Laura Gordon: We can all benefit from motivational questioning

There will always be people around us who disagree with us – if they didn’t, things would be pretty boring.

A bit of healthy debate is good. It’s important to challenge one another and it helps open our minds to fresh viewpoints. But when topics become especially divisive it can be difficult. Just look at Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum – easily the most polarising political issues we’ve seen here in the UK.

Covid vaccinations are another good example. Between the anti-vax movement and high-profile news stories like the Djokovic saga, there’s plenty of heated debate on the topic.

So, what do you do when you’re faced with someone whose beliefs are entirely at loggerheads with your own?

It’s natural to want to persuade them to see things your way, but it probably won’t get you very far.

In fact, they’ll probably just dig their heels in more.

There’s a much better way to encourage someone to consider an alternative viewpoint, and that’s motivational questioning.

It’s a technique that has been used for years and involves using quality questioning to encourage people to reevaluate their position. It’s subtle yet effective.

I was discussing the concept with someone recently, who asked: “Isn’t that just a euphemism for manipulation?”. But I think that’s unfair. That implies deceit and coercion. Motivational questioning has much purer intentions. The beauty in this technique is that it encourages autonomous decision-making by empowering people to consider other perspectives.

It’s not about having the person listen to you, it’s about having them listen to themselves, evaluate their own position, interrogate their own beliefs, and explore their motivations.

It has been used as a force for good in counselling to help elicit behavioural change, and there are so many other scenarios where it can prove useful – the workplace included.

The most effective businesses are made up of a mix of skill sets and personalities. If you don’t have that, you’re operating in an echo chamber where nobody challenges anybody and innovation is sadly lacking.

But a mish-mash of personality types means there will inevitably be the odd clash. The important thing is how you handle it and using tools like motivational questioning is a great way to have meaningful discussion without it descending into an argument. It can be especially helpful if you encounter someone with entrenched beliefs who is really resistant to different ideas.

A leading commentator in this area is organisational psychologist Adam Grant, who specialises in opening people’s minds.

In his recently published book, Think Again, he shares examples of quality questioning being used to change people’s thinking in ways you would never think possible – including an example of a black musician who encouraged a white supremacist to abandon hate.

Equally important is the emphasis Grant puts on opening our own minds, too.

He believes intelligence is not about thinking and learning, but about rethinking and unlearning. I love his mantra of “argue like you’re right but listen like you’re wrong” and importantly, he reminds us that we should embrace being wrong. That’s how we really learn and grow.

Among those to endorse the book is the research professor and bestselling author Brené Brown. She said Grant’s storytelling “helps us build the intellectual and emotional muscle we need to stay curious enough about the world to actually change it”.

We may have a thirst for knowledge, but perhaps we need to remember it’s not just about learning – sometimes we need to take a step back and think about what we need to unlearn too.

Laura Gordon is a CEO coach and group chair with Vistage International, a global leadership development network for CEOs

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