Watch Your Language!

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One fundamental component of Choice Theory® is the notion that we are internally motivated—all the time.  On p. 42 of The Quality School, Dr. Glasser reminds us, “No human being is unmotivated. In fact, every living creature is highly motivated all the time.” Even though the unrelenting nature of internal motivation is a key aspect of Choice Theory, I frequently hear people talk about the need to “motivate” others and complain that some people “just aren’t motivated.”

Total behavior teaches that how I express myself (acting) includes accompanying thoughts and feelings. For that reason, I work diligently to avoid the language of external control. When I speak that way, I nonconsciously perpetuate the belief system associated with external control: that is it my job to make others behave “the right way” by shaping their behavior through rewards and punishments. I’m sure I slip up from time to time. Probably more than I realize. And certainly, I hope, less than I did when I first started this Choice Theory journey more than 25 years ago.

Because language is important to me, I’d like to share a couple of examples that demonstrate the language of external control. This way of talking is not the exclusive domain of those unfamiliar with choice theory. I have heard many “experts” in choice theory slip quite comfortably into language that promotes a very different orientation.

In my consulting work with educators, I am often asked, “What can we do to motivate our students?” Or I may be introduced by a well-meaning administrator as follows: “Today Bob is going to tell us everything we need to know to get our kids motivated.” Trying not to be critical—I try to avoid beginning my presentations with one of my favorite ‘deadly habits’—I tell the group that I have not come to teach them how to motivate their students. In truth, our desire to “motivate” others arises from the mistaken belief that motivation comes from the outside.

If you believe that we can “motivate” people, then the carrot and stick approach makes perfect sense. The reason why that model ultimately fails is because, as Choice Theory teaches us, motivation comes from the inside, not the outside.

Rather than trying to “motivate” others—a futile undertaking if there ever was one—I suggest we engage and inspire others. Engagement is based on building a trusting, need-satisfying relationship. As Choice Theorists, we know that positive relationships are at the core of all successful interactions. When others perceive us as need-satisfying, they are engaged and more likely to behave in ways that we like. Connecting, building a positive relationship based on trust, and facilitating an environment where others can meet their needs responsibly, engages and inspires.

Not only do I think it’s impossible to “motivate” another. Just as importantly, I have no interest in it. I would rather engage them, inspire them, and trust that with appropriate guidance and support they will be motivated to live a responsible life.

Another question I am asked quite frequently, usually by a loving, kind, caring teacher is, “What can I do to meet my students’ needs?” Because the questioner almost always is a very nice person, they are taken aback when I say, “Nothing.” But that’s OK. My direct, unexpected answer generally leads them to a state of curiosity, something especially important in learning. I quickly add, “You can’t meet your students’ needs. That’s their job. In fact, you can’t meet anyone’s needs but your own. I love my wife and my kids, but I can’t meet their needs. Our job as educators is to structure an environment where kids can responsibly meet their needs while doing what we ask them to do.”

Years ago, when people would talk about “meeting their students’ needs,” I would choose to remain silent. I knew they were probably unfamiliar with Choice Theory and I was reluctant to tackle the issue directly. It’s taken me a long time to develop a repertoire of behaviors, but now I address their use of external language. Not in a critical way, I hope. But I know that as long as teachers believe they are supposed to “meet their students’ needs,” they will be stuck in a fruitless and never-ending pursuit.

Internal motivation. Total behavior. Two fundamental components of Choice Theory. When I say, “How do I motivate another?” or “How can I meet another’s needs?” (acting), the thinking component of my total behavior perpetuates the erroneous belief that motivation is something that comes from the outside. Of course, when I slip into the language of external control, it is never my intent to become an advocate of external control psychology. To keep my slip-ups to a minimum, I try to be as careful as possible about my use of language. I hope you’ll choose to do the same.

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter, 2011 Newsletter of The William Glasser Institute.