Motivation – So What’s the Question?


If you have the responsibility of influencing at least one person, I recommend you learn more about the concept of motivation.  My goal is to help others make healthy changes that will last, so I need to help them find that motivation within themselves without pressure or coercion.  So where do you begin?   Most people seeking counseling services already have some motivation to make changes, but what if someone isn’t fully committed, or feels stuck and needs someone to help them get over that hump?  Here is how I harness the power of motivation to help someone.  For me, it starts with asking the right question.

The question ‘how can I motivate someone?’ isn’t quite right.  I believe the most powerful and authentic motivation comes from within the person, and this belief leads me to rephrase that question. In his book “Why We Do What We Do,” Edward L. Deci asks what I think is the right question about motivation.

“The proper question is not, ‘how can people motivate others?’ but rather ‘how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves.'”

Now I think we’re getting to the heart of the issue. Self-motivation, not external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, and healthy and lasting behavior change.  Health coaches like myself, along with others who are in the role of overseeing and influencing people, need to pay attention to this question.  Parents, managers, world leaders, community volunteers, doctors, and teachers could help the people they influence make lasting changes for the better if they figure out how to practically apply this question.

Consider topics like weight-loss, drug and alcohol treatment, exercise, and smoking cessation.  With the internet, we have information coming at us constantly like a fire hose, so we’re all well aware of the dangers in these areas.  Yet millions of Americans are obese, fail to exercise, and continue smoking.  I won’t delve to deeply into the reasons people continue these unhealthy behaviors – yes they do serve a purpose, and it’s helpful to understand those purposes.  It’s also helpful to understand motivation, how to help someone make a genuine commitment, how to help someone find their most deeply felt reasons for making change.

So what can you do to help someone develop the kind of motivation I’m talking about?  Here are a few suggestions:

  Understand what undermines motivation.  There are volumes written on this topic, one of my favorites is the one I mentioned above by Deci.  The bottom line is this:  people will do things they genuinely enjoy doing for no reward other than the enjoyment of the activity itself, but the moment incentives and controls are introduced, intrinsic motivation can be undermined.  Think about autonomously choosing an activity you enjoy doing vs. doing that activity because you were pressured and coerced into doing it.   Intrinsic motivation is what we’re after, but it can be undermined.

  Start from the person’s perspective.  Even your family doctor does this first step.  When you go into your doctor’s office with a problem, they should ask you for your perspective of the problem first before asking their own questions, doing a physical exam, and ordering tests.  Just ask and listen.  If you ask the right questions, you may uncover the true purposes and benefits that an unhealthy behavior serves.  Listening in this way also helps in understanding the person’s unique needs and obstacles.

  Don’t fight the resistance.  It’s normal for someone to put up resistance when faced with the need to change.  If you fight it, they may only dig their heels in more.  There is a way to “roll with resistance”, a well-known phrase from the counseling technique motivational interviewing (a topic too big to get into now).  Simply listening for the sole purpose of understanding the person’s perspective and asking questions out of genuine curiosity helps.

  Weigh the pros and cons.  Weigh the pros and cons of change, AND of staying the same.  It seems counter-intuitive to argue the other side, the side of staying the same and not making a healthy change, but it helps the person come to their own decision.  And that is the goal, helping someone make a choice to change on their own, for their own deeply felt reasons, without pressure.  True commitment is what we’re after.

Good luck!

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