The six cornerstones of motivation

What are the key drivers

Last week HMA hosted the International Symposium on Motivational Interviewing: Beyond an Effect Size: Innovations in Thinking & Practice in Auckland, New Zealand. Besides being a rich opportunity to share contemporary practice around motivational interviewing, it was a timely reminder of the very essence of what motivation is. Without motivation we generally do not embark upon the journey of exploring new ideas and behaviours. It therefore felt timely to go back to basics and reflect upon the cornerstones of motivation. For those of us who work in the area of change with others there is little doubt that understanding these concepts is central to work.

  1. Cornerstone one – motivation is not fixed – all of us know that motivation fluctuates hugely, sometimes from minute to minute, hour to hour, and day to day. It can increase or decrease based on principles of human behaviour such as reinforcement theory. Most of us do not work on high-end altruism when deciding on behaviour, but more often in terms of what’s in it for me or to be fair, what’s in it for those close to me. If we can see some benefit to changing behaviour, then motivation will increase. In my own field of practice of family violence intervention and offenders intervention work we know that people are often motivated when external sanctions increase, or when they reach a certain level of maturity and start to see the bigger picture. Evidence from the general corrections field about desistance to crime includes the following ideas: life re-evaluation (around age 39), burn-out from the on-going consequences of behaviour, and fear of harm to themselves. Therefore the age of presentation may be a critical factor in motivation or responsivity to change. This also fits with life re-evaluation which can start around the mid to late 30’s.
  2. Cornerstone two – motivation is also a matter of probabilities – how likely is a person to initiate or persist in a particular action? What does this mean? The question can be posed in a slightly different way. ‘Under what conditions is a person likely to persist with change and truly deal with behaviours?’ This in my view goes back to the starting place of what is brought into the room.
  3. Cornerstone three – motivation is an interpersonal phenomenon – this in where the skills of motivational interviewing are most evident. A key aspect of MI work draws from relational theory and what occurs within the context of the relationship between the worker and the person seeking help. All of us who work in the human services know that rapport and engagement are the cornerstones of effective practice. We are asking people to trust us with their personal worlds, to respect them, to understand them, and to help them make sense of the situation they are in. As we all know trust is not given lightly and can be easily eroded.
  4. Cornerstone four – motivation is generally specific to a course of action. A person may be unmotivated to one type of change, but quite ready for another. For example they may be prepared to attend a programme in order to explore abusive behaviour, but unwilling to work on drinking or drug taking behaviour, even if this is indicated as an aspect of an abusive pattern. What are you motivated for and what not? I am highly motivated to keeping the kitchen bench tidy, but less motivated to get out and exercise.
  5. Cornerstone five – intrinsic motivation is the way to go. We know that if we make the decision to change, then it has a better chance of being successful, than if others decide for us. While motivation can be both intrinsic as well as extrinsic, the former will be longer lasting. This is where attending to change talk becomes important in MI work. Listening, responding and strengthening a person’s commitment to change for their own reasons has proven to be more enduring over time. In a later blog I will explore how we can enhance motivation by joining the hopes of the person with those of his/her family and friends/social network.
  6. Cornerstone six – Intrinsic motivation is more readily achieved by eliciting it rather than telling. Very few of us respond to being told what to do. In fact we can take on the righting reflex and head in the other direction. The power of self-talk (We believe what we hear ourselves saying) can assist change. For example, inviting a person to change their narrative about ‘having to attend programmes’ to ‘approach motivation’, where they argue for themselves the benefits of change (attending a programme may be one solution), can start to create movement in the direction of change.

To test this theory try the following exercise with a friend or family member. Elicit as many good reasons (at least twenty) for you as an individual not to drink and drive (You can pick a different topic if you want).  Take no more than 5 minutes so get the working fast. After you have finished answer the following process questions:

  • What were you aware of?
  • What did you notice happened in your thinking?
  • What is your position around drink driving now?

If you are like most of the people that we run this exercise with, you will have shifted in your position. Even if you had already taken a firm position around the issue (drinking and driving or something else) then you will become even more confirmed in that position. Reinforcing change-talk in the direction of change moves us along that continuum and builds motivation for engaging, working with or maintaining change.




Published on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012, under Motivational Interviewing, What Ken thinks

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