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Joseph Grenny
Joseph Grenny

How to Change People Who Don't Want to Change

Using 'motivational interviewing' vs. nagging is key

How to Change People Who Don't Want to Change

When you and I try to convince someone to change, we call it persuasion. When someone tries to get you to do something that you don’t want to do, you call it nagging. Our double-standard in nomenclature aside, whether we giving or receiving it, we know it doesn’t work. I just checked Amazon – there are no published books that showcase nagging as either a leadership skill or an effective influence strategy. So with the vast supply of nagging produced every day in the world, you’d think there would be a massive body of research demonstrating its efficacy. But there isn’t.

We tend to use it when a) we care a lot; and b) we are short of alternatives.

But there’s hope. There is, in fact, a growing literature on a far more effective way of helping people change who don’t appear to want to change.[1] The approach is called motivational interviewing.

The basic idea is this: When you’re trying to influence people who need motivation, but not information, don’t offer more information. That’s nagging. Most people don’t need more reasons to change. So stop offering them. Instead, use questions to create a safe environment where they can explore motivations they already have.

For example, suppose you want your spouse to improve his fitness. How would he respond to a lecture? He’d get defensive, right? So instead, try asking a question. The first question is about his level of motivation. For example, “On a scale of 1-10, how important is it to increase your fitness?” Let’s say he answers, “I don’t know, maybe a 4.” Here’s where you have to be careful. Most of us at this point would try to nag by listing reasons it should be a 10. Motivational interviewing is about supporting and developing the motives they already have.

So, you might next say, “Wow—a 4, huh. Why not a 1? What makes it as high as that?” Don’t pressure, just interview. Explore. Come to understand their motivations.

The problem with reminding people of facts they already know is that it feels patronizing or controlling. People’s natural response is to resist and exert their independence. Psychologists call this “reactance.”

Think about how we usually try to get smokers to quit. Most smokers already have a grasp of the facts. They’ve read the warning labels and they’ve seen the public service announcements. More lectures aren’t likely to be very influential. My fellow BS Guy (that’s Behavioral Science) David Maxfield and I just finished a fascinating field study to test this idea. Have a look here if you want to see motivational interviewing in action.

We hired two boys to be our confederates. They approached smokers on the street to see if they could get them to consider quitting. In the nag condition, they used the traditional lecture approach, and then asked the smoker if they’d like information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers responded resentfully, and fewer than half took the paper with the information on how to quit.

In the ask condition, the confederates carried fake cigarettes, and asked the smoker for a light. The smokers’ reactions were dramatic. None offered a light, and none ignored the request. Instead, they stopped what they were doing, and began lecturing the kids on the dangers of smoking. The question prompted strong anti-smoking tirades—from the smokers themselves!

Then the kids asked a second influential question: “If you care about us, what about you?” Then they offered the information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers committed to trying to quit.

Did the smokers really quit? We don’t know. However, when the ad giant Ogilvy & Mather originated this study in Bangkok, Thailand, calls to the helpline went up 40 percent on the day of the experiment—showing that the influence extended beyond words to action.

Try this technique the next time you want to help someone take on a difficult change. Instead of repeating facts they already know, try asking questions. The goal is to allow them to explore their own motivations without feeling pushed by you. Below are a few questions you might try.

“What is it that makes you even consider changing?”
“If things worked out exactly the way you want, what would be different?
“What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”
“If this change were easy, would you want to make it? What makes it hard?”

Good Luck!

[1] Psychologist William Miller developed the strategy of Motivational Interviewing. Some great resources are available for free at

About the Author
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a behavior change expert, four-time New York Times best-selling author, and co-founder of VitalSmarts.

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