Where Logic Meets Love

The Best Skill I Ever Learned (...or How to Change My Mind)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

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When I was in college, I worked for two and a half years in our office of alcohol and drug abuse prevention education. It was a great job to have in college and I learned a lot, but probably the best skill I took away from the office was something called motivational interviewing. You can check out that Wikipedia link if you want more in-depth information, but I'll explain how we used this approach in our work, and what it's taught me about other areas of life.

My last year on the job, I ran some of our Alcohol Skills Training Program groups; people could join these voluntarily, but they were almost always students who had been sanctioned to a group because of an alcohol policy violation, which was generally underage drinking. Here's the important thing to understand: We never tried to get these students to stop drinking alcohol. From an ethical perspective, this might seem problematic, since underage drinking is illegal, right? So, what, we're condoning breaking the law?

Well, there's two things to consider:
  • First, if we tried to convince these students to stop drinking, the program would be ineffective. These students came in completely defiant, angry that they even had to attend some kind of session. You might scare a couple of kids into stopping, but if the law wasn't a deterrent before, it's not going to be afterwards either.
  • And secondly, why is there a drinking age in the first place? To keep people and property safe. So if there's a way to make people and property safer even if people are still drinking underage, that's going to be a better approach than pushing for an absolute result you're just simply not going to see.

So the first step was always to ask the students to identify their goals when it came to drinking alcohol. In other words, they named the benefits of drinking: They were able to fit in. It helped them relax. It was expected of them. Most opportunities to meet people happened around alcohol. And so on.

Then they would name the potential negative consequences of drinking: They might embarrass themselves. They might blackout and have to ask their friends later what happened. They might vomit, pass out, or otherwise get "sloppy" where no one wanted to be around them. It was important that the students came up with the possible negative consequences, rather than being told what they were.

Finally, we'd look at a chart of different Blood Alcohol Levels and their effects to figure out where the students felt they could maximize the positive consequences and minimize the negative consequences of drinking. Then they'd have the chance to calculate how many drinks they could have per hour, based on their weight and sex, to stay in that zone.

(This was the core of it; we also talked about how alcohol affects your body, myths about drinking, safer vs. less safe ways to drink, and so on, and they'd come back a week later to report what changes they'd made.)

What made this program effective was that it functioned within the students' reality. They were motivated to change their behavior not because it brought them in line with some external set of rules or laws, but because it brought them more in line with their own goals. Occasionally I'd get students who planned to stop drinking altogether, not because they were afraid of getting caught again but because they'd realized that they could achieve their goals (spending time with friends, having fun) without any alcohol at all.

So why am I telling you all this?

What I learned from this experience wasn't just about curbing underage drinking. It was an incredibly powerful truth about talking to other people: If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them first. And if you want to convince them of something, you have to do it in terms that make sense to them.

It sounds simple, but I rarely see it put into practice. I discussed this a bit previously when I talked about explaining my beliefs to those who have all the answers. But what I've been thinking about lately is people trying to convince me to change my mind. And how much they suck at it.

For example, let's say you have a problem with the fact that I support same-sex marriage.

The first thing out of your mouth should not be: "Well, the Bible says..."

Nor should it be: "Well, the Church says..."

And definitely not any form of: "Well, you're wrong because..."



If you want to get anywhere with me on this (which is unlikely), the best place to start is:

"So, why is that important to you?"

Now we're having a conversation.

It's the same with anything. I often draw comparisons between vegetarianism and Christianity. There are so many different reasons a person could choose not to eat meat, or to limit their intake of meat. If you start trying to point out the problems with my personal diet without having any idea of why I eat what I do or what I'm trying to accomplish by it, you will get nowhere. If you ask me questions about it and then you take issue with my reasoning on one point or another, we can totally have a conversation about it.

And, like, no offense to my Muslim friends, but if you start pointing out all the things I do that are wrong because they're not in accordance with the Qur'an, I'm going to look at you like you're crazy. If you want to first ask me how I seek spiritual guidance in my life, and then tell me how you believe the Qur'an fits with what's important to me, then I will be willing to listen to you. (I use this example not because anyone's been waving a Qur'an around me lately, but because people like to wave the Bible at me without first bothering to find out how I read the Bible, and I feel my point gets through better when I use another Holy Book as an example.)

Anyway, you get the point. If you want me or anyone else to change our mind on something, your best bet is to start out gathering a bunch of information on why we do what we do and think how we do, and then start with those areas where we agree.

Seriously, try it. The next time you're about to criticize someone or tell them how they should be living their life differently, stop yourself, and then ask a question instead. I think you will be amazed at how much more receptive the other person will be... and you just might learn something new, too.

When has someone had the most success changing your mind on something, and when has someone had the least success?


  1. Great thoughts. You are absolutely right. If everybody did this, the internet would be so much more interesting of a place.

    I've also been reading and thinking about teaching children and the same thing is so true--children learn to talk, not just by hearing people talk, but by being listened to. And whatever new thing there is to teach them--try listening to what it is they already know and want to know first.

    1. Great point about children! I didn't even remember until reading your comment, but Melissa at Permission to Live had a great post about communicating with children in which she shows the effectiveness of asking your children to problem solve rather than telling them what to do. I loved the example where she asks her child why the water in the bathroom should get turned off.

      Also, I realized that you have done this before on here, asking me questions rather than simply arguing with me right off the bat, and I appreciate it! The Internet would be a nicer place if everyone did that...

  2. I learned a lot about motivational interviewing in a couple of my graduate school classes. Maybe it's different in a therapeutic setting, but I remember them talking about how it can work very well (as you described, with your alcohol skills training group) with the right type of people, and the right type of problem/issue -- but it does not apply to everything or everyone. For example, it doesn't work well with people who have a severe mental illness and are not medicated for it, because they do not have the cognitive processing capacity, abstract thinking, or insight to engage in the types of discussions you described. The same thing goes for people with developmental delays, young children, etc. For these situations, you can try to simplify it to a developmentally-appropriate level, but often other techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, work better for these types of clients. That's my two cents about MI from a clinical perspective. :) But for more informal situations, such as conversations, I'm totally on board!

    1. That totally makes sense, and obviously I don't have the kind of clinical perspective that you do, so I appreciate getting your insight on this. I guess maybe it's more accurate to say that it was not so much the precise skill of motivational interviewing that was so valuable, but the lessons I took from it about having conversations with anyone -- the importance of listening and asking questions first, and making suggestions that fit within the other person's goals rather than my own beliefs about what's important. It's not something that's going to work for everyone, but I think it's a much better way to approach disagreements than the way most people do :)

    2. That is what I was getting at yesterday over Twitter--what I was saying about how Chris doesn't always find it effective. Many of his clients have mental illness and most aren't medicated or being treated for them. Also, he has a lot of clients who, if brought up in better families, would have been identified early on for learning disabilities or developmental delays, and would have received assistance in coping with those. So he has a LOT of difficulty at times getting MI to work.

      I totally agree with you thought--it's a great method to stop, think, listen, then ask--instead of saying "HERE DO THIS! NOW!" which can lead to bewilderment and frustration on both sides.

    3. Alright, caveat to the effectiveness of MI well noted :) And that makes sense -- in order to be coached in accordance with your goals, you have to first have a good sense of what's important to you and what your goals are, and I can see that that might be more difficult for some people with mental illness or mental disabilities.

    4. Hopefully my comments didn't seem like they were jumping on you!

      [This might be helpful for other readers who care to know what exactly we're talking about--my husband, Chris, works with ex-offenders.]

      I was just thinking about how his clients might be neurotypical or have high intelligence, but if they were never taught to think about their goals, or even believed that goals were possible, it might be hard for them to go through the MI process. Some of them were born into the cycle of poverty, violence, and crime and know nothing else. For many of them, it's like teaching a young child, only they are adults and suddenly have to do important things, like find a job, get a bank account, secure a place to live. It can be overwhelming and sometimes, it's just easier to fall back into the old ways.

      Chris DID say that for some clients, he can't use MI because they are TOO intelligent. It just doesn't work for them; some can see RIGHT through his questions. That's where he winds up frustrated because his program and the state dictate that a certain protocol be followed, and not everyone fits into a neat little chart in a file. Some of the things he says about the standards are what I've heard from teachers re: "teaching to the test."

    5. That makes sense. I can how goal-setting could be difficult for people simply because they hadn't been brought up to regularly set and meet goals. That's unfortunate that Chris has to follow a certain protocol that isn't appropriate for everyone.

      I definitely was guilty of doing some of that "I can see where you're going with this" with my counselor in college, but thankfully she was patient with me!

  3. Interesting that you used motivational interviewing in your position in college. I use that with my clients who are having issues with alcohol and drug use, primarily alcohol though. My conversation usually begins with the client saying, "Well, I have been told by so-and-so that I should stop drinking, and I don't want to!" And then I usually ask them why they think that people tell them to quit drinking, and then they usually say something about their health and well-being. I ask open ended questions about what is important to them, why they think that they should stop or continue drinking, and what might be some positive or negative consequences of continuing or stopping. By the time I am done asking questions, usually the client has a much clearer idea of how to make their lives healthier and arrive at a better place- and I didn't "tell" them what to do. So I really like motivational interviewing.

    As far as the SSM issue goes, this may surprise you- but as someone who does not endorse SSM- I HATE arguing it from the Biblical perspective. Now, of course I take the Bible very seriously, and I think it is very important for a Christian to read and contemplate, but the US is not 100% made up of people who take the Bible seriously. Or the Catholic Church's teaching, for that matter. I have a secular, government-based reason I argue it on because I think anyone can understand it, no matter what religion they may be. You may not agree, but it's not based on one religion.

    Another reason I enjoy your blog, Jessica: You don't ever seem to doubt that people can definitely like LGBTQ people without agreeing with SSM. LGBTQ people are people with wonderful gifts, talents, and ideas, and they do positive things for their families, friends and communities every day. Unfortunately, many people who agree with you have been less than charitable toward me and want to argue that I actually hate gay people. Well, all I can say is that God knows what is in my heart, because I can't convince these people that I wish them no ill will. The people of the world who are harassed, bullied, and killed because of gender identity or orientation deserved better from people, Christians especially. If we looked to Jesus as our model, he associated with people who were unpopular and outcasts (like tax collectors and his friend Mary Magdalene who had a really big bad reputation). People on both sides of the aisle need to understand that just because we don't approve of certain actions, doesn't invalidate them as a person. I pray daily for greater understanding and good will on both sides of the debate.

    1. It sounds like you definitely understand the value of what I wrote about here, and that's great that motivational interviewing has worked so well for many of your clients. It's not foolproof, for sure, but I wish more people understood the value of listening and helping people develop their own plans for positive change.

      I do try to be open to differing viewpoints, though at the same time I think it's probably easier for me to be gracious to opponents of same-sex marriage because it's not my personal relationship that other people have the right to vote on, and in some ways I hate that that should make a difference. If someone were voting on my ability to participate in a civil institution because of something inherent in me, I can imagine I would have a hard time believing that person really cared about me no matter how much they told me they loved and appreciated me. So yes, I try to be open and understanding, but I can also empathize very much with those who may be deeply and personally hurt by your position.

  4. Jessica, I found this post and I think it was written somewhat with me in mind, so I would like to apologize for being tactless and rude in an earlier comment. What was intended as "we made that mistake once and here's why" came out as "you are wrong because" and what was intended as a point in a theological discussion came out as a highly inappropriate critique of your sex life.

    Communication FAIL.

    Our agreements are significant, our disagreements are relatively minor and it is easy to blow minor disagreements out of proportion on the internet.

    1. Believe me, you are one of the kinder and more tactful people to disagree with me. I generally delete the ones that are in all caps and/or tell me I'm going to hell, so you might not see those on here, but I've been getting yelled at about being a bad Catholic basically since I started this blog. I appreciate your self-reflection and apology nonetheless, and hope what I said in this post was helpful in some way; I've learned a lot from motivational interviewing and feel like political discourse, among other things, in this country would be far more civil if people took this approach.

    2. Some of your twitter comments showed me that I was WAY off-base with some of my assumptions. (Attribution error, again.)

      Actually, you (and others) have changed MY mind a lot. Your blog has made me rethink a bunch of things and question others, and some of my more recent blog posts reflect this.

      I see the value and truth in Catholic teaching, but at the same time, I see how trying do everything perfectly will make you nuts and kill your spiritual life. This is a HUGE problem for a lot of people. Far bigger than any of the "sins" some people worry about. So yes, I do appreciate your honesty and your realism.

      You can't blog about sex, religion, and politics without upsetting some people. These aren't easy issues to discuss.

      If you haven't read "Getting to Yes" by William Ury, I highly recommend you do so. It's about negotiation, but a lot of the principles are the same.

    3. I saw a great Twitter post recently that said, "You're not really interested in believing THE TRUTH unless you take seriously the possibility that what you presently believe is NOT TRUE." That's why I'm constantly pushing people to question their assumptions and learn from other people, and why I try to do just that in learning from my readers here on the blog. It's always nice to hear that it's actually making a difference :)

      You can't blog about sex, religion, and politics without upsetting some people. These aren't easy issues to discuss.
      Amen to that.

      Thanks for the book recommendation!


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