Influential Conversation; motivation not coercion

‘Influencing’, or the ability to have change related impact on the behaviour, attitudes and/or decision making drive of another person, is widely considered to be a desirable professional skill. Developing strategies for positively influencing others features regularly in management training relating to staff and team relations, and is equally relevant for those whose professional role involves customer or public facing scenarios.

Whether it be, eg, frontline healthcare professionals, sales staff, industrial operators or service advisors (to name but a few), ability in this area is sought and trained up. Such skills can be developed in the workplace (through maturation, professionalization, role modelling/mentoring and experience) or explicitly via structured motivation, influencing and change management training programmes.

Formal training in ‘influencing others’ can take many forms, both particular to certain professions and generally applicable or transferable across sectors. Gaining buy in – ‘want to not have to’ mindset – is important in promoting environmental safety (eg in heavy industry settings), effecting positive lifestyle change (eg in medical settings), collaborating effectively with colleagues where there may be differing agendas (eg in merger or organisational change settings), gaining acceptance of new idea by seniors (eg in promoting one’s own initiative)… the list will never be exhaustive.

There are numbers of validated models and tools, widely available, which focus specifically on influencing (eg motivational techniques) or incorporate influencing as part of another process (eg coaching models such as GROW).

While such approaches can be useful, it is worth reflecting on the fact that it is often a primarily ‘behavioural’ or ‘skills based’ approach that is taken. That is to say focusing on “what an individual do or say strategically that will have an (ideally measurable) impact on the reaction of the person deemed in need of influence”.

Obvious examples that we are all familiar with are promoting the advantages of an open, non-assumptive, enquiry based approach. Instructing a trainee on creating a suitable environment and developing a set of behaviours or language techniques to facilitate inclusive, two way conversations is a relatively straightforward approach to teaching ‘communication skills’ (after all, this is a communication task). However, this should be the start point rather than the whole; the latter needing deeper reflection for both longer term embedment of good practice, and developing a more meaningful understanding of how people feel, react and respond.

The fundamental attitudes that underpin observable (surface) behaviours are arguably what really count. Those involved in professions where they contribute to public wellbeing, eg, by reinforcing and promoting a culture of safety and care, will be familiar with the fundamental importance of actual (rather than ‘enacted to please’ or temporary) buy in.
Engineering an interaction so that at the end of it the other person agrees to do or comply with what you suggest is not the same as fostering a ‘want to’ mentality based on mutual understanding of goals and benefits. Of course in some high stakes scenarios a more directive approach may be situationally expedient, (“You must always wear safety goggles – that tool can spark so change your practice right now”; “Don’t touch that patient – you’ve skimmed on hand-washing steps which must be adhered to every time”) but these circumstances should be regarded as exceptional, immediate, and not an enduring solution.
Motivating and changing behaviourPositive influencing is a fluid two way process, requiring some investment of time, energy and self-awareness. Wherever possible, influencing should be backed up with time-protected dialogue. The influencer here seeks, values and respects the contribution of their colleague, patient or customer, and approaches change conversation with an open mind. Yes, the person may well need “to do something differently” for procedural/orhanisational reasons or personal improvement, but an over-bearing approach is likely to only be effective in a minority of scenarios, and is unlikely to result in a longer term, positive, pro-active relationship with sustainable impact.
Understanding the barriers or beliefs that inform other people’s behaviour, or the personal or cultural histories that inform their reservations about change, is the key to success. Taking the approach that successful influencing is about agreement from another about the merit of one’s own ideas is of course only part of the process.

Taking the examples above – an operative not wearing goggles all the time on site, or a health professional who has not complied with the full hand-washing procedure, conversation can be a learning experience for both parties. OK, so for some people it may be apathy, laziness, or a training deficit, but taking another view it’s also entirely possible that the person you want to influence has reasons for not “doing it your way” or not immediately seeing “your viewpoint”. A little curiosity goes a long way. If you know the other party’s rationale, you have something to work with. Questions such as “Why don’t you always wear goggles?” or “What’s your experience of infection related to hand-washing?” may reap results.

Perhaps the factory operative will tell you that the goggles provided steam up in heat situations, that they are uncomfortable, or that in his/her past experience abroad the rules were more flexible, and never led to an accident. Perhaps the health professional knows all too well the ‘new rules’, but was trained years ago in a process that “worked” and finds time and facilities too stretched to be effective….. Personal experience is a strong motivator for personal decision making (“All my relatives smoked and lived to their 80s”),
New ideas and a commitment to change need to be carried forward in the workplace, and we arguably only stand a good chance of doing so if we are able to holistically explore all aspects of the scenario in question. Influencing is not “telling”, in many cases, and is different from “instructing” in the sense that it often does not relate to content input, at least not without a conversation.

A pitfall that even the most well-intentioned professionals are susceptible to is coercion. Gaining commitment to some form of change from another person on the basis solely of ‘consequence’ is likely to be a partial solution at best, even given that repercussions are known to strongly impact on human behaviour. In the healthcare context patient compliance based on cultural anxiety about challenging ‘medical expertise’, fears of negative impact on future healthcare and so on can stray into an area where ethics are questioned.

In less immediately critical situations we may find ourselves subtly, and often unintentionally, engaging in coercive strategies in order to ‘win our point’. Change on this basis is unlikely to be sustainable. While ‘consequence’ may of course be a key and important part of a change related scenario the positioning of it – through open conversation – is important. Hypothetical outcomes, both negative and (crucially) positive should be given equal time and attention.

Motivational interviewing as a concept summarises this approach well. In summary this was coined by Millar and Rollnick (clinical psychologists) in the 1980s, and is defined as “A collaborative person centred form of guiding to elicit and strengthen motivation for change”. (Miller and Rollnick; Behavioural and Cognitive Therapy 2009 37:129-140). As the authors say – in paraphrase – evocative conversation takes place that calls on the person’s own motivation or commitment.

Autonomy is recognised, differentiating this type of conversation from an expert-recipient approach. Ambivalence to change (a common and very human barrier) is acknowledged and explored. Undertaken effectively, motivational interviewing is not coercive precisely because it does not impose suggestions that may not immediately align will with the other person’s values, past experience, or belief system.

Conversationally to “dance” rather than “wrestle” is a well established, useful summary that many find helpful. Effective influencing therefore is, as stated, about autonomy not authority, collaboration not confrontation and a drawing out of ideas rather than an imposition of pre-set agendas.

Many individuals, particularly those in authority, are in authority precisely because of their (valued and of course sometimes necessary) ability to ‘solutionise’. However, recognition and more disciplined management/restraint of this impulse can empower the individual team member who may benefit from change, and elicit a more productive, collaborative, and effective path ahead.

Like most fields of communication this approach is not an exact science, is situation determined, and requires a degree of flex. However, based on some 20 years of experience, a person-centred approach has a good chance of succeeding. Whether it be manager to direct report, or staff member influencing ‘upwards’ the principles are the same, regardless of hierarchy. Asking instead of telling, finding shared common ground, being willing to hear the other person’s viewpoint and offering both dialogue and explanation are key. Influencing should not be confused with disciplinary scenarios, exerting authority, or gaining agreement as a ‘quick fix’. The most enduring and successful influencing is, in short, (situational emergencies excepted) discursive and collaborative.

Dr Connie Wiskin