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Warning: Do not try this at home

Even for a practiced motivation leader or coach, talking to family isn't easy.

6 min read


Warning: Do not try this at home

Susan Fowler

Have you learned coaching skills at work, then tested them at home on family members? How did it go for you?

I encourage people to consider “soft skills” as universal people skills. It makes sense. We need to actively listen to people we love. We need to collaborate on goal-setting with family members who might be affected by our food, health or financial choices. And, heaven knows we need to give our spouses and significant others feedback, right?!

When I teach managers how to facilitate motivation conversations with their team members, I assumed transferring the skill from work to home was a no-brainer. A motivation conversation is deep, but simple. When someone is struggling with their motivation for a goal, task or situation, you conduct a motivation conversation to help the person:

  1. Identify their current motivational outlook.
  2. Shift from suboptimal to optimal motivation by asking questions to create choice, connection and competence — the three psychological needs required for optimal motivation
  3. Reflect on what’s become clear.

At home, it seems only natural that when your husband complains about yard work, you have a motivation conversation. If your wife complains about grocery shopping or your partner complains about having to work late, you have a motivation conversation. When your kids refuse to do what you want them to do, it’s time for a motivation conversation.

But I ran into a problem. Despite being a so-called global authority on the skill of motivation, I fell flat on my face trying to get my husband to switch dentists. (Instead of seeing a really good dentist that is located 10 minutes from home, he chooses a dentist he admits is not so great and requires an unpleasant 1.5-hour roundtrip drive because that’s what he’s used to doing.) My failure weighed heavy on my mind last week. Was I a fraud?

Then it dawned on me that feedback from others about a motivation conversation not going as hoped usually dealt with family members. So, before you test your motivation coaching skills at home, beware these pitfalls.

  • You don’t have position power. Managers and coaches share stories with me about their powerful motivation conversations with staff and team members. Parents tell me how they’ve successfully used motivation conversations with their kids on issues from brushing their teeth to taking drugs. But it’s a different story when it comes to most any other family member or life partner. If you are a manager, coach, parent or teacher, part of your job is helping people shift their motivational outlook. Helping a family member shift their motivation might be a great opportunity to be of service. But it’s not your job.
  • You have an agenda, and your family member knows it! By the time you have a motivation conversation with a family member, there’s a good chance you’ve tried convincing them to see things differently. Now trying a new approach feels like you’re doing an end run on an issue you’ve failed to “win” at in the past. Of course, I’d made off-the-cuff remarks about my husband’s choice of dentists in the past. Maybe more than once or twice.

Think about the times you’ve tried a political conversation with a family member. “I just need to understand how you could have voted for…” Or, “Help me understand your stand on gun control.” Now you’re trying to have a conversation that requires them to consider how their values align with their political views. They know it’s not about understanding — you’re trying to change their point of view. They smell it coming.

  • You don’t plan — you just dive in. We take liberties with family members that we’d never take with people we work with or lead. We rarely have pre-determined or scheduled meetings with family. You’re in the car on the way to your children’s soccer game and decide to “discuss” your partner’s eating habits. You’re on a walk and decide to “share your concern” over the way they spend money.

If you want an effective motivation conversation with a family member, consider these imperatives.

  1. Be intentional. Secure agreement from your family member that there’s a willingness to discuss the topic or issue. Plan how you are going to frame the conversation. Schedule a time. Imagine how more successful I’d have been if I’d said to my husband, “Honey, you were complaining about your dentist last week. Would you be willing to talk more about it after dinner tonight?”
  2. Shift your own motivation before you facilitate someone else’s. Imagine you are a manager with an aversion to performance reviews. If you don’t shift your own motivation before having that review, it won’t go well. If you are angry, frustrated, or resentful with suboptimal motivation going into the conversation, don’t have the conversation. Ironically, I had suboptimal motivation (frustrated that my husband wouldn’t change dentists) even as I was attempting to shift his suboptimal motivation for making the change. No wonder I failed.
  3. Be mindful. Mindfulness means you’re aware but without judgment or attachment to outcomes. In my case, I was full of judgment about what I considered my husband’s lack of good judgment. I wasn’t close to being mindful. In fact, I was pushing my agenda and working toward my own outcomes under the guise of caring about him.

Whether you’re facilitating a motivation conversation at work or bravely attempting one with family member at home, a motivation conversation isn’t about you. When you facilitate someone else’s motivation shift, it’s not about you trying to understand the situation — it’s about you helping them to understand their own situation.

Get out of their way. Create a safe space for them to explore their beliefs, values and motivational outlook for their goal, task or situation. Mindfully ask questions to help them create their own choice, connection and competence — and shift when, and if, they’re ready.

By the way, practicing what I teach, my husband agreed to revisit the dentist thing. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: Motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Susan teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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