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Moving From Empathy to Motivation for Real Change


Thu Nov 09 2023

Moving From Empathy to Motivation for Real Change

Empathy is powerful, but it’s only the first step. Learning professionals need to understand not only the current state but the desired future state to design solutions that help organizations and individuals make the change. Empathy defines the endpoints, but for real change, we need to understand how to develop the deep desire—the motivation—to make the change.

Difficult Change

Changing behaviors can be hard. Take substance use disorder as an example. History is filled with attempts to reduce substance use—including the disastrous 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which outlawed alcohol. But one effective approach to helping people escape the grasp of drugs has been motivational interviewing.


William Miller and Stephen Rollnick developed a four-step approach to creating real change. We can use these same four steps to help our training change people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Step 1: Engaging

Everything starts with a relationship. Engaging is the process of developing that relationship. If you’ve used an approach like ethnographic interviewing, as described in “7 Aspects of Empathetic Listening,” you’ve already done this step. If you haven’t, this step is about listening and making sense of the world from the perspective of those who need to change.

Step 2: Focusing

The focusing step gets to the heart of the matter. Among the thousands of beliefs and countless behaviors that people exhibit, which ones matter? Which of the beliefs and behaviors are “keystone” in that many others are held back or moved forward by them? You can’t change everything all at once. Instead, in every training and every change, we need to pick the things that we can change relatively easily that will cause other beliefs and behaviors to fall in line.


Finding the right beliefs and behaviors to focus on is harder than it appears, because people may espouse one set of values while silently holding another conflicting set of beliefs. By discussing barriers and what they’re related to, it’s often possible to find one belief or set of beliefs that, when changed, make the difference.

Step 3: Evoking

Identifying what can and needs to change is just the first step. Just because we know something needs to change and that it can change doesn’t mean that we’ll change it. In the evoking step, we build the case and vision for the change. Far from the abstract profit and loss statements or formal evaluations of options, evoking engages the emotional desire to make the change. It can come in the form of a compelling vision or a deep, tacit awareness that what is being done today is wrong or is unsustainable.

Step 4: Planning

The final step is planning. Learning professionals work with the subject matter experts and the people designing the training and supporting resources that everyone believes will create the best conditions for the change to occur. Using a collaborative process that suggests and tests strategies ensures that the plan is what everyone agreed to—and that the results will be usable.


Changes Are Hard

Changing behaviors is hard, whether they’re personal habits or organizational procedures. However, this proven pattern can make it easier and more successful.

To help you with these motivational interview skills, the Confident Change Management team put together a productivity aid to guide your discussions. These techniques will help you use empathy to inspire a real desire for change.

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