Motivation for Change in the Relationships You Don’t Love by Tracey Diefenbach, GPC

While I am all about spreading love to people and relationships, what about those connections you don’t love? As grant professionals, we deal with all different kinds of people – you know those people:

  • The program director who says, “I don’t even have the staff to carry out these program goals, but I need the money. So, just write whatever goals you think will get us the grant.”
  • The executive director who tells you “we don’t have a policy on diversity, equity, and inclusion; can’t you just write one for us?”
  • The new client who, when asked to share about their organization’s leadership team and strategies, says “you can find that on our website.”

Yep, I did not love navigating these relationships or at the very least, I do not love these conversations that seem to leave me feeling stuck and frustrated. So how do you learn how to accept and move these relationships and conversations along?

One way is through Motivational Interviewing (MI). Often used in therapeutic settings, MI is defined as a “collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language of change. It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion,” (Miller and Rollnick, 2013).

Applying this framework can absolutely pivot these relationships and change conversations from stuck to unstuck. There are lots of elements to MI, but I want to focus on the core skills known as OARS and how I, as a grant professional, have begun using these skills.

  1. Open-ended questions: To pull out and explore the person’s experiences, perspectives, and ideas. These questions call for elaboration and invite description giving the listener more to learn from and also set a collaborative tone.
  2. Affirmations: Statements to identify what is positive in the conversation or what is going right in the situation. They highlight the strengths and past successes to help the individual build hope in their ability to change.
  3. Reflections: Statements based on careful listening and trying to understand what the individual is saying by repeating, rephrasing, or taking a deeper guess at what it means.
  4. Summaries: A further collection of reflections to ensure shared understanding and reinforce key points made by the individual. When employed with reflective listening, individuals often hear themselves talking about change.

So, what does MI look like in practice? Let’s look at our earlier conversation with the program director:

Program Director: “I don’t even have the staff to carry out these program goals, but I need the money. So, just write whatever goals you think will get us the grant.”

Grant Professional: “Wow, I imagine being understaffed must be extremely frustrating. I appreciate your openness and honesty. How have you been managing this work? 

With this response, I have first recognized and accepted exactly where the director is at with compassion and understanding to fuel collaboration and have shown appreciation for their openness. I have also asked an open-ended question inviting the director to share more about their experiences.

Program Director: “It’s been hard! I have had to cut non-essential programs and lean on our external partners to deliver specific program components that used to be provided in-house.”

Grant Professional: “It sounds like you have been successful at prioritizing, re-allocating scare resources, and drawing on partners for support. Let me pause here and make sure I have captured everything correctly. You do not have enough staff. You need the grant money, but even with re-allocating resources and partner support, you cannot achieve the program goals. Did I miss anything?

Here, you will see that I have reflected on what the director has said back to me pulling out both sides of change – the director needs the money, which indicates they want some type of change but does not believe the goals can be accomplished. I have also highlighted their strengths and past successes to build hope. I summarized what I heard in the conversation, giving the director the opportunity to pull their thoughts together and opened the conversation to move forward.

From here, I would likely follow up with more questions behind the “why.”

“Why do you need this money?” “Why has there been a staff shortage?” “Why do you continue this work in such challenging situations?”

Each question should dig deeper to draw out the reasons and motivations for change. Through this process, I have helped the director begin to identify his/her own area of “stuckness,” reasons for change, and potential steps towards this change.

MI is not a technique or tool. Rather, it is a framework in which we can collaborate and work with others. There is no one clear cut way to practice it nor does it always work or magically change or fix situations. After all, we do not have to love every relationship, even if it is February. But it can help move sticky or stuck relationships forward. For more examples just like this and a deeper dive into MI and relationship-building with grants, check out our on-demand, recorded trainings, Grants 101: Relationships with Grant Funders, Grants 301: Relationships: It is a Two-Way Street, and Grants 301: Motivational Interviewing – A Grant Centered Approach.

Competency #7: Knowledge of practices and services that raise the level of professionalism of grant developers. Skill #3: Identify strategies that grant developers use in building social capital to benefit their communities and society at large.

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