Ambivalence as essential for behavioural change

When someone approaches a dispute resolver, mediator, coach, or lawyer for assistance, they are seeking support for alternation in their circumstances. They may want their situation or lifestyle to alter,  or they may be seeking that someone else’s behaviour be different. Essentially we are being asked to help another to bring about these changes. A common approach is to tell that person what we think needs to happen to bring about behaviour or lifestyle change. This is sometimes called “the righting reflex”[i] and rarely achieves anything. Imposing change rarely works.

Let us consider a family where the parents, John and Betty, have recently separated and they have two young children, Jack and Jill,  aged 4 and 6. The separation has been relatively recent and both are struggling with the significant changes in their roles as parents, both in relation to each other, as well as the children. They do not like each other and do not want to have anything to do with each other, but they need to find a way to manage the arrangements for their children.

Experience teaches that to be effective we need to have a unique type of constructive conversation that results in the person we are working with developing the motivation and ability to bring about the required change themselves. For this to be a possibility they first need to be ambivalent about change. If they are entrenched in a rigid position where they expect any movement towards their goal, or possible change, to be initiated by someone else, then they will never be open to what they might do to bring this about themselves. They may see little or no reason for them to do anything differently, they may like things just the way they are, or perhaps they have tried various changes in the past and these have not been successful.

Both John and Betty have been told by their lawyers that the children have a right to a meaningful relationship with both parents, but at the same time the children need to be safe, comfortable and secure. Jack has not seen the children since separation and is missing them and desperate to find a way to reconnect. He is also hurting following being evicted from the family home by Betty, and not prepared to put himself in a situation where he may be the subject of further allegations and accusations. Betty is feeling a great sense of relief at having some time in the home without John, so she can think about her future with the children. For the first time in a long time, she does not feel that she has to promote her needs and those of the children, and this has brought a much greater sense of calmness to her world that she does not want to disturb. The children have also settled after being quite confused following separation and she does not want to upset them either.

Parties are often given information about rights and entitlements, impacts of separation on children and their important relationships,  the separation process and ways to manage this for the benefit of all involved. But other motives can conflict with this information and doing what they might have been told is the “right thing”. Ambivalence is simultaneously wanting and not wanting something, or wanting both of two incompatible things.[ii] In their heads they are hearing the talk for doing something, and also hearing talk about why they should not do so. These arguments for both outcomes- both for and against change- already exist inside the ambivalent person.

John wants to do something about being able to communicate with Betty about the children, but he does not want to put himself in a situation where this will result in criticism and commands that he is expected to obey. Betty knows that the children love John and are confused about why he has disappeared from their lives, but she is not willing to put herself in a situation where John will argue with her and the situation is likely to lead to high conflict.

Both of these internal narratives are essential to be able to move John and Betty to a situation that will benefit their children. A helper who follows the righting reflex and argues for change is siding with one of these voices. The feature of ambivalence that is interesting is that often people remain in this state for a while, oscillating from one to the other. When they align with one voice, the other becomes very attractive. The closer the movement is to one voice, the more its disadvantages become apparent and the other beckons. [iii]

John may decide that he will do whatever it takes to have a conversation with Betty to make an arrangement to see the children. As he considers what this would look like and the position he would be in, he is struck by how much easier it would be not to go there. As he thinks about how much better he would feel to avoid that dictatorial tone from Betty telling him what he must do and how he must do it, his children are calling him, and he is plunged into the grief of not having spent any time with them recently.

Betty knows that the children are missing John and considers how it could possibly work for him to see them. But then she thinks about what he is likely to say to them about why they have not seen him, and she starts to think that it is better for the children to be saved the distress of all that!

The path out of ambivalence is to choose a direction and follow it, to keep moving in the chosen direction.[iv] Human nature tells us that people tend to believe themselves rather than what they are told by professionals. Causing someone to verbalise one side of this debate inside their head, tends to move the balance of their thinking in that direction. This is only ever going to be possible if the ambivalence is noted, the two voices are spoken of so that they can be heard and understood by the speaker. The most useful strategy is then to assist that person to develop the motivation themselves for taking one of those narratives, and following it all the way in the direction of change. [v]


[i] See “Motivational Interviewing-helping people change” by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick 2013 page 5

[ii] Ibid page 6

[iii] Ibid page 7

[iv] Ibid page 7

[v] Ibid page 9

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