Formula for Motivating Others or Yourself to Change

Every day we make hundreds of choices. Some of them (e.g. what to eat for lunch) are relatively mundane. Others (e.g. letting go of destructive patterns of living) are potentially life-changing.

In my graduate school courses, I learned a counseling method designed to help addicts take steps toward recovery. Research shows that Motivational Interviewing (MI) can effect change in as little as 15 minutes in multiple arenas from health to business to education.

Recently, my wife invited me into a dilemma that she was facing. I was on my way to work, and I only had 15 minutes. So, I gave MI a shot. This technique kept me from being an advice giver and allowed me to be a proactive partner for her. It was a lot different than most conversations we have.

Before I jump in to the play-by-play on how this worked, there are three key principles to briefly explain as background:

  • Unconditional Positive Regard: People cannot be projects. The foundation and power of any relationship is whether the person believes and knows that you care about them with no strings attached. They want to be accepted and feel belonging regardless of their behavior.  
  • Respect Autonomy/Free Will: You cannot control other people. So an effective MI facilitator will demonstrate that the power and choice are completely in the hands of the person in the dilemma. If a person is in a dilemma and you take the role of the expert “who knows best,” then they have only one option — to take the role of the antagonist who knows better.
  • Empathy for Dilemma/Honor the Ambivalence: Honoring the conflict will make you a safe for the person to work through their dilemma. Dismissing a person’s perception or conflicted feelings will not help them move forward.

My Wife’s Dilemma

My wife had promised to take our kids to the museum. Unfortunately, the night before, her chronic back injury flared up. She had a dilemma. On one hand, he wants to keep her word.  The kids were excited to go and she had grown used to pushing through. But sitting in the car for hours and back and walking all day could aggravate her injury.

1. Articulate the dilemma and the options

After listening to her with empathy, I mirrored back what she said about her dilemma: “You want to stay home to rest, but your also want to keep your word for the kids.”

2. Explore the effects and risks of status quo

I asked her what might happen if she went to the museum. “They’re excited. We’ll have fun. I can push myself. But I might drive home with serious pain.”

3. Explore the effects and risks of making a change

“What if you stay home?”  I asked. She responded: “It’s free day, the kids really want to go, and we’ll save $80.”

4. Articulate Values

I replied: “So if you don’t go today, you’ll lose the opportunity to save and saving is a high value for you. You also want to keep your word and integrity with the kids. But staying home, you might be able to rest. You could even go to the doctor and get this taken care of. And you’ve been dealing with this back pain for 20 years. You want to take care of yourself too.”

5. Explore potential action steps

I continued, “So what would you like to do?”

“I should probably stay home,” she said reluctantly.

6. Commit to action steps

At this point, I had to leave, but foreseeing that the kids could fight her and become an obstacle to her decision, I suggested that she have a conversation with them about how she felt and about her health and renegotiate a new proposal with them.  

She agreed to make an appointment that very day to see the orthopedic doctor.  And she agreed to work it out with the kids.

7. Predict Obstacles/Stumbling Blocks

It would’ve have been better to have her predict potential obstacles, but I had to leave and since I have a long, trusting relationship with my wife, I was able to skip this part of MI protocol and the next part, which is to ask her about how she would handle the obstacle (the kids protest or react harshly to her decision)

8. Offer Support  

I offered my support—checking in later and watching the kids.  

The Outcome

After 20 years of daily pain, my wife made a decision to take care of herself and enroll in a six-week physical therapy program. And I made it to work on time, feeling less like an advice giver and more like a true partner.

I’ve found this MI process efficient and highly effective in motivating others — and myself — in making positive changes.

I  have also learned to check myself.  If a person is in a dilemma, the intensity and conflict are real to them and must be respected, not dismissed, if you want to see them change.  I cannot give people my power and my motivation. I must draw out and strengthen the motivation that already lies within them and within their dilemma.

I know that you’ve been considering some change or wanting someone around you to change.  I invite you to try this strategy.

If you’d like to learn more, this quick guide from the University of Massachusetts provides specific questioning strategies and a deeper explanation of the principles.

By Marc Mantasoot

Marc completed his initial Crucible weekend in 2004 and graduated from our two-year transformational program in 2008. He wants to help others pursue their God-given joy and free the world of ego. He is an award-winning poet, writer, small groups/discipleship coach, high school English teacher and martial arts trainer.  He provides powerful methods for life transformation at  His greatest joys: Creating scenes with his son, lining up My Little Ponies with his baby girl, and pursuing his irresistible wife.

Photo Credit: Scotb211 via Creative Commons