During a recent conversation with an acquaintance of mine, I found myself striving at all costs to evangelize via information. This person recently shared that they were interested in exploring multiple denominations of Christianity, curious to seek out the Truth after only ever knowing one particular theology. After a few discussions, I learned that this individual was holding a certain belief about God that I personally thought fell short. In turn, getting excited about the potential of their conversion and feeling a responsibility to instruct, I combated my friend’s theological idea with numerous scriptural references. This approach, unfortunately, did not produce the results I had hoped for. Instead, I fell right into a trap known as the “righting reflex”—a trap that I, as a counselor, have been trained to avoid.
As defined within motivational interviewing, the righting reflex is a reflex in all of us that attempts to motivate someone to change by ripping apart their (what we believe to be) misguided ideas and/or pouring on countless facts toward “helping” someone develop a motivation for change. For example, maybe you know someone who engages in unhealthy behaviors that are negatively impacting their wellbeing. We often lecture someone or tell them how to go about making changes in their life in order to counter these unhealthy behaviors. Our thoughts? “Well, maybe they just don’t know better.” “Maybe they need to be hit over the head with the cold hard facts.” “Maybe they need to be inspired and motivated.” This is a reflex built on “making things right.” At its core, the righting reflex is driven by a desire to help. However, in its delivery, it is often received as a desire to control, leading the receiver to become defensive, defiant, or oppositional.
This reflex that I have been trained to hold back in therapy reared its ugly head in my efforts to evangelize my acquaintance. I took this opportunity given to me in trust and, instead of handling it well, I handled it poorly. In turn, the individual became hardened in their belief, as evidenced by their rebuttal of “Well, I believe . . .”, their ignoring the facts presented, and their subsequent distancing from the conversation. So, the question is, how should I have handled the situation differently?
Being asked questions is not something that happens to us much. Instead, most people like to inform us of things. Think about it for a moment. In comparison to the number of times you listen to, hear, or receive information, how often are you asked to provide input? Not nearly as often. In turn, what happens when you are asked a question? As long as the question was asked with genuine curiosity or in a tone of sincerity, we usually feel good, and that our thoughts are valued. In this situation, I believe that the conversation would have continued and would be moving towards discipleship if only I had asked questions and responded with a desire to collaboratively seek and pursue the Lord, as opposed to providing unsolicited correction and instruction.
The next time you are having a conversation and you desire to correct someone for whatever reason, whether it is to eliminate an unhealthy habit or to help someone grow in their knowledge of God, try fighting the righting reflex and instead lead with a genuine desire to explore elements of change through the use of questions. You may just be surprised at the outcome.
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