How To Change The Behaviour Of Others (Without Them Realising)

Frankie Kemp

23 September 2023

Using communications skills to change behaviours in people is essentially understanding when to issue a gentle steering rather than a harsh kicking.

Trenton Oldfield, the protestor who jumped into the River Thames disrupting the annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race in 2012, must have been extremely grateful for the skilful steering of the boat. It was due to the beady eye of the cox that he was able to maintain his head in one piece, even though his brains had obviously sunk somewhere deep into the River Thames.

This clever negotiation of obstacles appears in Motivational Interviewing, which is based on the skill of using O.A.R.S. And these oars look slightly different to the ones that negotiated their way around Trenton’s head.

O.A.R.S. stand for:

Open Questions,
Affirmative Responses,
Reflective Listening and

Using OARS for motivational interviewing

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is not so much a quick joyride in a power boat but more a gentle steering to change someone’s behaviour, or in Trenton’s case, keep his head from being spliced off.

There are times when a sharper kick may be called for, such as in construction or in a production unit where “Get your hard hat on!” is best delivered as a curt reminder that imminent danger exists, rather than woven into a half-hour feedback session.

Getting a colleague to be more ‘team spirited’, however, may need a lighter hand with a more delicate, structured approach.

Thus, here are the fundamentals of MI; a management skill that can help you gently transform behaviour.

(Note that the elements that make up MI can be used in any order)

The Elements of Motivational Interviewing (MI)

  • O = Open Questions

Closed questions can be useful but open ones provoke answers fuller than one word responses.  They build momentum and help to explore change more fully. For example, ‘Do you feel you deserve the promotion?’ will provoke a different level of answer than ‘What makes you feel that it’s time for a new role?’


  • Uncovers hidden agendas
  • Discloses blocks

Examples of Open Questions:

  • “What’s been happening since we last met?”
  • “What triggered this meeting today?”
  • How can you help yourself with…?


  • A = Affirming Responses

These are statements and gestures that recognize a person’s strengths,  acknowledging the desired behaviours or progress towards those behaviours, no matter how big or small. By emphasising the positive attributes, you build up the individual’s confidence and hence their motivation and desire to change.


  • Affirming Responses can help build trust. If you are trusted, you are more likely to get to the bottom of issues lurking beneath the surface which often present as the foundation for the ‘stated’ reasons.
  • Such responses are encouraging and show recognition of a person and their abilities and/or efforts.

Examples of Affirming Responses are:

  • “You’ve clearly made a lot of effort.”
  • “I appreciate you were willing to share that with us.”
  • “If I were in your shoes, I don’t know if I could have managed nearly so well.”
  • “You’ve tried very hard to make things happen.”
  • “I’m really impressed by the way….”


  • R = Reflective Listening

Reflective Listening includes paraphrasing and reflecting back feeling.

Reflective listening can also be repeating back what’s just been said. You may think that parroting back what you’ve heard could sound a bit moronic but, unless you overuse this method, it won’t be received in this way as it prompts the speaker to either reconsider what they’ve just said or elaborate on it.


  • Builds up empathy in the conversation by showing understanding.
  • Ensures you don’t react to something that you’ve misinterpreted, by getting clarification.
  • By demonstrating recognition of the current situation, you’ll be helping the person to commit to change.

Examples of Reflective Listening are:

  • “So you feel…”
  • “It sounds like you…”
  • “In other words…Is that right?”


  • S = Summary Statements

Here you reinforce what has been said, and prepare the conversation to move on to another subject.


  • Verify your facts or get agreement to action.

Examples of Summary Statements:

  • “This is what I’ve heard. Tell me if I’ve missed anything.”
  • “So if we look back at what’s been happening so far, would it be fair to say…”
  • “You mentioned…and how…have I got this right?”

Sealing the Commitment to Change

Convincing someone to change is the point at which you have buy-in, and the person acknowledges that change is the positive outcome needed. The statements below are examples of ‘change talk’, where the person knows that a change is necessary and inevitable:

  • “It can’t go on like this.”
  • “I wish things were different.”
  • “I really need to look at how we’re going to reach those targets.”

Methods for Evoking Change Talk:

If you aren’t hearing a commitment to change you can use your communication skills to evoke change talk. Here are some examples:

  • Asking evocative questions:
    “What worries you about your current situation?”
  • Using the importance ruler (also use regarding client’s confidence to change):
    “On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is unimportant and 10 extremely, how important would you say it is for you to_____?
  • Exploring the decisional balance:
    “What do you like about your present pattern?”, “What concerns you about it?”
  • Elaborating:
    “What else?” Ask for clarification, an example, or to describe the last time this occurred.
  • Questioning extremes:
    “What concerns you most about…?”, “What are the best results you could imagine if you made a change?”
  • Looking back:
    “What were things like before?”
  • Looking forward:
    “How could you improve the way things are?
  • Exploring goals and values:
    “What things are most important to you?”

Motivational Interviewing replaces opining, unwanted advice or threats.  These strategies sets up the interaction of disciplinary parent speaking to their naughty child, which many employees will naturally object to and rally against.

There may be times when advice or being more directional is absolutely called for.  If a situation demands this, in your eyes, go here to ensure it’s acknowledged rather than dismissed.

Using the communication skills within Motivational Interviewing, the  other person will have been directed to ‘own’ their solution,

We’re more likely to change if we see, feel and state that need – ie. directly experience it – rather than if someone tells us.

So put the time in on your O.A.R.S. – for the boat to gain its own momentum – and allow yourself the freedom to get on with other things.

Your Action Steps.

  1. Pick ONE technique only this week e.g. open questions;
  2. Ensure your non-verbal communication develops rapport. Use this technique.
  3. Develop your awareness by using this technique in conversations. You don’t have to wait for a work-related interaction.  It can be any conversation.  Note how the conversation opens up as a result of using that communication technique.

This and many other communications coaching techniques are included in my Communications Skills Training and Presentation Skills Training courses, and if you are interested in learning more get in touch with me today.

This article was originally published in April 2012 and updated in September 2023.

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