Have you ever asked someone how they're doing and they say, "I'm fine." The problem with "I'm fine" is it can mean so many things. It can mean, "I am good," "I am great," or, "I am hanging on by a thread." Every time my partner says, "I'm fine," it means anything but "I'm fine." Words can be limited! We need to expand our language toolkit for those situations where we are finding a barrier with words.
This article will introduce you to a tool to overcome the moments where you face the limitations of language. You can use this tool to manage conflict, coach others, uncover motivation, reconcile differences and more.
What is the tool? The tool is motivational interviewing. Author Michael Pantalon discusses this technique in his book Instant Influence. Motivational interviewing is replacing words with a number scale to understand how someone feels.
For example, imagine there is a child who doesn't want to do their homework. What would some parents do? They may ask a simple question like: do you want to do your homework? If the response isn't what the parent wants to hear, usually a single word answer like "no," then they can get into an argument- each arguing for their perspective. You can imagine a similar scenario playing out in the workplace. For example, two departments have different perspectives, two colleagues have different views, or two leaders collide. Instead of using words, the parent could ask the child a question using a number scale. For example, "Where are you on a scale from one to ten. One represents you don't want to do homework at all, and ten is you can't wait to do your homework."
If the child says two or three, this number gives a parent a much better sense of where the child stands. Two or three shows some wiggle room. More importantly, the numbers drive the power of curiosity. They make you want to understand why someone is at that number and how they might move up or down the scale. The same goes for the workplace. We'll explore this concept more in the next section.
How can you use the number scale?
1. Use motivational interviewing to start a solution dialogue. Back to the child example, if the child is at a three on the homework scale, do not ask, "how can we get you from a three to a ten" because you are going to come across unrealistic. Instead, ask, "since you are at a three, what could you do to move to a four?" The child will come up with some small ideas to start the momentum process. Moreover, they are more likely to implement their ideas rather than yours. In a work context, if your direct report is hesitant to speak up in meetings, you may want to ask where they stand on the number scale. After finding out their number, ask what would help them move up or down the scale? You could find out if the number is even movable? Why or why not?
2. Ask an unexpected question. After the child says they are at a three, on the homework scale, then ask them why they aren't at a one. That is an unexpected question. The child will provide answers to argue for doing their homework, such as, "I don't hate homework, but I'm just tired," or "this is a tough problem set, and I feel dread when thinking about it." Asking a surprising question challenges the child to make a case for why they should do their homework rather than defend and argue for why they should not have to do homework. It also helps you better understand why they are at that number. Author Michael Pantalon's unexpected question is some high-level Jedi mind trick stuff.
3. Use the numbers to compare with another person. For example, you are working with a colleague who is detailed oriented. If I am a three and my colleague is a nine on the detail-oriented scale, then this difference is ripe for tension or an argument. We can use our differences in numbers to enter into productive dialogue to uncover where we can use our strengths and where we can find a middle ground. For example, I may focus on a creative first draft PowerPoint deck, and my colleague may concentrate on going through the final draft of the PowerPoint deck in order to eliminate errors. This division of labor will leverage our respective strengths. However, if my boss is a nine on the detail-oriented scale, then I must turn in a close to perfect draft; otherwise, there could be a problem. When people have different perspectives, they tend to repeat themselves or go in circles because words can be vague, ambiguous, or hard to follow. On the other hand, numbers enable us to understand and dig in. They can help us overcome a verbal merry-go-round.
Consider using motivational numerical interviewing with kids, colleagues, direct reports, peers, or anyone else when you want to understand others better and leverage differences. One other great area to use motivational interviewing is with returning to work after COVID. Co-workers may have different comfort levels when it comes to hygiene, masks, or social distance. Motivational interviewing will help you understand differences to start a productive respectful dialogue.
Motivational interviewing is an amazing leadership tool you should add to your tool kit. Set a goal to ask someone a numerical question this week, whether in a personal or professional setting.