Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

Many of the situations you address involve persons with whom there’s a formal reporting relationship. In my situation, I need to influence many people where I have no such relationship or leverage yet still I must get them to do things differently – as much for their sake more so than my own.

What strategies would work in these cases? How can you motivate others to change their behaviour when you have little knowledge and even less power over them?


We’re all challenged with this – influencing the actions and responses of others who could and should change their behaviours but, for reasons best known to themselves, choose not to do so. It’s not so much a question of ability but rather one of personal motivation, and sometimes they’re not motivated to change.

There’s a basic principle here – we cannot motivate others without their consent, in fact we likely don’t motivate them at all – they motivate themselves. Everyone is primarily stimulated by their own perspectives and perceptions – the way they choose to look at the world around them and by the deep-seated values that they append to whatever it is that they see.

All we can do is to create awareness, to draw their attention to what they might see and to raise and/or challenge the consequences that might affect them. Their thoughts and feelings are theirs alone and whatever these are will determine their resultant behaviours. If we’re aware of their perspectives and perceptions, we can help them through dialogue to realign and act upon those which are compatible with ours or more general interests. If we’re not familiar with them, this requires a different approach.

What many of us learn to do as children is to use power, authority, threats, intimidation and other coercive pressures to exert influence over others; but while these can be simple, they are also crude and dangerous. We learn quickly that we might get our way in a given situation but lose the relationship or longer-term advantage in doing so.

Compulsive or coercive tactics rarely work for long without destroying the relationship, building resistance and/or resentment. Sometimes these tactics are direct and sometimes they’re subtle, but the impact is the same! The problem is that such devices do give us a quick win and some small gratification, so we tend to repeat them especially when we’re in a hurry, pressured or stressed.

The use of power to influence others, in any form, is always problematic; the costs are usually high and often unpredictable so it’s best that we avoid their use as far as possible. Having said that, we’ve all learned that indirect or implied power can sustain leverage. However, once you’ve actually had to apply it, it loses much of its potency.

There’s a better way; using consequences. They come in two forms – ’natural’ and ‘imposed’. When natural consequences are tangible and material they can be used as extrinsic motivators, examples being financial incentives, earned opportunities, promotions, perquisites and the like. When they’re more emotional in their impact, we call them intrinsic motivators; satisfaction, pride-of-performance, hierarchical status and personal fulfillment are typical.

Imposed consequences – "I shall tell your father . . .” "You’ll leave me with no alternative but to . . . "  are statements of intended action when expected actions or responses do / do not follow. They’re frequently merged with the use of power, particularly that of coercive force, so they can sometimes backfire.

The challenge with both natural and imposed consequences is to link them to the reality of the other person(s), and this is not always easy.  If we recall, however, that others behaviour is the product of their thoughts and feelings, we can see how to achieve this. The trick is to have the other person develop awareness of the consequence in their own thought and to experience the attendant feelings on their own.

The stratagem is to use ‘questions of consequence’ – "If you persist in taking my assigned parking space, what options would you think I will have?” "If you continue to arrive late for meetings and we are obliged to wait for you, how would you imagine we might feel?” "If you continue to miss committed deadlines, how do you believe other volunteers might regard you?”

Nothing is as effective in changing my behaviour as the self realization that my actions may not be aligned with my self interests. It isn’t sufficient though that I arrive here using a purely rational approach; I will often need to consider the impact of my emotions in tandem. How many people know that it isn’t wise, socially acceptable and cost effective to smoke yet they persist? When their doctor tells them they have just months to live, or that special person deplores the habit, they can change in a heartbeat!

The combination of rational and emotional consequences is indeed powerful, even more so when it’s me that draws the conclusions. A few elegantly framed questions are all that’s required to change a behaviour or even a life!

I hope this helps.