere, the counselor should accept the client for who they are (in other words, they shouldn’t judge the client), and they should practice empathy and honesty. The counselor should also communicate clearly that the client is free to decide for themselves whether and how to change. People become defensive when they believe that others are trying to control them. When people feel a sense of agency around their personal decision-making process, they’re more receptive to information that challenges their current ways of thinking and behaving.

Though Rogers talked about motivational interviewing in the context of counselor–client interactions, motivational interviewing isn’t just the province of psychologists; it can be used by anyone. For the approach to be effective, however, it has to come from a place of authenticity in the person implementing it. If we use the technique in order to manipulate people, it will likely backfire. People can—and often do—pick up on each other’s motivations. People don’t feel safe in an environment where someone is trying to trick them into complying with a predetermined agenda.

If we hope to end infighting, it’s crucial that we use strategies to encourage others to change that have been proven to be effective. Motivating people to want to change is one such strategy.

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