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Leveraging Free Will in Change

6 years ago written by

Change is one of the few predictable elements of life. Over the next 10 years, expect change to come at us faster than ever before.

The problem is that people find making changes difficult. The experience of change includes a journey to the unknown from the predictability and safety of status quo associated with the known. Journeying into the unknown can trigger excitement but also anxiety. When a leader or an organization requires change, a common go-to option for a leader is to convince us how important it is to change. The leader or organization may even go as far as highlighting the benefits of the change or consequences if we don’t change. This may seem effective on the surface, but for change to be truly successful, people need to identify their own motivation and exercise their free will.

To reinforce the importance of free will in change and to understand that God has given us free will to live our lives, consider the example found in Mark 10:17–27 of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Looking at the rich young ruler, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

In short, change how you live. Notice that Jesus answered the ruler’s question but did not force or require the change. To apply this concept of free will when leading others through change, leaders can learn and utilize the skills of motivational interviewing.

Motivational Method

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a communication method and a skill that can be learned with practice. Leaders can use this method with followers, and MI can also be utilized outside of work, such as with friends or family members. This method communicates respect for others while encouraging others to make their own arguments for change rather than adopting others’ reasons for change. Motivational interviewing addresses people who have not fully committed to change and remain in a state of ambivalence. MI is not done to or on others; it is done for and with others.

A model of MI involves four sequential stages: 1) engage 2) focus 3) evoke and 4) plan. The first stage, engage, involves beginning the conversation and establishing trust and respect. The second stage, focus, includes allowing the follower to choose a change goal or direction to pursue. This stage should be follower-driven rather than leader-driven. The third stage, evoke, is the process of discovering the follower’s motivations. Four critical activities in this stage include asking open-ended questions, affirming the follower’s beliefs, providing reflections and summarizing the follower’s ideas. The final stage, planning, involves helping the follower create a definitive plan with specific goals to strive for. This four-stage process can take place in one conversation or throughout many conversations. While the model is designed to go step by step, it may be best to circle back to previous stages when required.

Quick Tips

You should first begin a change conversation by asking permission from the follower to have the conversation. Besides working through the model’s stages, keep these quick tips in mind:

  • Focus on being a collaborative partner — rather than a leader — to the follower.
  • Do not express judgment.
  • Exhibit support rather than persuasion.
  • Rather than focusing on why a person may not want to change, direct the conversation toward exploring what a person truly desires.
  • Propose a discussion of the pros and cons of current behaviors and also a discussion about the benefits of possible changes.
  • Attempt to focus on specific, reasonably difficult goals rather than ambiguous ones.

Change is difficult. “The only person who likes change is a wet baby,” according to an old saying sometimes attributed to Mark Twain or Margaret Mead. While short-term change can be exciting, in order to make the effects last, decide to accept the change personally. When we are called to lead others through change, we must dance with them rather than wrestle them over it. As a leader, motivational interviewing can be a great way to start this journey. Although change may prove daunting, keep in mind this scripture: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

Amanda Munsterteiger is a Seattle Pacific University graduate student pursuing a doctorate in industrial-organizational psychology.

 Joey Collins, Psy.D., is an assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Seattle Pacific University.


  1. Think about a time you underwent a significant change. If you had free will in the change, how did it impact you?
  2. What person in your life would you most want to lead you through a change?
  3. How might you appropriately bring God into a change conversation?
Article Categories:
[Discipleship] · Health · L + L June 2017 · Magazine

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