Last spring, I was in South Carolina, doing some research on why people don’t wear their seatbelts, and why they drink drive. It was fascinating – not just in terms of people’s stories, but because a significant number of interviewees ended by saying something along the lines of “I’d never thought about it like that. I’m going to change”.
The funny thing is that we weren’t there to change anybody. What we did was get people to open up, using some fairly interesting methods (like storytelling, emotional cue cards, or methapor) and really try to understand where they were coming from.
That experience was hugely insightful for me, and it prompted me to pick up a book on Motivational Interviewing (put it down again and pick it up about 9 months later – last night). It’s an interesting approach to personal change, that its authors describe as a “client-centred, directive method for enhancing intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence”.
Essentially, what it is saying is that people don’t really resist change, but appear to be resistant when they have some level of unresolved ambivalence or conflict about a particular change. That conflict may not be something that the ‘client’ is particularly aware of at the time.
“I’ve got a gammy knee, but I really don’t want to bother anyone about it so I’ll live with it”, or;
“I know that 23 cans of Pepsi Max a day is bad for me, but Ooh, I just love the feel of that blue can” is another wink, or;
“This initiative could make work much more interesting, but my mates are in the Union and they’d be pissed off with me if I supported it”.
The idea of Motivational Interviewing is to explore these sources of ambivalence with a client and get them to articulate the arguments for change. Through questioning you can help them to resolve their ambivalence and see the need to change.
Why is this different?
Well, most of us try to persuade people to change, based on our perception of their situation, and that’s what creates resistance.
To get people to change your really have to understand what motivates them, what are their values and beliefs? If you can direct them towards “change talk”, that is articulating the case for change themselves, then you are likely to see some movement. After that, the approach says, it is about supporting their confidence in their ability to make the change.
Reversal Theory and Motivational Interviewing
Reversal Theory provides an ideal structure for better understanding the motivations of a client, through the process of Motivational Interviewing. It states that people are inherently inconsistent, and that at different times and in different situations – even in the same situation at different times – people will respond differently as their motivational states change. By understanding these states, and whether they are being satisfied or frustrated, we may be better placed to help people to change.
By combining a solid and insightful theoretical framework with the right kind of process, we can effectively remove the word “resistance” from our vocabulary. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying that the majority of people have it all wrong. People don’t dislike change and it certainly isn’t a close relative of death (which people who use Kubler-Ross will have you believe). That doesn’t mean that it is easy, but as soon as you label someone as resistant, you might as well give up on them, and you don’t have to.