How can we effectively motivate change?

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Reflections on motivation and why people change

 

How to motivate change is a big question for clinical educators and practitioners because someone else’s behaviour change is, in the end, wholly out of our hands. Over my 15 + years of practicing and teaching Motivational Interviewing, I still find myself getting stuck in the “righting reflex” when I see a person making (what I consider to be) unwise decisions.

It all comes down to individual motivation and commitment, and that’s a scary prospect when the stakes are high. We see someone following a risky trajectory and we want to grab the steering wheel. How bad do things have to get before an individual figures it out for him- or herself?

My own experience is that everyone has a particular “pain” threshold: biologically, psychologically and socially. In other words, a state of being that I might find totally unendurable physically, mentally or inter-personally may not be so bad for someone else. We each bring a singular standpoint and value-set to the decisions we make and how we live our lives. 

And here’s the thing:

People only change when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.

 

In other words, motivation is tied to individual perception and experience of suffering. For example, from a teaching standpoint, it can be heartbreaking to see a promising student at risk of failing a course due to not attending class or completing assignments. But the important thing is…how does the student see it?

A “red flag” from a Motivational Interviewing perspective is when I am more invested in change than the person I’m working with (in this case, the student). I can better enhance motivation by stepping back, exploring possible reasons for change, and offering what I’m hearing about the pain of staying the same. Underlining a person’s perception of some of the costs of negative behaviours can open the door to a productive conversation about possible solutions.

 

As Andy Warhol put it:

When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.

 

Related articles:

Reflective Listening: The most valuable tool in the tool box?

Reflective Listening Reflections

 

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