Home » Blogs » Leveraging Adversity » Want to Inspire Change? Add Some Empathy

Want to Inspire Change? Add Some Empathy

helping photo


There are a lot of ways we can try to inspire change. We can add incentives. We can install penalties. We can try to motivate. We can try to get others to motivate themselves.


And yet there is one thing that inspiring change always relies on – and that is the relational component between the person inspiring the change, and the person doing the change. And what that relationship relies on is empathy.


In a randomized trial looking at the efficacy of a motivational interviewing training with clinicians, researchers found that among all other interventions and approaches, empathy had the strongest correlation with positive outcomes (Miller, et. al, 1980). These findings were later supported by a study that demonstrated positive outcomes between therapist empathy and twelve-month drinking outcomes (Gaume, 2008). In another study, clinician interpersonal skills correlated significantly with measures of client involvement (Miller, et. al., 2004).


Empathy matters. And it matters because getting people to change is hard. But what is even tougher is getting people to change if they don’t feel you understand their perspective. The difference is that when people feel understood, they feel as if you are with them in the change, as oppose to enforcing it upon them.


And interestingly, taking another’s perspective might also make us better able to devise solutions that honor their interests. As Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, reminds us, “When we engage in perspective taking, considering our counterparts interests, thoughts, and interests, we’re more likely to find ways to make deals that satisfy our counterparts without sacrificing our own interests.” That is to say, empathizing is a powerful part of negotiating for change.


So how do you show empathy? Here are three ways:


Collaborate don’t control.

Acting in a collaboratively means to developing an alliance with those around you in a way that values them as an integral parts of the greater whole. This also means seeing their resources as important tools toward change, avoiding directing the change, and working together to design steps and strategies toward change.

Here are three ways to work collaboratively:

*Ask people what they think they should do as oppose to telling them what to do.

*Ask someone what they feel would be helpful in the process of change.

*Ask someone how they feel they are doing as oppose to telling them how they are doing.



Evoke, don’t install motivation.

Motivation is a powerful resource, but only when it comes from within. Internal motivation – they kind that drives change – cannot be applied from the outside in. And that’s because it depends on three very powerful internal states: mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

Here are three ways to evoke motivation:

*Ask someone when they feel the most competent (strong).

*Ask someone what steps they can take, and plan to take toward change.

*Ask someone why they really want to change.


Honor autonomy.

Honoring autonomy means to work in a way that allows people to have a sense of choice in the process of change. Instead of telling someone how to change, autonomy asks them what they would like to do to change, and even further, allows them responsibility for the change.

Here are three ways to honor autonomy:

*Allow others to have a sense of choice in the process of change.

*Ensure that others feel in control of their change process.

*Encourage someone to develop their own strategies to overcome ambivalence.



Change may be tough, but when it comes to inspiring it, a little empathy goes a long way.


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, visit



Miller, W. R., Taylor C. A., West, J. C., (1980). Focused versus broad spectrum behavior therapy for problem drinkers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 48:590-601

Gaume, G., Gmel, J., Daeppen, J. B., (2008). Brief alcohol interventions: Do counselors’ and patients’ communication patterns predict change? Alcohol and Alcoholism 42: 62-69

Miller, W. R., Yahne, C. E., Moyers, T. B., Martinez, J., Pirritano, M., (2004). A randomized trial to of methods to help clinicians learn motivational interviewing. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 72: 1050-1062

Want to Inspire Change? Add Some Empathy

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2015). Want to Inspire Change? Add Some Empathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Sep 2015
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.