You can lead a horse to water – A powerful psychological technique to encourage change

May 26, 2016

How do you persuade people to change? Maybe you have a colleague or a client who stubbornly refuses to do the one thing that everyone else can see would be in their best interests – the overloaded manager who won’t delegate, the blundering leader who really needs coaching but sees it as a navel-gazing waste of time; the 60-something family business owner who really wants to hand the business on to his children “one day” but refuses to talk about succession planning.

Perhaps you’ve tried all your best arguments, outlined the problem and painted a positive vision of change and got precisely nowhere. Now what? Well how about you stop trying so hard. This month I want to talk about a different way of tackling these kinds of situations, an approach with a proven track record and a solid research base behind it. It’s called Motivational Interviewing (MI) and comes from the unlikely world of drug and alcohol addiction. You may be sceptical that a treatment for addiction would have application in the business world, but if an approach is proven to be effective in supporting change in this rather extreme situation, why wouldn’t it work in supporting change in other areas?

Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag…..

Think about the last time someone tried to persuade you to change something that you weren’t bothered about changing. Maybe your nearest and dearest – or even your doctor – nag you about losing weight or doing more exercise. Or perhaps a colleague keeps helpfully explaining how much more efficient you could be if your desk wasn’t such a mess (I am very fortunate in this regard not to have colleagues). If you’re not interested, chances are that the more people go on about it, the more you’ll dig your heels in. You might comply for a bit to shut them up, but it will be grudging and is unlikely to produce lasting change. MI is about working with people to change, not bludgeoning them into it.

A model of change

Let’s start by looking at a model of change outlined in the diagram below:

Cycle of change

In successful change, people move through a cycle from ‘pre-contemplation’ (or denial) through accepting that there might be an issue to implementing and maintaining a change. They may also fall off the wagon and go through the cycle again but the chances are it’ll be quicker. Looking at change using this model, there are two common mistakes people make when trying to persuade others to change.

Mistake 1 – go straight for solutions

The first mistake people make is to go straight in at the preparation or action stage when the person is still in denial (pre-contemplation). This is like giving details of the local Alcoholics Anonymous group to a man who believes he can handle eight pints a night and doesn’t have a problem, thank you very much. He’s unlikely to turn up to the next AA meeting.

It’s very easy to fall into this trap if your product or service is designed to solve the problem that you can see so clearly. If your coaching programme, training course, succession planning scheme or family business charter is a perfect fit for the problem, the temptation is to keep selling the benefits until the person sees sense. But unless they acknowledge there’s a problem, your perfect solution is a complete irrelevance. MI aims to engage with people where they are, rather than where you think they should be, and gently encourage them to the next stage in the cycle, for example from denial to contemplating the idea that maybe, just maybe, there’s an issue to address.

Mistake 2 – confrontation

This move from denial to contemplating the problem is where the second mistake can occur. Annoyed If you think about problem drinkers, you might imagine that the way to get them to admit there’s a problem is to confront them with the evidence – show them pictures of diseased livers and tell them stories about people who ended up on the street. Get in their faces and tell it like it is. A bit of tough love, it’s for their own good. They’ll thank you for it in the end. Except the research shows that they won’t. When studies look at the interaction between problem drinkers and their therapists, they find that the more confrontational the therapist, the more the client resists. And the more resistant the client is, the more they drink – even when followed up a whole year later. The same is likely to apply in other situations.

Roll with resistance

When someone is moving from pre-contemplation (denial) to contemplation of the problem, they experience a lot of ambivalence – “maybe I’ll do something, maybe I won’t”. If you argue the case for change, the only place left for the person to go is to argue the case for not changing. The MI approach encourages you to roll with resistance, acknowledging that the status quo has benefits and might suit the person.

“So it sounds like you really enjoy drinking eight pints a night”

“So this management style seems quite authentic for you”

“It seems really important for you to keep control of the company at the moment.”

You’re not agreeing with them, you’re just acknowledging their reality and leaving them space to explore their ambivalence because they’re not busy fighting with you.

Develop discrepancy

The key to helping people move on is to explore the discrepancy between where they say they want to be and where they are now. The aim is to get them to see for themselves that their current behaviour may not be leading them towards their goals, rather than spelling it out for them. This requires tremendous empathy. Questioning is better than telling, open questions are better than closed. Tone of voice can make a huge difference to how a question is received. Try this one out in your softest voice and then imagine it as asked by the most sneering barrister ever to grace a TV legal drama: “How well is your current way of working supporting your long term aims?”.  Avoid ‘why’ questions as they just put people on the defensive – “Why don’t you delegate more?” is more confrontational than “What stops you from delegating more?”

You still can’t make them drink….

Some of you may be getting a bit twitchy now, thinking this is all a bit soft and that, really, you need to keep the pressure on so the person realises just how important this change is. The question is, important to whom? It may be vital to you (especially if you want them to buy your solution), but unless it’s important to them, you’re wasting your time. One of the central principles of MI is that you can’t force anyone to change. Autonomous adults always have a choice. There may be consequences to those choices but the choice remains. Perhaps one of the most important steps we can take when trying to get someone to change is to recognise that and stop pretending that if we just try hard enough we can somehow force people to behave the way we want them to (even when we’re not looking!).

If you’re grappling with change at work, either your own or someone else’s, and would like some support, do get in touch:

Photo credits

Stubborn horse: Boston Public Library

Change model:

Confrontation: Bark

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  1. Mark Adams May 27, 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Great summary of some of the core MI principles, Caroline, explained in a very accessible way with relevance to everyday life/work.

    • carolinegourlay May 27, 2016 at 11:45 am - Reply

      Thanks Mark. It was, of course, your excellent training that helped me develop this understanding.

  2. Claire Stone (@claire_stone) May 27, 2016 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Oooh, this is just brilliant. You’ve given such fab examples too!

  3. Lovely to see MI gaining momentum!! Great blog Caroline :)

    • carolinegourlay June 1, 2016 at 11:57 am - Reply

      Thanks Trisha. I think MI has much broader application than people realise.

  4. Paul Claireaux May 31, 2016 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    Nice one Caroline – Prochaska et al’s book is one of my favourites

    • carolinegourlay June 1, 2016 at 11:57 am - Reply

      Thanks Paul. I haven’t come across Prochaska’s book. Must look out for it.

  5. Paul Claireaux May 31, 2017 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    Nice one Caroline. You (and Camus) inspired this

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