The Advice Not Taken

I recently worked with a group of graduate coaches who volunteer as mentors for undergraduate students. They attended my workshop to enhance their communication skills for effective coaching. Over the course of the workshop the coaches shared that one of their biggest frustrations was that their students didn’t heed their advice, “I tell them exactly what to do and they still don’t listen!”  I assured them this situation was not unique to academic settings. Why don’t people follow well intentioned advice? 

Most people hold both reasons to change and reasons to continue a certain behavior simultaneously. These two competing sides rattle around in their head as they weigh the pros and cons of taking action. “I know I should put more hours into studying but I hate missing out on any social events” or “I want to lose 5 pounds but I am not about to give up my wine.” Ambivalence is normal in behavior change. In fact, ambivalence doesn’t necessarily go away once a person has adopted a new behavior (“I know I set my alarm to exercise this morning, but I’d rather stay in bed.”) As coaches, the issue is not that we hear ambivalence from our clients but how we choose to respond to it.

In our effort to help another individual, we often find ourselves “selling” the argument for change. We do our best to advise, persuade, point to evidence, cajole-even threaten: “If you don’t change this…then this (horrible thing) will happen.” In Motivational Interviewing, Miller and Rollnick call this response the Righting Reflex. The problem with responding with a righting reflex or grabbing on to the side of change is that it leaves our clients arguing for the status quo. Our conversation goes back and forth with us arguing for change and the client becoming more resolute in staying just the way they are. Generally, people are persuaded by what they hear themselves say aloud. When our clients hear themselves making the argument to stay the same, they become even more entrenched in the desire not to change.

Good coaching requires good listening and adept communication skills to arrange conversations so the client is the one making the argument for change based on what is most important and valued to them.


To learn more about eliciting and strengthening a client’s motivation to change, check out the upcoming one-day training here.

Miller, W. R., Rollnick, S. (2013) Motivational Interviewing Helping People Change. NY, NY: Guilford Press