An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Amy Shanahan and Ali Hall discuss ways leaders can use Motivational Interviewing strategies with host Jeff Olivet.
June 14, 2021
Jeff Olivet, Host: [00:05] This is Jeff Olivet with Changing the Conversation. Our topic today, the intersection of Motivational Interviewing and leadership, and I am excited to be joined by Amy Shanahan with Compass Consulting and Training out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Amy comes out of the substance use disorder field and has many years of experience as a supervisor and a leader, as well as a trainer and consultant. Amy, it’s so good to have you with us today.
Amy Shanahan, Guest: [00:29] Thanks, Jeff. It’s great to be here with you.
Jeff: [00:31] We’re also joined by our old friend Ali Hall, who is a Motivational Interviewing trainer and consultant and coach. Ali is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers and a board member of MINT. Ali also has a background in organizational design, organizational behavior, and work motivation, which really comes to bear on our conversation today about leadership. Ali, it’s great to have you back.
Ali Hall, Guest: [00:56] Thank you, Jeff. It’s great to be here with you and Amy today.
Jeff: [00:59] Amy, let’s talk about this intersection of Motivational Interviewing and leadership. I think a lot of times when people think about MI, they’re thinking about the direct service that’s happening, the substance use treatment or mental health or HIV or all the other kind of settings in which Motivational Interviewing is employed at the kind of client level, the person accessing care and services. We’re talking about a different level of organizational MI implementation. What is it about MI in leadership that gets your attention?
Amy: [1:34] Well, certainly the spirit of how we are with people, that matters to me, and leadership has been so important. And it reminds me of a conversation I had in my organization, where I used to work, and my manager asked, “Why should I attend some of this Motivational Interviewing trainings that you’re doing for the practitioners?” And it caught me off guard, and I thought about it for a second and realized, well, minimally it’ll make you a better listener. I started to think about it from a leadership perspective when she asked me that question.
Jeff: [2:07] Motivational Interviewing is certainly grounded in good listening and reflective listening and all of the sort of nuance that goes along with that. What does that start looking like for a leader who is trained in MI or who is embodying the spirit of MI in their leadership or supervision?
Amy: [2:25] Well, I think simply pausing and leaning in to listen to what a person is saying. And I think the quote from Stephen Covey is worth repeating that most people listen with the intent to respond. And I found myself doing that as a leader, as opposed to the other part of the quote is, listening to understand, and MI gives us that practice. First being able to pause and listen and the other piece or the aspects of Motivational Interviewing that resonates with me is being curious. Being curious about how this is working for the employees or what ideas they have.
Jeff: [3:04] That seems like that’s a very different starting point for a leader who might be used to filling the space, or used to kind of the urge to offer wisdom, offer guidance, offer advice, kind of have the answers. The curiosity that you’re talking about, the listening to understand might be a real shift for some leaders. When you train folks, when you coach folks on using MI skills in leadership, what do you tell them? What is your advice to them? Or what is your way of helping people think about that shift in mindset or shift in heart set?
Amy: [3:40] Well, in a similar way, it’s having a parallel process in the conversation of asking them to pause and ask them what they think their staff are thinking or believing. Asking them to pause, asking them what they think about it and certainly entertaining that conversation about the righting reflex, which we understand in Motivational Interviewing is our desire to help and offer people information. And I remember being a new leader, wanting to get it right and wanting to have the answers. Just exploring that in a conversation with people who are concerned about how to be a better leader. Using those aspects, certainly in interjecting the ask offer ask that we know about or elicit provide elicit to give them actually a practical tool to be curious, instead of convincing them to be curious. Invite them to try it out, to see how it works for them.
Jeff: [4:38] And when you do that, what kind of response do you get from leaders? Do they come back to you and say, “Wow, that really worked.” Do they come back to you and say, “That was really hard. That is against my nature.” What do you hear back from people as they try to try this on?
Amy: [4:53] Probably all of that, Jeff and a little bit more, oh, wow. It’s a nice style. It’s an easy thing to remember. It mostly works. It’s almost you give them a gift of a tool to use. I think for the most part, when I start talking Motivational Interviewing to people in general and then take it on to the leadership level, they have, as we know in adult learning, a defensiveness about it. I can’t learn this. That’s for counselors. It’s too difficult or it’s going to take too long. But starting to invite them to practice some of the tools I think is more positive than I would have expected as far as I think this will work for me.
Jeff: [5:40] That’s great to hear. Ali Hall, I’d love to draw you into this conversation. When you think about the connection between Motivational Interviewing skills and effective leadership, where do you see that playing out? What have you noticed in organizations that you’ve worked with?
Ali: [5:56] That’s a great question, Jeff, and I’m really glad Amy brought up that pause and the deep breath. I think when we see leaders just take a deep breath and let a little space in there, what we hear is that people can enter a conversation. Leaders are a stressed out bunch with lower stress cortisol, maybe it’ll go a bit lower blood pressure, come in with interest and curiosity. And people can feel the hmm, in our voice versus that ah, that comes from being under stress. And I think leaders need that pause as much as anyone and their staff can feel it. I think Amy’s right too, that the heart set and mindset, MI spirit is really key to launching and sustaining uncomfortable conversations and leaders have the responsibility of having those or to not have them or to delay those kinds of uncomfortable conversations can be at the peril to the organization.
Ali: [6:51] Whether it’s performance challenges that they’re trying to work with one of their staff about, we certainly don’t want people to hear it in a performance appraisal a year later that there have been difficulties all along that could have been addressed. There’s a big cause for a low morale, for feeling some unfairness. And we risk a lot and it’s uncomfortable walking around on eggshells. MI really lets us have uncomfortable conversations early on and in productive ways. It’s just one of the ways that leaders can use MI well.
Jeff: [7:23] And having those conversations in a way that is kind and caring as well as direct. Ali, I want to go back to the question of stressed out leaders. I think all of us who have been in positions of leadership, of supervising staff, of running programs or organizations, feel that kind of constant bombardment of pressures and decisions to be made and fires to be put out and just one thing after another, as you move through your day. And often I think leaders will get into just kind of fix it mode, just you need to sort of knock down one problem and then the next and then the next. That can run counter to everything that we’re talking about here of being able to pause, being able to slow down and listen without a desire to craft your response while the other person is talking. Ali, what advice do you have for leaders about kind of keeping their own stress level down, keeping their blood pressure down so that they remember to pause?
Ali: [8:23] I would really encourage leaders to access some MI based coaching for themselves to try to come up with some small things that they can do, not big lifts, not grand gestures. It’s often the smallest things that have the biggest impact. Leaders that I’ve worked with, they might enter the workplace 10 minutes early or spend 10 extra minutes on a call. It shows their staff that they’re available. It allows them to slow down and listen and really be. And again, it’s not a real big deal, but the little things make a difference. And so little shifts like that. We used to think in the pre-pandemic world of management, by walking around, that’s important. We can also stroll around virtually. We can be visible to those we serve, and we can be available to those we serve whether it’s virtually or in person. But those little, little tiny steps make an incredible difference.
Jeff: [9:23] That’s good advice. Very practical. Amy, I’d like to talk a little bit about emerging leadership and how do we support young leaders or emerging leaders or future leaders? And how does the Motivational Interviewing skillset play into that? If you’ve got an executive director or a clinical director or a program director who sees real leadership potential in a staff person and wants to tap into that and draw it out and grow it and invest in it, how can Motivational Interviewing play a role in supporting emerging leaders?
Amy: [9:58] Well, I think that the whole mentorship, like Ali says, practicing Motivational Interviewing. Really intentionally practice with them. Again, role model what you want them to do as well. Be curious. Being able to ask them open questions, evoke from them what they think how it should be done. And I think really getting into the habit of that more than not, especially with an emerging leader, who in my experience is starving for information and asking questions and being curious themselves. Really believing that if we saw it in them, it’s within them. That whole belief in the spirit of MI that it’s there already. Really just being able to explore that and draw that out.
Amy: [10:52] I’m a leader and that doesn’t mean that an emerging leader is going to be just like me. And that’s the really tough thing to convey because if people are seeking out mentorship, it’s because they saw in you something that they, I believe have in themselves. Really, really cultivating that through evocation and eliciting and certainly affirming. I don’t want to forget about affirmations and that’ll tie into a whole other conversation about feedback and being authentic and genuine, but definitely not forget affirmations, which really highlight specifically their strengths and what they value.
Jeff: [11:34] Let’s talk about that feedback and interaction loop that can happen. How does that tie into affirmations?
Amy: [11:42] Well, certainly highlighting people’s strengths. I know as a listener of MI practice, using affirmations is one of the least used tools. I hope that’s changing over time. And I have to admit as a leader, I’ve noticed that it’s the least used skill that I have had at times. And really being mindful. I know when people give me positive feedback, it really puts a big spring in my step that somebody noticed. And I think that critical feedback is really important as well. I don’t want to walk around the world thinking that I’m perfect. And I think that critical feedback can be done in a very genuine, kind, compassionate way that’s not very hurtful or wounding. And that’s the thing that bothers me a lot. And I have a story about someone who asked me, “Hey, did your boss ever give you a critical feedback because your evaluations look really great.”
Amy: [12:42] And she taught me this skill, and I think it’s MI consistent. She would always say things like, “This would be stronger if and when you do this.” And that feels really genuine to me, and she didn’t say, “You have to do this,” or, “You’re not good enough,” or, “You’re bad.” It was really just a, if you choose. It was honoring the autonomy in me by saying, “Hey, if you want this area to be stronger, here are some things you could do.” I really love that, and I’ll never forget that lesson and how I likened it to Motivational Interviewing and the consistency of MI.
Jeff: [13:21] That’s such a nice story. And it’s a nice story because it seems like a small thing what your supervisor did and it turns out that it’s actually a huge thing in terms of your morale, your development, your ability to take and hear that constructive feedback. It’s sort of criticism, but it’s criticism wrapped up in real kindness and real respect for your ability to make choices, your autonomy to do that. It seems like some of these steps that we’ve been talking about for the last few minutes appear to be small, but the impact is quite large. Ali, what are some of the other small steps that leaders can take to change their listening, to change their tone, to change their pacing, to change how they’re sort of serving as leaders?
Ali: [14:10] Well, I appreciate that Amy highlighted the value of genuine affirmation, as well as developmental comments that we can make to those that we’re serving. I think there certainly are different styles of feedback. There’s appreciation feedback. There’s also the feedback of whether we’re measuring up, some things that we can do to be better, all kinds of things and different ones of our staff are going to crave different kinds of feedback more strongly than others and will be supported in that. I like the idea too that Amy was talking about for emerging and evolving leaders. One thing we certainly know about them is that they’re supported by lowering the risk level. A safer environment where people are going to be met with acceptance, be met with compassion.
Ali: [14:53] Was talking with a MINT colleague just last night, about the 70/20/10 rule. That we really need to try a whole bunch of stuff in order to be at our best and find the thing that works. But that means, what any baseball player if they hit 300 over their lifetime is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. We don’t give emerging and evolving leaders that same slack. People need to be able to have an atmosphere of respect and trust and collaboration and support so that they can try things.
Ali: [15:25] When you talk about small steps, another thing that leaders can do is ask the right questions and not take all the responsibility on their shoulders for knowing everything that their staff need. Just simply asking, “Here are some options we have. What do you need? What would be helpful? What would you like?” Instead of feeling the responsibility to make a decision, even if well intended, can really go wrong. Leaders make all kinds of things in a well intended way as decisions that have an impact on their staff. Their staff were never involved in it. There’s some expertise that we need to incorporate.
Jeff: [15:57] A lot of times when people think about leadership, they think about the person at the top of an organization or a team or the person with the title or the position. And we also know that leadership means many, many things. As we were getting ready to record this podcast, Amy and Ali, I heard you all talking about leading from any chair, and I’m curious what you mean by that and what that looks like in the real world. Amy, when you think about what it means to lead from any chair, what do you have in mind?
Amy: [16:27] Well, I think that anyone can be and is on any different occasion or day a leader. I think of parents at home managing a family. I think of people on the team that naturally take a leadership role. I think of emerging leaders that don’t have that official title and people who are naturally, maybe not naturally, they learn it over time, are genuine people that people want to be with. I have great mentors in my life, and I’m grateful for them and they may or may not be in leadership roles, and I would follow them to battle any day. It really could be anyone. And I think we all can take the responsibility if we choose to believe that about ourselves, that we can make impact in people’s lives.
Jeff: [17:20] That’s really beautifully said. Ali, what are your thoughts on leading from any chair?
Ali: [17:26] Yeah. I really love that Amy. And leaders can forget that there are others around them coming from different chairs. I’m just remembering an organization that I work with. A very well intended key group of leadership was worried about their low morale, the high turnover, the sick days, the per client outcomes, all kinds of things. And they thought, we want to do something really great for our staff. We’re just going to take out the circular drive in front of the office, and we’re going to build a beautiful parklet, and it’s going to just make everybody really happy. Just going to make such a difference here. Staff were up in arms. They said, “No, we don’t want that. We don’t have anywhere to go on break or on lunch. The circular drive lets the food trucks come to us. Don’t take away our circular drive. Please don’t do that.”
Ali: [18:14] And the leaders got smart and asked the right questions. “Well, what would you need? What would you need to make it happen?” And they got leaders from all kinds of different chairs to get together in the organization and figure out what the agency really needed was an ice machine. And they needed an ice machine because it was in a place that was hot. They wanted to get up from their desks and walk around. They wanted to mingle with one another, intersect with one another, and they wanted to hydrate more. The ice machine which was one-10th of the cost that removing the circular drive and putting the parklet in turned out to be the great solution. But unless a leader can turn to all chairs and ask everyone to come forward with good ideas, probably missing out on a lot of expertise and a lot of involvement and participation and partnership. The MI strategy that we think about when we talk about partnership, but it really made the difference for that particular organization.
Jeff: [19:11] It’s a great story, Ali. Thank you so much. It’s I think a strong reminder that people are their own best experts. They know what they need, they know what they want, and they need to be asked. This conversation has been fantastic about leading from any chair, about leaders who listen. Ali Hall, thank you so much for joining us again today. It’s great to have you back.
Ali: [19:35] Thank you, Jeff and Amy.
Jeff: [19:36] And Amy Shanahan, it’s been great to have you on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us and with our listeners.
Amy: [19:42] I appreciate the invitation. Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff: [19:45] And to our listeners, you can be a leader, no matter what seat you sit in. And if you are in a formal leadership role of some kind, focus on the spirit of Motivational Interviewing, focus on the skills of Motivational Interviewing. Listen to understand. We change the world small step by small step, by investing in people, by investing in one another and by using the platforms that we have to create real change. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer: [20:16] Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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