Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Motivating Strangers

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

In Crucial Confrontations, you give an example of teens parking in your parking spot, and although you pleasantly ask them to stop, they don’t. Unless I missed it, the book never answered how to motivate these teens, whom you don’t really know well enough to figure out how to motivate. I occasionally face problems with people I don’t know and I’d really appreciate some help on how to handle them.

Still Waiting

A  Dear Waiting,

Motivating others is always tricky because you can go wrong in so many ways. So how can you address the challenge of influencing others who you believe should—and easily could—change their behavior, but won’t? In short, what do you do when others don’t face an ability barrier; they just need to be motivated?

You don’t motivate others—you only tap into their existing motivation. Humans have agency. You can’t swing a magic wand or put them under a spell and force them to behave in new ways. They’re going to choose how to act on their own. That means you have to affect what they’re thinking and feeling, because their thoughts will drive their behavior—certainly any behavior as complicated as parking in your parking spot. So, give up on the notion that you’re going to motivate others. Instead, you’re going to tap into their existing wants and desires, plus affect how they think, and in so doing help direct how they choose to act.

Using power, threats, authority, and other forms of compulsion is easy and dangerous. Many people’s primary influence tools are power, threats, and other forms of compulsion. At one point, all of us have been upset enough that we too have employed threats, insults, verbal attacks, or even physical abuse (perhaps when we were kids). The forms of abuse vary from actual physical abuse to hostile glances—but the message is the same. Do as I ask, or you’ll suffer in some way.

Why would some people routinely exert force? It’s what they know. They’ve tried several methods of encouraging and inspiring others, only to see their efforts fall short. So, they reach down into their bag of tricks and pull out their power. One’s authority and control over resources is ever so handy and so easy to use. You can threaten others with little more than formulating a sentence or two. You can put the fear into someone by merely staring at him or her intently with a look of disgust. You can shake your head, tighten your jaw, bark a harsh word, and the other person quickly complies—for fear of what you might do to them. That is, if you have power.

Of course, when you use your power to create a real or implied threat, you can pay dearly. Your relationship may no longer be the same. The nature of the other person’s job may have changed. Now, instead of completing their work—even taking pleasure from completing their job—they’re avoiding punishment. They may need to be closely monitored. They may dislike or even despise you. You may spend countless hours playing cat-and-mouse as the person you threatened gets even with you every time you leave the building. You’ve moved from supervisor to warden and nobody likes that job.

Explain natural consequences. So, instead of quickly employing your power, explain to the other person why you’d like him or her to change his or her behavior. That is, explain the natural consequences currently associated with the wrong behavior. For instance, “When you’re going to be late for a meeting and don’t let us know, we sit and wait for ten or fifteen minutes.”

The natural consequences associated with a behavior make up the reasons you want the behavior to change. Natural consequences occur independent of outside action, and require no authority or power. They also motivate in your absence. Once others understand how their actions affect you, the job, the customers, other employees, and so forth, this knowledge keeps them motivated in your absence.

Be patient. Sometimes you may have to explain several consequences until you find one that motivates the other person. This puts you on a consequence search. You explain the effects on the job—the person doesn’t seem to care. You explain the consequences to other employees—also to no effect. You point out how it affects the customer—now they come around. This, of course, takes us to our earlier point, you can always rely on your power—”I’m going to call the police.” You can always make a threat—”I’m going to tell the boss.” But it’s not the place you want to start. Instead, begin with natural consequences.

So, what happened with the teenagers and the parking spot we talked about in Crucial Confrontations? In truth, that was a slightly altered story. The real story consisted of neighborhood kids letting the air out of my father’s back right tire—forcing him to pump it up with a bicycle pump each morning before going to work. I was in my early 20s at the time and visiting from college, so I gathered the neighborhood kids to play basketball in our driveway. After a few minutes, I drew the kids into my confidence. I explained I had just learned that somebody was letting the air out of Dad’s tire and this had me worried. Maybe they could help catch the offenders and get them to stop. You see, my dad wasn’t all that young anymore and I was worried about his heart. Plus, it made him late a couple of times and his boss didn’t like that. I wasn’t certain these kids were the offenders, but they now knew why I was concerned.

Nobody ever let the air out of Dad’s tire again.

I could have threatened the kids with police action. Instead, I explained the natural consequences associated with the act, and let that knowledge work its magic. Do natural consequences always work? No. Sometimes you have to either back off your request or escalate your methods. Sometimes you simply can’t find anything the other person cares about and you have to draw down on your authority. But this should be your last resort, not your starting place. And by the way, whether you’re talking to your closest friend or an absolute stranger, your best motivational tool is always the same. Explain natural consequences.


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3 thoughts on “Motivating Strangers”

  1. Tori

    So it turns out that the kids weren’t strangers at all – a relationship existed that you were able to use. Still leaves me wondering, then, about how to deal with the stranger issues.

  2. Charlene Sorken

    Good morning. How timely your article regarding motivating strangers is, to have arrived in my inbox this morning. Why, just two days ago I myself took steps to motivate strangers by explaining natural circumstances. I have just recently moved into a lovely, 40+ condominium and the strangers in my case are the folks living above, whom I have not yet met. Below is the letter that my husband I slid under their door; the content of this letter will explain the situation and show the steps my husband and I took to address our concerns:

    April 25, 2011

    Dave and Charlene Sorken in #203 here. We hope this note finds you well!
    We moved to Country Gardens on February 19, 2011, as we love the building and courtyard, the location and especially unit # 203.

    Since that time we have truly enjoyed our new dream home; something we have worked hard for and have been waiting for over 20 years. We do have one small concern which we wanted to bring to your attention.
    With our unit being empty for 15 months previous to February 2011, you most likely became accustomed to no one living below you. As well, you may not be aware these units are not as sound proof as you believe. In the two months we have been living here, we have had many occasions when we have been surprised by thumps and bumps coming from above. As well on weekends, we hear the tell-tale sounds of little feet running to and fro over our heads, many times a day. Unfortunately, these noises sound more like galloping to us below. By the rapid pace and short stride of these running foot steps, we speculate they belong to a child. Often times, this little person can be heard jumping around as well.

    Many times it sounds as though something has been dropped rather heavily on the floor over our heads, which is a bigger concern for us, as stipple has come drifting down from our ceiling on two or three of these occasions. Added to this, is the fact that one night last week, something very heavy was dropped over our heads at 2:30 am, waking us and our guests. Just last night in fact, there were two significant thumps late in the evening; one at approximately 10:15 pm and the other at 11:10 pm, both of which woke us.

    We also suspect you have may have a recliner or easy chair or something similar, which is hastily closed back to an up-right position, in one swift motion, which down below is a very loud, resounding thud. We think this is from a reclining chair, as this happens several times an evening.

    There is a list of reasons we chose Country Gardens as our new home; two of which are that it is reputed to be a very quiet building and also because it is a 40+ building; with no children in residence.

    We have waited twenty years to find a home we love as much as do here, and when we found Country Gardens, we truly felt as though our dream had finally come true.

    We know you are not aware of how much louder these thumps, bumps and thuds sound to us one floor below, so we thought we would bring this to your attention. The sounds of doors closing loudly, bathroom fans running for an hour or more at a time, heavy foot falls, running back and forth, etc., likely all seem of no consequence to you, but they are quite disrupting to us, so we wanted to let you know.

    Actually you have unknowingly helped us, as we are now very conscious of what sounds we may be making that might disturb our neighbors below us on the first level, and we have taken several measures to step quietly and close doors softly, and not run our appliances too late in the evening.

    As our new neighbors, we would love to meet you for a round of introductions over coffee or perhaps a glass of wine. Please feel free to come down and knock on our door at a time that works for you. We are home most evenings.

    Kind regards,

  3. Rebecca

    Such a valuable questions! I agree that there was a relationship in place that the author leveraged. That seems to be the key: with strangers, as the letter above attests, rapidly establishing a connection is the leverage to discovering their motivations/values and then being able to effectively share the natural consequences that align with those values. I’ve found that some people I coach are naturally adept at this kind of connecting and listening; others implement techniques and tools learned from coaching and life experience. Both improve their connecting and communicating just by , as the author elucidated, purposefully seeking out the motivators and having prepared how to concisely share the natural consequences. It may seem a bit practiced, and it is the first few times, but the effect is so profound you’ll find you want to get more adept so you can use the technique with ease.

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