This is a transcript of episode 292 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

Empathetic listening works for intervening with addicts and schizophrenics, why don’t you try it in conflicts over product features or customer deadlines?

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Empathetic Needs First

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So you reminded me of something as we were chatting before the podcast that I wish I’d remembered last week, and the something is motivational interviewing, which listeners have probably never heard of and which I hope we’ll explain by the time we’re done here. But how did you come to be thinking about motivational interviewing? It’s such a useful technique, but it slipped out of my brain.

Jeffrey: Oh, it was just pure chance that it’s kind of a bit of a shaggy dog story. But my let’s see, it’s my wife’s cousin’s wife had an email exchange or a text exchange with us that she was going to be busy studying. She and her daughter were both studying and I can’t remember the daughter was studying, but she’s a doctor, a medical doctor and is doing continuing study. And she said she’s going to be studying addiction medicine. Now, I don’t really know anything about addiction medicine except that there’s a technique called motivational interviewing, which came out of addiction therapy. So I asked her, you know, are you going to be studying motivational interviewing as part of your course? I’m just curious. And she said, “Well, yeah, we are going to have a chapter on it. But I’m curious, why are you curious about that? How did and how do you know about it?” And I explained that you and I started studying communication many years ago. And while we were doing that, we’re studying Chris Argyris and we’re studying the mutual learning model, you know, model one, model two, unilateral control, all this kind of stuff that I’d had a very funny experience where I was reading one of Argyris books and it came to a question where the whole book is set up around one of his summer courses, and he has people there and he’s kind of going through the course material and pretty late in the book someone says, you know,

Jeffrey: “I’m curious, Dr. Juris, why did you respond differently to that person? Person A, than you did to person B earlier in what seemed like a very different scenario, you responded very differently. Why was that?” And he said this thing that just hit me like a sledgehammer. He said, “Oh, well, you see, Person A was upset and therefore I needed to meet their empathetic needs first.” And I read that in the book and I had two reactions. And the first of which was I got really angry. I was like, First it’s chapter 13. Why are you telling me I should do this first so late in the book? So that was my first reaction. My second reaction was to think I have to go learn more about this empathetic listening stuff and how to be empathetic. And that led me into the psychology section and led to me asking people and a wife of another friend who, you know, Andy, his wife Rebecca, is a counselor, and I asked her for material on empathetic listening, and she told me about motivational interviewing. And I ended up getting the book and reading it. And it’s a fantastic technique that comes out of addiction therapy. And it had the major insight that it doesn’t do any good to tell people, Hey, don’t do drugs because drugs are bad. And do you know why that is? It’s because people already know.

Squirrel: Yes. That’s why they just say no. Campaign of the 1980s was so silly because yeah, Nancy Reagan could tell us all we wanted, but that didn’t mean that people necessarily behaved differently.

Motivational Interviewing

Listen to this section at 03:38

Jeffrey: Exactly. And and so if you want to have discussions with people and you want to be persuasive, it doesn’t do any good to tell them, you know, here’s all the reasons why I’m right. If we generalize this, that people you’re often not telling them things you don’t know. And it had this really neat model in the book that’s really stuck with me. And it says, you can imagine that people have kind of a scale in their head.

Squirrel: And by scale you mean you mean one of those things with weights on either side, right? So it balances.

Jeffrey: Exactly a balance.

Squirrel: Yeah. 500g on one side, then, you know, the other side weighs 500g.

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly the image. So it’s like a balance, you know, thing. So they have this balance in their head and with kind of the arguments for and against. And the point is they want them to be balanced. So the more that I argue for a position on one side, then they will create the arguments against on the other side to be balanced. And it works the other way, if I’m arguing against it, then they’re going to come up with the arguments for it. And the other thing that happens is they find their arguments more persuasive than yours, which is not surprising because they originate in their head. So the insight of motivational interviewing is, well, then you don’t want to be making the arguments either way. It’s not useful. So instead, the idea of the motivational interviewing is you ask the other people, you know, you say something like, Well, I’m sure there’s reasons for and against what you’re doing. Like, you know, you probably have some really good reasons for taking those drugs. You probably feel great. You probably have a great time. Let’s make a list of all the things that are really positive about taking the drugs.

Jeffrey: And as you do that, the person feels out of balance and then they start interrupting, saying, “Well, yeah, I mean, that’s all true, but you don’t understand. There’s all these bad things that result,” and you’re like, “Oh, really? Tell me about those bad things.” And they by developing arguments on both sides and the phrase is like cultivating ambivalence. You have them come up with the arguments on both sides and then they find those more persuasive than anything that you say. So that’s MI in a nutshell. And it was just kind of funny that it came up. And from there, the person I was talking to, the doctor said, “Well, it sounds like empathetic listening was really important to you. You know, I’d love to hear more about it.” And as I thought about it, like you and I Squirrel, we’ve talked about a whole range of techniques that relate to empathy. I mean, not just motivational interviewing, but there’s, you know, David Burns and his Five Secrets of Communication, which he calls speaking with your ear. There’s LEAP and nonviolent communication. All of these are things that are linked by this emphasis on empathy.


Listen to this section at 06:18

Squirrel: And let me just pull out one of those which really always kind of grabs listeners by the by the short hairs when when I tell them about it because it’s so shocking. And that is Xavier Amador’s LEAP method. And you can watch a wonderful video of his. I strongly recommend people watch one of these because because what he does is he shows how you can agree with people who believe that aliens from other planets are controlling their neighbors and shooting laser beams out of their eyes. And the idea that you might agree with someone like that rather than just kind of wrestling them to the ground and forcing medicine upon them is astonishing. But the difficulty is, of course, you can’t keep everyone who has this sort of dissociation from reality in a secure facility where you force feed them. At some point you need to let them out into the world. And because so many of these people don’t believe that they’re ill, that’s actually part of the illness, is they think that, look, it’s really unusual that the aliens are here. And I know that seems a little strange to you, but, man, that is really what’s happening. That’s what they believe. And so if you start by trying to butt heads with them, Argyrus would call it dueling ladders.

Squirrel: You’re both at the top of your ladder of inference and you’re dueling. You’re pushing against the other person. Exactly the scale process happens where the other person says, “Well, it could be aliens. You know, we can’t see the far side of the moon. That’s where they are, you know? So if we can’t see it, then how do you know they’re not there?” The person starts coming up with arguments in favor. Whereas if you can find a way, a part of the experience to agree with, “Boy, it must be really hard to sleep when people are shooting lasers at you. Are you feeling tired? I sure would. I wouldn’t be getting very much sleep.” “Oh, man. Let me tell you, Doctor, I’m just not getting very much sleep.” That builds trust and rapport with the other person, and then it’s easier to talk to them about how some medicine might actually help them sleep, as well as get rid of the experience of the aliens. Now, the reason I was particularly grabbed by this this particular week is that I was talking with someone where I wish I had remembered to bring up motivational interviewing, and this client of mine that I was coaching came to me and said, “Squirrel, how do I convince” - and Jeffrey, you and some listeners will know that.

Squirrel: The moment someone says convince, I’m getting ready to tell them you’re not allowed to use that word. But he said, “How do I convince these people in the rest of the organization not to bother my engineers and me with so much paperwork?” There was a source of paperwork. There was a new initiative coming and he said, “I don’t want to deal with all of this. There’s no reason why we have to do everything. And I keep telling the people who are installing the new process and they don’t listen to me, how do I convince them?” And my answer should have been find something you agree on. Take a page from LEAP. You know, you don’t have to agree that there are aliens on the far side of the moon and you don’t have to agree that loads of paperwork is a good idea for engineers to do. But there is probably something you agree on. And in this case, as I queried a little bit, it became evident that there was a lot of extra work being done by everybody in this situation, the people running the process and my coaching client. And so I sent him off to those folks to have what amounted to a motivational interview where he was trying to work out why the people in the rest of the organization were pushing so hard for this bureaucratic procedure.

Squirrel: It turned out when he came back the next time in our next meeting, he said, “Oh yeah, now I’ve got a problem with that organization.” I said, “Oh, boy, man, you know, he didn’t do it right and there’s something going wrong here.” What was it he said? And he told me about a totally new problem. And I said, “Well, what about that process? What about that thing?” “Oh, yeah. Well, actually, we resolved that. Actually, this one came up. This is a harder problem. We both have that problem. It turned out neither one of us wanted to do the process, so we’re not doing it.” So there was no convincing needed. Once he had had an empathic conversation with the other person in which the other person said, “Man, this this isn’t working for me either. Creates an awful lot of workload for me.” And that’s where I think if your focus is on finding where you agree rather than convincing the other person and finding a platform from which to work by understanding their emotions, you’re going to get a lot farther than if you show up with 47 really good reasons why an extra bureaucratic process is going to waste engineers’ time.

Jeffrey: I love that story because it really shows the power of, you know, empathy and your modeling of it earlier. And your point here is that you don’t need to agree with someone to have empathy with their position. And then if you go and ask those questions, an empathy to understand the other person, how that can unlock so much. You know-

Squirrel: The important thing, let me just say one thing there, you don’t have to agree on the facts. You don’t have to agree about the aliens or the importance of the bureaucratic process or something. But you do have to find something in common with the person emotionally, but that’s usually much easier. Man. If that was happening to me, I’d be really worried and tired and it would be difficult. I would feel overworked. I would feel that I was under pressure. Is that how you’re feeling? That’s the tenor of the conversation to start with because that you can almost certainly agree on.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And that needs to be genuine. You have to find something that you genuinely believe. It doesn’t work if you try to be manipulative. And actually, I have a funny story about that. I don’t know if we have time for right now, but about how trying to be, you know, ingenuine, non-genuine doesn’t work if you’re trying to use this as a technique. But at the same time, a twist of that, sometimes what’s important is to come up with empathy for yourself and that that can be what unlocks the next step.

Squirrel: Amazing. Hey, hey, Let’s do that next week because we’re out of time. What do you think?

Jeffrey: I think that’s fantastic. So we can go from empathy for others to empathy with yourself as an important step in communication.

Squirrel: Just as important. Fantastic. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel