Last week I mused about change: Change is not easy. It takes conscious effort and we are hard-wired to resists it. Last week’s column went on to describe adjusting our own attitude toward change.  But what about we want someone else to change?

We want to persuade them, right? Persuasion – such a nice word. Even has a softness in the pronunciation. Persuasion is a process aimed at changing a person’s attitude or behavior toward some event, idea, object, or other person, by conveying information, feelings, reasoning, or a combination of them. Especially in the cases when we care about the other person, we wonder why our compelling arguments seem to fall on deaf ears. But hey… some people are just stubborn, right?

Of course, when someone tries to be persuasive to get us to do something that we are not that interested in or simply don’t want to do, we think of it as nagging when it moves past round 1. “You totally need to read this book!” “You just have to take up Pilates” “Oh my gosh, you need to begin the retro-hydro-nano-ketogenic-paleo-mediterranean-cleansing-free-range-probiotic diet plan” OK – those are invitations and suggestion – to which you politely thank them and say “no, thanks.” In Round 2 a suggestion moves towards the near-occasion of nagging. “Seriously, let me explain why this is the greatest thing in the world….” And we are on the way to full-scale nagging.

One person’s persuasion is another’s nagging. So, what gives? The other person cares about us, wants what best for us, and we don’t think of ourselves as stubborn…. hmmm? So, what gives?

Effective skills and ways to influence people…I did not do a thorough review of the literature, but I think I am on safe ground when I say that nagging is not a good leadership skill or an effective way to influence people. There is, however, some research that show that when you’re trying to influence people, most people seem to reply on more information or repetition of the same information. Studies show that people don’t need more reasons to change – they need motivation to change.

For example, suppose you want your spouse to improve his/her fitness. How would they respond to a lecture? I am pretty sure your spouse will become defensive as you enunciate all the information needed and the solid reasons recommended by Dr. Google and Dr. Yahoo, web-MDs. Some research in the area of “motivational interviewing” shows that inquiring about the other’s level of motivation is a better approach. For example, “On a scale of 1-10, how important is it to improve your fitness?” Let’s say they answers, “I don’t know, maybe a 4.” What is your next move? Were you tempted to try to nag away by listing reasons it should be a 10. Motivational interviewing is about supporting and developing the motives they already have. A possible response might be, “Wow—a 4, huh. What makes it as high as that?” Don’t pressure, just interview. Explore in order to understand their motivations.

Think about how we usually try to get smokers to quit. Most smokers already have a grasp of the facts. They’ve read the warning labels and they’ve seen the public service announcements. More lectures aren’t likely to be very influential. Grenner and Maxfield did a fascinating field study to test idea of motivational interviewing. They hired two boys to approach smokers on the street to see if they could get them to consider quitting. In the nag condition, they used the traditional lecture approach, and then asked the smoker if they’d like information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers responded resentfully, and fewer than half took the paper with the information on how to quit.

In a second experiment, the boys carried fake cigarettes, and asked the smoker for a light. The smokers’ reactions were dramatic. None offered a light, and none ignored the request. Instead, they stopped what they were doing, and began lecturing the kids on the dangers of smoking. Then the kids asked a second influential question: “If you care about us, what about you?” After that exchange, the boys offered the information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers committed to trying to quit. Did the smokers really quit? Hard to say but calls to the published helpline went up 40 percent on the day of the experiment—showing that the influence extended beyond words to action.

This all leaves me to think about evangelization. At its core you are asking someone to change, because you care for them, you want them to experience the great gift of faith, you want them to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, to share in the sacraments – we want to persuade them. How many of us end up nagging them? “You totally have to come to church!” “You’ve got to be part of this ministry – hey! Let’s do it together!” “You absolutely have to have that baby baptized.”

Some things for each of us to think about. The Christian life is about change – our own and others. Evangelization is about offering another person a life-giving change.  We can persuade, nag, motivate – or is there something else? I’ll have to think about it. Maybe I can persuade myself to write the next column on “something else”?

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