At work, we often need to encourage others to change their behaviour. It might be the co-worker who repeatedly misses deadlines; the direct report who is irritable with stakeholders, or, our boss who isn’t delegating well to us.
Our instinct is to try asking (or telling!) the person to change. Explaining to them why we want them to change. If we are really good at ‘selling change’ then we might even explain to them the benefits of changing.
A therapeutic technique called Motivational Interviewing suggests a different approach.
William Miller came up with this approach when he discovered that some therapists do a much better job at helping their clients to change compared to others. He then studied the differences between the effective and ineffective therapists and found that the highly effective therapists:
- Were good at empathic listening and were genuinely interested in understanding the client’s perspective
- Coached their client’s to explore the pros and cons of change and helped them to make their own decision about whether they wanted to change
- When the client resisted the idea of change, the effective therapists ‘rolled with that resistance’ rather than arguing with the client
- Had a respectful stance
- Honoring the client’s autonomy – the client gets to choose whether they change or not, and as adults, they take responsibility for the consequences of their choice
- Viewing the client as the expert in their own life. They didn’t talk down to the client but took a collaborative approach where they worked together to figure out what to do next
Miller found that in the sessions that had the best outcomes, it was the clients who were describing the benefits of the change rather than the therapist. The clients came to their own decision that they wanted to change. It was only at this point (when the client started to say ‘I want to change..’ or ‘I am going to change..’) that effective therapists started to help the person to make a plan for how they would go about changing.
I know that when I apply this to my own life, I am much more likely to commit to change if the other person takes this approach with me – but perhaps I am just a contrary Derbyshire lass!
The collaborative, respectful approach used in motivational interviewing fits well with the approach taken by a good ACT practitioner.
An ACT practitioner helps clients choose their own values rather than values that society or significant others might want the individual to adopt.
ACT practitioners have the stance that we are all dealing with our own difficulties – the ACT practitioner isn’t the expert who has it all sorted.
An ACT practitioner works to help the client see the reality of their situation and then make decisions taking this information into account.
Both ACT and Motivational Interviewing are empirically supported approaches shown to help people make important and often challenging changes in their lives (from giving up drugs to losing weight) and they seem to be saying similar things about the best stance for the practitioner to take.
Perhaps there is something for all of us to learn here?
Perhaps, next time we want some else to change their behaviour, it might be helpful to start by being genuinely interested in their viewpoint. What if we were really curious about understanding how the current approach both is and isn’t working for them? What if we respectfully explored whether the person sees any benefits in changing their behaviour? Perhaps we might discover that they are less likely to dig their heels in and resist us? They might even be more inclined to work collaboratively with us to create a better outcome that meets both of our needs.