“The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.”

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Yes, but . . .” This might be the most common phrase heard by an academic leader when attempting to engage an individual and motivate change. Think of the last time you heard this from a faculty member with whom you were speaking—recall your reaction. Did you open up, look through his or her eyes, understand his or her values, and maintain a collaborative interaction? Or did you double-down with logic and data, stressing the importance of this change from the perspective of the department/college/university? If your approach was the latter, how did it go? Odds are, not very well. There is a reason for this; it’s normal and it has a name—ambivalence.

Ambivalence, feeling two ways about something, is a state in which we all find ourselves at some point. If not addressed appropriately, it is responsible for much of what we call resistance or low motivation. As academic leaders, we stumble on an individual’s ambivalence when we provide one-sided direction or feedback. When presented with directives or arguments for change that are one-sided, the natural human response is to equalize the interaction by presenting the other side, thus the “yes, but.” In the current dynamic environment of higher education, ambivalence and resistance abound. This has been compounded by the recent influx of corporate models of change management that do not address ambivalence. Fortunately, there are other models of facilitating change that address the problems of ambivalence and resistance—one evidence-based approach is motivational interviewing (MI).

MI is a collaborative communication style, developed in the field of clinical psychology, for strengthening an individual’s intrinsic motivation and commitment to change. Within an atmosphere of acceptance, compassion, and empowerment, people’s ambivalence about change is identified and explored by evoking their own reasons to change with respect to their values and goals. Thirty years of research shows this approach to be effective in facilitating behavior changes in contexts ranging from substance abusers entering treatment to dietary changes in diabetics, medication compliance in cardiovascular disease, and increasing water sanitation practices in remote South African villages, among others. More recently, MI has been brought into the context of organizational change, including academia.

Basic communication tools
The basic tools of MI are simple and well-known communication strategies that include: open questions, affirmation, reflective listening, and summary (OARS). Open questions are questions that invite narrative and conversation and allow people to provide their own perspectives. They differ from closed questions—questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.”

Affirmation is the skill of accentuating the positive. It means engaging in a manner that demonstrates that you are actively understanding, acknowledging, and affirming another person’s perspective and contributions.

Reflection, also called active listening, is the process of repeating what you hear in a response. It is a hypothesis (a statement, not a question) about what you believe the person means. At the simplest level, you can simply parrot or paraphrase. At deeper levels, you can reflect the meaning of what is heard or an unspoken feeling. Reflection is empathy in action and demonstrates to speakers that beyond being heard, they are also understood. Being understood increases willingness to collaborate, to be vulnerable, and to engage.

Summarizing is a strategy used to selectively collect, link, and transition in the course of a conversation. Simply put, summaries are extended reflections—use them often.

Although OARS will get you far, all conversations about change need direction. Four important MI strategies will help guide the way: understanding values, assessing importance/confidence, providing information, and goal setting.

Understanding values
People change when they become aware of a discrepancy between their values and their current behavior. Values refer to people’s freely chosen core beliefs that guide behavior, and they represent their view of what they want their life to look like and stand for. People choose and pursue goals that allow them to instantiate values over time. When working with faculty, take the time to assess and understand their career values and use your OARS to evoke their sense of the discrepancy between their values and their choice to not change.

Assessing importance/confidence
Motivational issues can be understood by assessing people’s sense of the importance of a specific change as well as their confidence in engaging in the specific behaviors necessary for change. Assess for importance and confidence separately by asking on a scale of 1 to 10 how important the individual feels the change is and how confident the individual is about a specific change. For each, ask what makes it the reported number as opposed to two to three points higher or two to three points lower. Inquire as to what would need to happen to increase the number—what can the individual do, and what can you do?

Information exchange
From an MI perspective, the most effective way to provide information/feedback is through the elicit-provide-elicit strategy. Elicit by using an open question or a series of open questions about what the individual knows about the issue in question. (“Tell me what you understand about X.”) As you listen, reflect, affirm, summarize, and ask additional questions. Using the perspective of the individual, provide feedback that delivers information, affirms accurate understanding, fills in gaps, and gently corrects misperceptions. Elicit reactions to what you deliver and assess understanding.

Goal setting
Based on your understanding of the individual’s values, importance/confidence, and the information/feedback exchange, develop a plan of action. The elements of effective goal setting are as follows: (1) identify the goal in specific behavioral terms; (2) connect the goal to a value or values; (3) identify specific steps to take; (4) identify ways in which others can help; (5) identify specific evidence that will let you know you are on target; (6) identify obstacles and workarounds; and (7) elicit commitment.

It is important to note that using OARS to steer through these four strategies on the way to change often takes more than one meeting. Change is hard and ambivalence can be debilitating. That said, this approach has a wealth of evidence behind it and just might help you move someone from “yes, but” to “yes.”

Further Reading
Buller, J. L. (2013). Positive academic leadership: How to stop putting out fires and start making a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Richard L. Ogle is a clinical psychologist, a professor, and the chair of the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is an expert practitioner and trainer of motivational interviewing, an evidence-based clinical communication style designed to increase engagement and motivation in a broad spectrum of behavior-change contexts.

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 30.6 (2014): 1, 6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.