On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:
Trying to motivate someone can be frustrating. If you’ve tried to encourage someone through incentives, punishment, or advice, you may have noticed how these methods often don’t work.
Incentives and punishment often don’t work in the long-term because they reduce someone’s sense of intrinsic motivation. Advice often doesn’t work because it takes away a person’s sense of control over the situation.
So if these most commonly used approaches don’t work, how do you motivate someone?
- Inquire into the benefits of their current approach
- Explore the drawbacks of their current approach
- Explore their desires, values, and strengths
- Collaborate on small, specific, practical goals
As an addiction counselor, my primary job is to help people gain motivation to change. Working in this field, I’ve learned you can’t make people change. You can only create the optimal conditions for change. The rest relies on their openness and commitment.
Although the techniques I share are based on therapeutic best practices in addiction counseling, the lessons are transferable to many other areas. For example, this approach is effective for motivating an employee, motivating a son/ daughter, or motivating a friend who is looking to make some changes in their life.
Let’s explore what each of these steps entails and how you can use them in your interactions.
Inquire into the benefits of their current approach
As I shared in my previous article on how to find motivation, we tend to emphasize change without giving enough thought to what is motivating someone to stay the same. This is like revving a boat’s engine while neglecting to pull up the anchor.
Although it is tempting to believe some people lack motivation, this is far from true. Someone can lack the motivation to do something you want them to do, but they have a great deal of motivation to keep doing what they are doing.
For example, a teenager may appear to lack motivation to do household chores but has a lot of motivation to engage with friends on social media.
An employee may lack the motivation to adapt to changes within a company but has a lot of motivation to continue doing it their own way.
Lastly, a person with an addiction may lack the motivation to get help but has a lot of motivation to find the substance and conceal their usage.
Whatever their current motivation, there is some perceived benefit associated with it, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
When talking to a new client, I usually like to start by exploring these underlying benefits. Without doing this, you’re merely trying to rev the metaphorical boat engine while ignoring the anchor in the water.
Also, by exploring their current motivation, you begin with a collaborative, engaging, non-confrontational dynamic. Consider how you would feel if someone asked, “why don’t you want to change?” vs. “what benefits are you getting from your current approach?”
The key is to inquire about these benefits in a state of genuine curiosity. Asking sarcastically or being closed to the idea of potential benefits would likely backfire, leading to further disengagement.
One way to put yourself in a productive mindset is to imagine you are a researcher studying human behavior. Before having the conversation, consider the fact that people are often driven by invisible internal forces. Get curious about potential forces driving this particular person. You can generate a few hypotheses, but you never truly know until you ask.
Once you are in an open state of mind and ready to have the conversation, it might be helpful to preface your inquiry with some kind of observation.
For example, “I noticed you’ve been doing ________.” Whatever facts you use to fill in the blank, the key is that it is non-judgmental and objectively observable.
You can then transition into inquiring into the benefits of their current behavior by using the phrase, “I’m wondering,” followed by something like, “…what you’ve been getting from this particular approach,” or “…how this has been beneficial for you.”
Feel free to tailor the language to fit your communication style or the particular situation. The key is that you approach the person in an open, non-judgmental, and curious way. Then, simply listen.
Useful communication techniques for this particular aspect of the conversation consist of open-ended questions (questions generally starting with “what”), words signifying curiosity (“wondering”), and active listening (briefly summarizing their statements in your own words).
Explore the drawbacks of their current approach
Once you’ve built rapport and engagement by demonstrating you understand their current motivations, you can inquire into the perceived drawbacks of their current approach.
Asking about the drawbacks without first establishing trust and rapport can backfire since the person will not feel understood and perceive this question as an attempt to change them.
As Peter Sange says:
“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”
The key to this part of the conversation is to maintain the spirit of non-judgmental curiosity, having them explore their own perceived drawbacks rather than imposing your thoughts on the situation.
Potential questions might include, “what are some drawbacks of this approach?” and “What have you been finding difficult about this approach?” or the statement, “I’m wondering what aspects of this approach you might be struggling with right now.”
Whatever the phrasing, it needs to fit the situation and fit your natural communication style.
Useful communication techniques for this part of the conversation include open-ended questions about the drawbacks and actively listening to their responses, demonstrating your curiosity and genuine understanding of their perspective.
Explore their desires, values, and strengths
After discussing the benefits and costs of their current approach, you can transition into what they want and why they want it.
Many people find themselves merely going through the motions on a daily basis, focused on what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do, paying little attention to what thay “want” or “don’t want”.
I often transition into this question by summarizing the conversation up to this point, then asking what they want. For example, “It sounds like you’re getting x, y, and z out of your current approach, while leading to x, y, and z difficulties… so what is it you want?”
In a text format, this question looks confrontational, but in person, I would deliver it with a spirit of curiosity and genuineness.
If the answer is, “I don’t know,” I would explore potential aspirations, hobbies, or interests. If the person shares things they think they “should” want, I would ask the question again, saying, “and what do you want?”
Once you have some information on what the other person wants, it’s also important to clarify their why. Getting clear on their reasons for wanting a particular thing builds intrinsic motivation. This form of motivation consists of an internal desire or passion. It is the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which consists of rewards such as praise or money.
Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.
Useful communication techniques for this aspect of the conversation include open-ended questions about aspirations and holding space for them to share.
Holding space requires creating a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate environment where you are there for the other person, letting go of the need to control or “fix” them. For more on the concept of holding space, there is a great article on the topic here.
Collaborate on small, specific, practical goals
It can be tempting to tell the other person your opinion, giving them the solution. To you, the solution may look simple, but to the individual experiencing it, this is far from reality. Merely offering your well-intentioned advice can often backfire, making the person feel less motivated.
As The Growlers state in their song on this topic:
“There’s nothing as depressing as good advice… Nobody wants to hear how to live their life.”
People often react to feeling controlled by doing the opposite. Since we strive for a sense of control, rebelling against attempts to control our behavior is an attempt to meet this need.
A collaborative approach to change avoids this issue, increasing their sense of control over the process, building intrinsic motivation.
Collaborating with someone means avoiding these common traps:
- Talking down to them and making them feel inferior
- Treating them as a problem to be solved
- Talking more than listening
- Interrupting them
- Telling them what to do
- Trying harder than them
If you feel like you are working harder than the other person, you may be taking too much control, reducing their intrinsic motivation.
Maintaining a collaborative approach when planning for change requires asking questions such as, “what are the potential next steps?” or “how do you think we can move forward with this?”
When planning for the next steps, it is important to focus on small, specific, practical goals. Although it is tempting to focus on big changes, this generally sets someone up to feel less motivated.
Big changes can appear intimidating and lead to procrastination.
A focus on big changes also mitigates the motivating force of frequent small rewards.
If the person requires some assistance in planning for the next steps, it may be appropriate to share your thoughts on potential options. To get around the issue regarding unsolicited advice, it can be helpful to ask permission before sharing your thoughts.
This might sound something like, “Can I offer some suggestions?” or “I’m wondering if I can offer some potential resources.”
While giving suggestions or resources, it is helpful to avoid using the word “should” or “must”. These words often cause well-intentioned advice to backfire by creating a perceived loss of control.
After sharing suggestions or resources, you can further engage the person by asking their thoughts about the information you’ve shared. For example, I often simply say, “what are your thoughts?” or “what do you think about these options?”
By asking the person’s thoughts, you give them a sense of control and figure out the most appropriate next steps. Ultimately, they need to choose to take the steps, so having them make the choice increases the odds they will take action.
Helpful communication techniques for this aspect of the conversation include:
- Open-ended questions about the next steps.
- Actively listening to potential options.
- Asking for permission before providing suggestions.
- Avoiding “should/ must” statements.
- Asking their thoughts about your suggestions.
Hopefully, this article has allowed you to gain some practical tools to help you motivate someone. Although these are lessons I’ve learned from addiction counseling, they are also applicable for leaders in the workplace, parents concerned about their children, or helping a friend who is trying to make some changes in their life.
If you work in sales, customer service, or in a leadership position, you may have already come across many of the principles in this article. If so, consider how you can draw upon your own past experiences.
Many people don’t realize they already have expertise in motivating others since so many professional environments operate based on these principles.
Consider the areas you’ve already developed these skills and how those lessons may fit with the techniques presented here.
If you want to learn more about finding motivation or want to share a practical resource with someone you are helping, check out my article on How to Find Motivation.
If you’re interested in a more advanced philosophical deep-dive into motivation, I highly recommend the book How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn.
There are many powerful insights in this book, and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.
If you’re a mental health or addiction professional, you may recognize this article is a basic summary of Motivational Interviewing, a treatment modality initially developed for the addiction field.
For a more advanced explanation of this technique, see my article on How to Do Motivational Interviewing.
If you’re a mental health practitioner, I’ve also written an article on a powerful motivational technique called “creative hopelessness” from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) here.