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Today’s Big Idea: Advice rarely works. In leadership, you need communication strategies that increase your odds that people will listen to what you have to say. This post will highlight research-based techniques you can begin using to influence those around you.

I was recently blindsided at the local grocery store by a guy I vaguely knew, trying to recruit me for a pyramid scheme.

After several leading questions, it became apparent he was trying to sell something, although I wasn’t sure what.

I didn’t initially recognize what was happening, but it got awkward fast!

The short version of the conversation went something like this—

Other guy: Are you in a place where you wish you had more work-life balance?

Me: Actually, things are pretty good right now.

Other guy: Don’t you wish you could work more from home?

Me: With young children I am sometimes more focused at the office, and I really like the people I work with at my organization.

Other guy: Well don’t you want to be your own boss?

Me: Gosh, being the boss often comes with a lot more stress—and actually my current boss is great!

Other guy: Are you open to having value added to you? And can I depend on you for our next meeting—I need to ‘vet you’ and make sure you are reliable?

Me: I’m not even sure what you are asking and No, we won’t be having coffee again…ever!

Maybe you’ve had a conversation like this.

You know the feeling it generates—resist to the death!  The more forceful he got, the more determined I became to say ‘No.’ My wife knows that look on my face and it’s not good.

He could have offered me a huge pile of cash, but I had already made up my mind that I was never going to meet with this guy.

Research on Motivational Interviewing Techniques

When was the last time your life was totally transformed because someone tried to offer you something you really didn’t want?

99% of the time—we don’t change when something is rammed down our throats.

A common pitfall for leaders is to slip into the habit of believing our ideas are best—or that others really want our advice. But in my experience, advice rarely works—and coercion never generates a long-term commitment.

But if you want to increase your chances of helping people change, you need to use the right communication strategies.

Motivational Interviewing (or MI) is a research-backed technique that was first developed in 1983 for helping people with chronic alcohol problems—pioneered by clinical psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollnick.

The beauty of MI is that it acknowledges that people are often reluctant to change—even when they want to—and sometimes our best intentions to help people actually fuel the resistance we are trying to overcome.

Although first used in clinical settings, MI has been adapted for use in many settings, including leadership and coaching.

In fact, the most recent definition of MI (2009) is: “a collaborative, person-centered form of guiding people to elicit and strengthen motivation to change.”

It is also described as a goal-oriented method of communication with particular attention paid to the language of change—designed to explore and strengthen an individual’s own arguments for changing.

MI is all about a deep respect for the person—without trying to change them—but rather a partnership that helps call forth their own motivations and commitment.

The fundamental assumption is that people can change, they will change when they are ready, and they probably have really good reasons why they haven’t made the changes yet.

The goal of the conversation is to help them resolve their own ambivalence about change.

And one of the most powerful—and counterintuitive—approaches you can take is to be completely unattached to the outcome for the person and allow the person to completely make their own decision.

If you are like me, I really like it when people go along with my ideas and it is very difficult to let go of my agenda. But people will only change when they are ready, and taking the pressure off creates space for them to make their own decision.

Now I realize that sometimes there are consequences for people when they don’t go along with the change we are asking them to make. Sometimes subordinates or children may face discipline if they utterly refuse to change.

But your goal as a leader should be to start every change conversation using the techniques below so that you can make sure you explore and understand their reasons for not wanting to change, and then allow them to consciously choose the consequence with eyes wide open. This can help diminish anger about the consequence.

Turn information into action

Here are a few core techniques you can begin using immediately with those you lead at work—and even with your partner or kids:

  1. ***A fundamental posture of MI is that the true power to change rests with the individual. You must believe that the person has within themselves the ability to make difficult changes. You might need to act like this even when you don’t currently believe it!
  2. Ask open-ended questions that evoke talk about change. Research clearly shows that the more a person talks about change, the more likely they are to change. Get them to talk about it. Do not ask Yes or No questions or Why. One tip is to start questions with What.
  3. Express empathy. If the person senses you have no empathy for their situation, you are unlikely to gain any influence with them. This goes double for parenting!
  4. Ask what the pros or cons might be of making the change. Ask what the pros or cons are of remaining the same. But make sure you ask from a genuine posture of curiosity so that they do not feel that you “need” them to answer a certain way. The goal is to help the person “develop discrepancy” between where they are and where they want to be.
  5. When people begin to talk about change, ask for elaboration and then shut up! Ask a question and then build your self-restraint muscles. This takes most people a lot of practice.
  6. “If you completely succeeded in making this change, how would your life be different?”
  7. “On a scale of 1-10, how important is it to you to change?”
  8. “How are your values related to the change you want to make?” Tapping into a person’s deepest values can help fuel the intrinsic existential “Why” and remind them of who they want to become.
  9. Roll with resistance. An MI conversation should never resemble an argument or playing ‘devils advocate.’ Resistance is not openly challenged, especially early in the relationship. The value of MI is that it is more like a ‘dance’ in which the leader or coach can help the person explore their own solutions by not imposing their own ways of thinking. People are much less likely to resist a solution that is self-generated.
  10. Ask for a specific action commitment at the end. It’s okay to ask for this after the prior steps have been taken, but remind the person they are in control and get to decide whether they want to say YES, NO, or counteroffer. Make sure you tell them they have these three options to respond.
  11. Affirm and encourage. Never forget to recognize genuine strengths you observe and highlight how they might help the person achieve their goal. It is essential to help them stay in the HOPE zone.

Have a great weekend!



*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested resources:


  1. Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change—Miller & Rollnick 2012
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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