Coaches, managers, teachers, counsellors are in the business of helping people change. The people we help get a six pack or a pay raise or good grades. Our clients, employees, and students are often desperate for these outcomes. But they don’t always want to do the work required to get these outcomes.
So they come to us to help them increase the quantity of their motivation to change. They want us to increase their motivation. But the reality is, people have finite time and energy and many priorities. They can only work on whatever we’re helping them do more often for a temporary period of time. And they might even start rebelling against what we ask them to do. So what can we do instead?
We can help them improve the quality of their motivation to change. In other words, we can help them come up with better reasons for changing. And how do we do that? By supporting their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
How to Support Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness
Thanks to decades of research and tens of thousands of studies, we know what it takes to foster high quality motivation to help people change. According to self-determination theory, people need to feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Autonomy is the feeling you get when you act like the best version of yourself and take full ownership of your actions. To support autonomy, skilled coaches avoid using coercive language (“You should do this”). Instead, coaches ask open-ended questions. After people answer a question, effective coaches might follow up with a reflective listening statement to give them an opportunity to process their thoughts further without getting defensive.
Competence is the feeling you get when you feel effective in your actions. To support competence, skilled coaches use open-ended questions to get people to reflect their past and current successes. When people take any small step toward their intended goal, effective coaches provide specific, positive feedback.
Relatedness the feeling you get when you care for and feel cared by other people in your life. To support relatedness, skilled coaches empathize with clients. And they create a psychologically safe relationship where people feel comfortable to come to them after they hit inevitable setbacks.
And coaches need to help the people they work with to feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness as frequently as possible. Even though I said in the title of this article that people need these feelings before they can change, the truth is they need to be cultivating these feelings all the time.