Motivating Change: When Being Stuck Is the Sticking Point

Christopher E. Overtree, PhD
September 2019

Camp taught me about the power of the environment — not just the natural world where we romp and roam, but the broad community support and child-centricity of programming and purpose. As a psychologist, I learned that individual symptoms often bloom in the absence of the very things that make camp experiences so powerful, and so crucial to foster and sustain.

But there are certainly moments when we also need concrete skills — those times that put the counsel in counselor. The psychological field relies on a range of tools and techniques, some of which are broadly applicable. The educational and camp worlds can apply similar skills to those conflicts in our work when solutions are elusive. One such adaptable and effective approach is known as motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2002), and it specializes in helping get people unstuck.

Helping Not Hoping

Most of us were taught that wanting change was a prerequisite to making change — that problem awareness precedes the solution. Of course, this seems to make sense. How can we possibly change if we do not want to, or worse, if we do not know we should?

But think for a minute about how absolutely powerless we are if we can only help those who are ready, willing, and able. What about motivating people to change in the first place? Can it be done in a reliable, predictable, and methodical way?

If we think that helping someone is a passive process, we are really doing more hoping than helping. Our media portrays many archetypes, people waiting for suffering friends or family members to get it, or to get to it. As the old joke goes, it only takes one psychologist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb must really want to change.

This was the exact dilemma that inspired clinical psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollnick to develop motivational interviewing (MI), a therapeutic technique designed to help people explore — and then resolve — ambivalence. Ambivalence about change is certainly not unfamiliar. We experience it as dragging our feet or those moments of sometimes intense defensiveness when our stubbornness surprises us. Ambivalence is realizing today that we have failed to take the one step we promised to take yesterday, over and over again. Ambivalence is about being stuck.

For people who struggle with drug and alcohol dependence, this is a familiar scenario. They often lack awareness that their addiction has reached a tipping point or experience extreme ambivalence about becoming sober. MI was developed to tackle this most intractable of human problems when chemicals bypass our will. But MI has also gone on to prove highly useful in many other diverse settings (Constantino, DeGeorge, Dadlani, & Overtree, 2009), making it a perfect tool to use in our camp and educational worlds.

Change Comes in Stages

MI is based on a well-established pathway of human behavior known as the Transtheoretical Model of behavior change, developed and expanded upon by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the late 1970s. They characterized behavior change as a process that occurs in six predictable stages that may sound familiar in description, if not in name.

  1. Pre-contemplation: Individuals are not aware that a problem exists or are unwilling to consider possible changes. They may also underestimate the benefits of making a change or overestimate how difficult change would be.
  2. Contemplation: Individuals are aware of a problem or a desired outcome and are contemplating taking steps to resolve the issue. They have started to see the benefits of making changes, though they have not yet begun.
  3. Preparation: Individuals have begun to prepare for action. They may begin to line up the resources or supports they will need to move forward. They now see the benefits of change as likely exceeding the work required to do so.
  4. Action: Individuals change their behavior or address the problems at hand. They have fully embraced the positive aspects of behavior change and are facing this hard work immediately and directly.
  5. Maintenance: Individuals have successfully changed their behavior and sustained their efforts. Success strengthens their long-term commitment.
  6. Relapse: Individuals experience the erosion of the maintenance effort and fall back into old patterns when new stressors trigger old behaviors. Relapses need not be permanent, but pulling out of them often requires resolving ambivalence once again.

These stages are normal and predictable, and you may recognize them in personal struggles you have experienced.

We may start by not being aware that change is needed. Later, we begin to contemplate that we have to do something — we just don’t know what. After this, we may come to believe that making change is important, so we prepare to take the next step. Taking action involves changing our behavior. After we have experienced some success, and perhaps some new habits, we work to maintain our progress, while also hoping to avoid a relapse or, when it happens, bouncing back as quickly as we can.

These stages map the path we follow when making change. Harnessing this process can make us more effective helpers.

Change Is Hard

Ever wonder why a friend’s problems often appear to be so easy to solve? (Why don’t you just start getting up early to exercise?) This usually happens when we can see clear action steps, but our friends are ambivalent about (or unaware of) the problem itself. Our interventions are those dreaded “helpful suggestions” that people despise and usually never implement. Approaching this differently means a crucial realization; everyone we seek to help is likely starting at a different place on the path from us. So, getting someone unstuck means choosing tactics that match where they are on the path to change.

When we as camp leaders and educators try to help someone, we usually start in the action stage. The problems and the associated solutions may be clear to us, but our stuck campers are usually not in the same place. They may view possible solutions as unacceptable, unnecessary, or just too difficult to contemplate. We would all start with action if solutions were clear, problems simple, and motivations high.

Applying Key MI Techniques to Helping Situations

Being stuck is universal and should not be thought of as problematic. Being stuck, uncertain, scared, or unmotivated are typical reactions to moments of internal conflict. So, as helpers, we should not begin by thinking about actions and endpoints. Suggesting action steps will miss the mark; instead, we must strive for movement.

Unfortunately, the distance between being stuck and taking action is often too far to navigate easily. Someone stuck in a conflict or behavior is usually in the early stages of the problem (e.g., the pre-contemplation or contemplation stage). We arrive ready to help and our readiness to share solutions places us further down the line (e.g., the preparation or action stage). Our viewpoints and motivations are unlikely to match theirs; our goals and skills too. So, if we want to help someone get unstuck, we must choose a strategy that creates motion rather than just focusing on the end point.

Strategies to Help Campers Get Unstuck

In the clinical world, MI is now considered to be crucial for resolving ambivalence and garnering treatment compliance. Extending its utility to camp and educational settings requires only a switch of context. We can use MI-informed techniques to help campers tackle smaller problems, such as homesickness and friendship conflict. In my work translating the principles of MI for settings outside healthcare, I like to highlight strategies that can help people get unstuck, skills that are easily adapted to camp settings.

Experiencing and Expressing Deep Empathy

Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When someone is stuck, we must learn to express empathy deeply. And sometimes, we must sit with this empathy for a long time. When campers no longer have to convince us of their pain, cognitive skills become more accessible and they are able to problem solve.

  • “I’m hearing you Stuart. It sounds like you simply can’t imagine how you will make it through the rest of this summer.”
  • “Sarah, you must be really sad if it feels like your best friend will never talk to you again. I can imagine how hard that would be.”

When we summarize, we must acknowledge the full emotional weight of their feelings, even when those emotions seem excessive. We try to hear them immediately and deeply.

The key here is that we rapidly and directly capitulate the argument about what their feelings are and what they mean. We enter into their problem, and since we are not stuck ourselves, we are given the access and trust that allows us to play a role in generating movement. Sarah and Stuart no longer have to defend their feelings; they can now hold them more gently while we all think about what comes next.

A helpful aside: You usually cannot express empathy too deeply. Helpers sometimes worry that following someone’s feelings too far, like to places of extreme irrationality, will somehow lock them in place or signal agreement. But following feelings is like swimming in the deep end; sometimes you can get farther by sinking to the bottom and pushing off the floor.

  • “Jason, wow, I get it now. You cannot even imagine how anyone would like this camp, why we would even be in business in the first place. I can see how feeling that way would make it seem impossible to make friends here.”
  • Kent, I think I hear you saying that your work is a complete waste of time, totally pointless. The second you fix something, the next person comes along and breaks it and you have to start from scratch.”

As a psychologist, I have used empathy to sink into the harshest depths of a client’s suicidal thinking. Even there, finding the bottom gave me something to push against. One of the most important things someone in pain can experience is to show their worst and find someone there with them.

Develop Discrepancy

Once we have gained access through empathy, to be invited closer to the problem, our next goal is to highlight discrepancies that exist between their feelings, goals, and behaviors. This discrepancy is the distance between being stuck or ambivalent (pre-contemplative or contemplative) and getting ready or making progress (preparedness or action). It helps that people naturally want to reduce discrepancies that exist in their emotional and intellectual worlds (a concept known as cognitive dissonance). We can marshal this cognitive tendency to help our campers move somewhere new — and because feelings are already acknowledged, people are more likely to reduce the discrepancy by moving forward. This is the beginning of motivation.

  • “Bryan, what a stuck place you are, to be missing your parents so much, but also wanting to meet new friends and join the baseball team.”
  • “Vanessa, what a tough spot. You can’t even imagine trying the high ropes course even though you are someone who would usually do almost anything.”

Roll with Resistance

When motivation emerges and begins to stimulate movement, new places to get stuck will arise. Some action steps are more difficult, painful, or costly. Our job as the helper in these moments is to confidently and assertively emphasize that being stuck is a normal reaction to uncertainty or ambivalence. We try to let resistance roll over us gently without pushing back too hard. Remember, we are confident and ready — our goal is to help our camper feel that way too, not to force solutions or be frustrated that the pacing is too slow. When resistance emerges, our response is simple: we fall back on our tools of expressing empathy and developing discrepancy.

Wait for that powerful moment when you (the helper) feel frustrated that things are moving slowly. You can use that authentic experience to express empathy even more deeply. You are stuck too and can join your camper in ways that were not possible before.

“Kathy, we seem to be back where we started, and you seem just as frustrated as you were at the beginning. Now I really know how you must have been feeling all this time, because I am stuck to. That is frustrating isn’t it?”

“We were so close, Jane! You got all your stuff together, walked to the softball field to introduce yourself, and then it started to rain and the game was canceled! I feel robbed too!”

Support Self-Efficacy and Autonomy

One of the keys to sustaining motivation through stress and the erosion of will is to help our campers experience self-efficacy and autonomy through the problem-solving process. It helps to reframe being stuck as normal. But this may not be enough to address a camper’s sense of ineffectiveness in the face of a problem. One of the reasons we should allow the behavior change process to happen more slowly, and in stages, is that experiencing self-efficacy is key to sustainable change. If we suggest or encourage concrete solutions while our camper is still in the pre-contemplation stage of the problem, we risk reinforcing this sense of helplessness — even if our suggestions prove helpful. If we focus on motion instead of solutions, then when movement happens, our camper will own the solutions that follow.

  • “Lydia, I cannot believe how brave you are! I never would have thought to walk right up to the director and tell her how I feel. You must be one of those people who can stand up for herself!”
  • “Tim, the way you approached that problem with Kristina taught me a new way to respond when I am disappointed in someone. I could learn from your creativity!”

It can be useful in these situations to take behaviors and frame them using language that locates the effectiveness in them (e.g., promoting self-efficacy). In doing this, you remind your campers that they can rely on themselves when trouble strikes. Our language choices can help our campers see problems as solvable and solutions as emerging from within.

Supporting a sense of autonomy is equally important and often goes hand in glove with self-efficacy. By not offering action steps at the outset, we allow things to move at the pace that our camper naturally needs (something that likely would have happened anyway). Allowing our campers to choose when they are ready is reassuring because they know that we are there to help, but not to push them faster than they are comfortable moving.

  • “Jenn, I will be there to help the second you are ready, but don’t worry, I will never try to make you go faster than you feel you can. You are the driver here!”
  • “Hey, Jeremy, we just got started here and I admire your courage. But you tell me when you are ready to take the next step, okay?”

A Few Final Words on Change

If you consistently rely on the preceding tools, you will not find that problems magically melt away, and you may not even find that campers move through them more quickly. What you will find is that solutions are authentic and sustained, and the relief that your campers feel will be deep and internal.

Ironically, using MI corrects some of the problems introduced by our ever-expanding knowledge of human health and behavior. The reason the techniques of MI work so effectively is that they return us (the helpers) to our proper place in the problem — being the competent, encouraging, and available observer. This role, when coupled with a camper’s deep sense of being understood, helps us create movement — and this changing scenery makes all the difference.

Photo courtesy of The Aloha Foundation, Fairlee, Vermont.

References

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Constantino, M. J., DeGeorge, J., Dadlani, M. B., & Overtree, C. E. (2009). Motivational interviewing: A bellwether for context-responsive psychotherapy integration. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65 (11), 1246–1253.

Christopher E. Overtree, PhD, received a BA in psychology at Princeton University and his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. He is the executive director of the camping and innovative educational institution, The Aloha Foundation, which operates Camps Aloha, Hive, Lanakila, Horizons, Ohana, and Hulbert. Previous to his work at the Aloha Foundation, he was a professor of clinical psychology and graduate director at New England College and the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. His clinical specialties include child and family treatment, graduate training, evidence-based models of intervention, and school climate assessment.