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Ambivalence PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jason Parker   
Tuesday, 20 March 2007
Have you ever encountered the following situation when problem-solving with someone else? Each time you come up with a possible solution, the other person says, “Yes, but…” It’s a scenario not uncommon in any given human interaction. You have likely already experienced instances when for all the “right” reasons you suggest  someone participate in a rehab or return-to-work plan, but every time you try to explain your reasoning, he or she says, “Yes, but…” and comes up with a host of counter arguments. Whenever you hear the words, “Yes, but…” it signals ambivalence on the part of the speaker.

When it comes to motivation, according to Miller and Rollnick in their book Motivational Interviewing, ambivalence is a natural phase in the process of change. They suggest that once the ambivalence is resolved, little else may need to be done.

So what exactly is ambivalence? It helps to think of the ambivalent person as being on a teeter totter, stuck in the middle, not able to make a clear “yes” or “no” choice. Intuitively, you believe that by piling up sound, logical reasons for returning to work on the “yes” side of the teeter totter, that person will eventually slide to the “yes” side. The problem is what you think is logical may not be the same as what the person on the teeter totter believes is logical. And recall from our earlier article on motivation, when it comes to returning to work, people return for emotional reasons, even if they justify their return with logic.

There’s an old sales tactic that was originally developed to sway ambivalent customers. It was based on a story that goes something like this: “There once was a very smart man and when he had trouble making a decision he would take out a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the centre. He would then write down on one side all of the reasons why he should buy and on the other side all of the reasons why he shouldn’t. He would then count up the positives versus the negatives and go with whichever side had the highest tally.” Typically, the salesperson might hand paper and pen to a customer with a flourish and say, “And that smart man was a man by the name of…Ben Franklin.” The customer was then expected to write out the pros and cons and if the pros outnumbered the cons, the sale was clinched. The problem with this old approach is that if just one of the cons had more weight than the pros, the negatives would always override the positives, regardless of their number. The lesson: When dealing with people returning to work, beware the sales pitch.

The fundamental flaw in the Ben Franklin approach, loading on all of the reasons why people should return to work, is that while intuitively you’d think it would move a person to action, the Theory of Psychological Reactance predicts that the opposite is true. In fact, Psychological Reactance predicts that the problem behavior, in this case not returning to work, will become even more attractive if there’s a perception of coercion or of personal freedoms being infringed or challenged. It is essential when it comes to negotiating return-to-work options that a person feels they are returning for their own reasons, not someone else’s.

Hence, the need to understand why it is important to return to work from the returning employee’s perspective, not yours or anybody else’s. By getting at what is most important to that individual, you will get at what truly resonates for him or her. Remember from Mitchell’s return-to-work-motivation equation, the value a person places on work is far more important to determining their level of motivation than any other factor.

So, what to do with all of this?  How do we go about resolving ambivalence?  The first step is to find out if returning to work is important to an individual. The next is to get at what his or her expectations are for recovery, and to explore the ‘rules’ or ‘criteria’ by which they live. The answers will provide insight into what reasons they need to become ‘unstuck’, or to move to the “yes” side of the teeter totter.  Study after study shows that people’s beliefs, perceptions and expectations of recovery play a much larger role in influencing the outcomes of return to work than logic.

In future newsletters will provide concrete strategies for eliciting a person’s criteria and rules. Such knowledge, combined with an understanding of a person’s values and beliefs, are potent motivators. The key, of course, is that you will be motivating them for their own reasons.  Remember from our first Sticky Note on the link between Experience, Attitudes, and Behaviours.  A person’s behaviour, in our case namely engagement in the return to work process is directly related to his or her experience, which impacts on attitudes, and ultimately engages the worker. What could be a more elegant way of achieving such a relationship than motivating a person for their own reasons?
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 20 March 2007 )