To get their children to behave the way they want them to, part of any parent’s job is to become proficient in the art of persuasion and psychological warfare. To get them to do their chores, to hang out with the right crowd and to avoid unhealthy behaviours, you need to be able to influence your children in such a way that they don’t even realise they’re being influenced.
And along the way, parents can learn some valuable skills that they can later use in other areas of their life. Like Jedi Mind Tricks, many of the tricks you learn to use on children can be employed in your career or personal life as a way to get others to do what you want as well.
Here we will look at one powerful technique called ‘motivational interviewing’ that has been used to great effect by many teachers and which could also be highly useful for the rest of us when used correctly.
What Is Motivational Interviewing?
Motivational interviewing, as the name suggests, involves the use of carefully crafted questions in order to subtly influence a person’s behaviour. In this case we are going to take the example of a stubborn daughter who won’t tidy her room. Now let’s imagine that this daughter, who we’re going to call Alice, has a history of refusing to tidy her room and obstinately dragging her heals until you do it. A normal approach might be to approach her and to simply instruct her to tidy her room in which case she’ll either throw a tantrum, or tell you she’s going to do it and then put it off.
Another option is to try and incentivise her by offering a reward if she tidies the room. This can sometimes be effective in the short term but it is also potentially rife with problems: for one, she is now going to expect rewards every time she tidies her room. For another, it can actually enforce the idea that she’s doing ‘work’ that she doesn’t enjoy. The threat of punishment can actually be even less effective in the long term and isn’t great for your relationship.
Instead, you’re going to start the conversation by asking your daughter if she is ready to tidy her room yet and getting her to say how ready she is on a scale of 1-10. Now Alice is likely to pick a low number like ‘2’, but you’re ready for her. Now you’re going to ask her why she didn’t say ‘1’. Assuming she doesn’t just lock up and refuse to talk, she’s now going to have to justify her answer – usually by explaining the pros for tidying her room. Now she’s going to be thinking about the reasons that she should tidy her room in her opinion. Perhaps she might say ‘it’s not fair to you to make you do it’, or she might say ‘it can be unpleasant having to live in an untidy room’. And by getting her to examine her own reasons for wanting to tidy, you will help bring these to the forefront and give them more weight.
What If She Says ‘0’?
But you’ve probably already seen the flaw in this plan: what if Alice were to say ‘0’? What now?
Well in this case the correct answer is to ask ‘what could we do to make that a 5’? In other words, how could you convince her to do the thing you want her to do?
What she might now say is that she’d be more willing to tidy her room if you were to help her, if you were to give her a reward, or if you were to let her off of one of her other chores. Again this is a powerful technique because you are negotiating a solution that works on her terms. This way she has backed herself into a corner where she almost has to then comply as she’s working towards a reward that she devised.
At the same time this also gets inside her head and allows you to see how she thinks, what’s preventing her from wanting to tidy her room more often, and what you need to do to change that. Most of all, you’re working together rather than against one another.
You can use other techniques too that might work similarly. Another question might be to ask ‘I know you don’t want to tidy your room, but can you tell me some of the reasons that you think people should tidy their rooms?’. Likewise you might ask ‘what don’t you like about an untidy room?’.
In this case you are once again getting Alice to vocalise her own reasons for wanting to do something rather than telling her why she should. And really this is the secret to why it works – persuasion really isn’t about us changing people’s minds, but rather it’s about them changing their own minds and us having a hand in that.
Other Scenarios and Variations
Let’s be honest though. This will work some of the time with kids but not always: sometimes children will just refuse to play ball and won’t engage you in a logical discussion at all. As they get older this is more likely to work though, and even if you don’t get them to clean their room immediately as long as you get them to vocalise their reasons for wanting to do something you’ll find that it helps take them closer to the result you want.
Meanwhile in other settings this can be just as useful. Marketers for instance love motivational interviewing and will often use similar techniques to get a potential buyer to voice what they like about products or purchases, or how they could be convinced to buy. Likewise this can be used in management and actually originates in counselling.
This is a powerful tool in the arsenal of a parent, which means it can make invaluable for everyone else!