The ‘righting reflex’… when helping isn’t always helpful

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a Motivational Interviewing workshop with Prof. Stephen Rollnick and one of the things that stood out to me the most from this workshop is the concept of the ‘righting reflex’ and how in trying to be helpful, we can sometimes unintentionally be the opposite. 

Schools are certainly in the business of change – improving academic attainment, improving student behaviour, helping to guide young people into being happy and successful young adults. But change is often complicated (it’s rarely as easy as simply wanting to make a change will equal making a change), and schools are complex systems with habits and behaviours that have long been reinforced by the situations and contexts in which they occur. 

Motivational Interviewing provides a refreshing and commonsensical lens to understanding and helping people to change as it acknowledges that the motivation to do anything fluctuates over time (we never switch on a motivation lightbulb which stays alight at the same intensity, it’s more like a flickering bulb), and most people are ambivalent when it comes to change.

One concept of Motivational Interviewing that I found really helpful was the idea that we need to resist the ‘righting reflex’. The ‘righting reflex’ is the desire to ‘fix’ or offer advice/information when someone presents you with a problem which requires change to be made. 

In my experience in schools the ‘righting reflex’ is very strong – teachers often fall into the ‘expert’ orientation and can be viewed as the ‘knower’. Although teachers expert-orientation is concerned with the content of the subject which they teach, they are often viewed in the same light (or may view themselves in the same light) on matters outside of their subject. Afterall, we as adults have had arguably more life experience to draw from and we’ve often ‘been there’, whether it’s how we went from failing to passing students, how we dealt with adversity growing up, or how we changed our behaviour and turned things around for ourselves. 

There’s often a deeper reason as to why we chose to work in education and perhaps a message that we want to somehow convey to others is ‘if I did it, so can you’. This is very important but can perhaps sometimes muddy the help we can give to others. 

If we turn to the notion of ambivalence for a moment – Miller and Rollnick offer a really helpful analogy for visualising this – ambivalence (to change) is much like having a committee in your head, which has several members disagreeing on what the proper course of action should be. Whoever is siding with the viewpoint of the ‘righting reflex’ is one such voice in your mind’s committee, but there may be many other committee members who will share counterarguments to this. 

Think of the friend that you have who you go to with a problem that offers lots of suggestions to help you (“why don’t you go to the gym straight from work?”, “you should talk to your friend and tell them exactly how you feel”, “you need to put yourself out there more… why don’t you join a club?”. Whilst these may be sound pieces of advice, they are often met with quite predictable responses of “yes, but…”

“Yes, but I have so much marking to do”

“Yes, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings”

“Yes, but I’m scared of putting myself out there… yes, but I can’t go because I have other commitments on those days”

When applying this to the school context, teachers can have a tendency to give advice or ‘fix’ students, telling them what they need to do to get better (or have a better attitude). Often sentences can start with “you need to…” or “you need to stop…”

“You need to plan your revision much better otherwise your grades are not going to improve… you should be doing X, Y, Z”

“You need to stop hanging around with that group”

“Why don’t you do something nice instead of worrying about X, Y, Z… You should go to the mall or read a book to try and take your mind off things”

When the ‘righting reflex’ is used, often the response from the person considering making a change is to intuitively argue against it. Rather than helping people and inspiring change, the ‘righting reflex’ can unintentionally make people feel bad, and perhaps even more likely to ignore/ push back against the advice that was intended to help them. 

Rather than reflexively trying to ‘fix’ the problem or offer advice or information you could perhaps draw on this five questions from Miller and Rollnick (and listen respectfully) as a starting point when helping someone to consider change:

  1. Why would you want to make this change?
  2. How might you go about it in order to succeed?
  3. What are the three best reasons for you to do it?
  4. How important is it to make this change, and why?
  5. So what do you think you’ll do?

What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. Rather than offering help or fix a problem based on our opinions and experiences, perhaps the best place to start is to find out how others feel that they can ‘fix’ their own problems. Motivation is much more impactful when it comes from within and when it takes our own ideas into account.

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