I was recently debating a public policy issue with my 15-year-old son, who has recently become enamored with a view quite different from my own. As the back-and-forth wound down without either of us substantially changing our opinions, he said he had “won” the debate.
I disagreed. I explained that I won as my goal was to help him critically think through the issues, not change his mind (of course, his changed mind would have been a bonus!).
Upon reflection, though, our conversation reminded me of an article I recently read by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in The New York Times entitled “The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People.”
To be clear, I am not suggesting my son was being unreasonable. But the subject of Grant’s article relates to the effectiveness of how we argue and debate and try to change the behavior and opinions of those who hold different – and sometimes very rigid and uncompromising – viewpoints. This has obvious implications in almost all negotiations.
Here’s how Grant describes the change-oriented research and solution:
Several decades ago, when treating substance abuse problems, psychologists developed a technique called motivational interviewing. The central premise: Instead of trying to force people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them – asking open-ended questions and listening carefully – and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan …
In controlled trials, motivational interviewing has helped people to stop smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, and gambling; to improve their diets and exercise; to overcome eating disorders; and to lose weight. The approach has also motivated students to get a good night’s sleep; voters to reconsider their prejudices; and divorcing parents to reach settlements.
Many of the techniques Grant attributes to motivational interviewing also represent core strategies and tactics underlying my First Golden Rule of Negotiation – Information is Power-So Get It!, including:
- Find out the fundamental motivations and interests of your counterpart (not just what they believe and want but why they believe and want it);
- Use open-ended questions and phrases to explore these like: what, how, why, tell me about, describe, explain;
- It’s more powerful to ask and listen than to argue and persuade (research shows that effective negotiators ask 2x more questions than others);
- Actively and deeply listen to your counterparts, picking up on the nuances of their thinking;
- Focus on your counterpart’s “change talk” vs. their “sustain talk.” Grant notes that “[s]ustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is referencing a desire, ability or commitment to making a shift. A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it.”
- Emphasize your counterpart’s comments and views that could move them – logically and emotionally – to better solutions;
- Be sincere, authentic and real in how you engage (doing this in a manipulative fashion will often backfire as many people will pick up on the insincerity involved); and
- Lead your counterpart to possible solutions through questioning. Help them find the solution.
I enjoyed debate in college and law school. And sometimes opinions changed. But often the opposite occurred. As Grant notes, “experiments show that preaching and prosecuting [simply trying to get someone to change their mind based on logic, etc.] typically backfire – and what doesn’t sway people may strengthen their beliefs.”
I’m not sure what my 15-year-old son concluded on this public policy issue after our “debate,” although I do know his inclinations. Here’s another thing I know – next time I will do less debating and more motivational interviewing.
Fortunately, I expect many future opportunities to practice what I preach.
Latz’s Lesson: Motivational interviewing is far more effective than arguing and debating if you want to change fairly set minds and behavior.
Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.