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Maximizing the Importance Question

Posted on May 2, 2014

Today’s post will build on last week’s introduction of the Importance Ruler.  I would like to present you with a process I’ve developed from Motivational Interviewing (MI) concepts to help clients build motivation for change.  I’ve created a worksheet to help structure the process, which you can download by clicking this link
Before we get into the process, I need to introduce the concept of priming.  Simply put, priming happens when exposure to a certain stimulus influences a person’s reaction to a different stimulus.  If you are old enough to remember the Pepsi Challenge, it gives us a great example of psychological priming. 
For those who are a little younger than I am, way back in the 80’s Pepsi launched a nationwide blind taste test where people were given samples of Coke and Pepsi and asked which they preferred.  Most results showed that Pepsi was preferred, even by loyal Coke drinkers (for an interesting take on these results I suggest reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell).
In response, Coke started its own campaign to counteract Pepsi by doing a similar test.  The Coke test was not blinded; participants knew which sample was Coke and which was Pepsi before they chose their preference on taste. This time Coke won. Coke primed the brain by having one stimulus (knowing you are drinking Coke) change the results of the experience (preference of Coke).  Later, MRI scans showed that blind tasting was processed in different parts of the brain than when the participant knew which drink they were tasting. If we love Coke and are told we are drinking Coke, it is a better experience than if we are handed a mystery cola in a cup, even if we like the overall taste of the mystery cola. Interesting question: Did those that chose Pepsi in the blind tasting and Coke in the non-blind tasting really like Pepsi or Coke better?
Priming is also critical to change within the helping profession.  Our goal is not to manipulate the client, rather we want to help elicit brain states that promote motivation for agreed upon positive change.  Let’s look at how priming can elevate the Importance Ruler from a good way to elicit change talk, to an actual accelerator for change.
In last week’s post I had you think about a change you are trying to make in your life.  I want you to think about this change again. On the Importance Worksheet (please download if you haven’t already) answer the question:
On a 1 – 10 Scale (1 being not at all important or confident and 10 being extremely important and confident): How important is it for you to change?
Next, review the Personal Values Checklist, go through and circle the values that guide you in how you live your life.  After you have done that, select the top six values that are most important to you and write them down on the next page of the worksheet.  Assign a percentage of importance next to each of the values you wrote down, you have a total of 100% to spread over the six values.
Now think about your change again and answer these two questions:
·         How does your current behavior contradict your values?
·         How would changing behavior allow you to better live your values?
Consider the Desire, Reason, and Need (along with ability these are called Preparatory Change Talk in MI) you have for your change.  For each, answer: What (Desire, Reason, and Need) do I have to make this change in my life.
So what is the point of taking you through this exercise? First, I hope it showed you how priming (having you think about your values) influences your thinking around your change.  Second, it brings to the surface a huge amount of change talk content that could be utilized to build motivation. Third, it likely elicited a little (or a boatload) of cognitive dissonance.  Let’s look at the role of cognitive dissonance in more detail.
Cognitive dissonance is stress caus
ed by the discrepancies between the desired future state and the present reality.  Connecting back to last week’s post, discontentment with the status quo causes strain or negative stress, while the allure of an unrealized opportunity for positive gain can elicit eustress or good stress.  Strain is an away motivation, as we try to disconnect from behaviors that are not in line with our values.  Eustress is a towards motivation, giving us energy to change behaviors in order to realize a better future.
The Importance Questions help bring forth both strain and eustress, allowing us to identify when our behaviors are outside what is called the Zone of Tolerance. We can all tolerate some discrepancies between our behaviors and values (this is the Zone of Tolerance), but as we move out of this Zone we experience cognitive dissonance. This is one of most fundamental drivers of change, as cognitive dissonance becomes too great we look for paths forward that bring us back into the Zone of Tolerance.
This is where the Importance Ruler, combined with values, can be magical.  Priming the brain by thinking about values elicits a brain state concerned with what we care most about in life.  This provides a context to talk about behaviors that are out of line with one’s values.  It might be easy to say I’m going to do X and not Y, it is much harder to say I’m going to continue to go against what matters most to me (X) and not choose option (Y) that better aligns with the rules I try to live my life by every day.
Many of us (and our clients) have never thought of our behaviors in the context of values (if we have thought about our values at all).  Motivation is created when the desire, reason, and need for the new behavior overcomes the desire, reason, and need to continue the old behavior.  Next week we’ll look at the Confidence Question and how we can build hope and self-confidence, which can focus motivation into actions for change.
Before we wrap up let’s revisit the last Importance Ruler Question on the Importance Worksheet. 
On a 1 – 10 Scale (1 being not at all important or confident and 10 being extremely important and confident): How important is it for you to change?
What happened to your number?  The answer to this question is either: Thinking about values made my number go upor I realized the change is not that important to me right now. It is rare for a person to go through this exercise and have their number remain constant.
I would love to hear feedback on what this process was like for you.  I challenge you to take the next step to integrate this into your conversations of change with clients, please let us know about that experience as well.  Happy priming and changing!!

4 responses to “Maximizing the Importance Question”

  1. Jake Finger says:

    I have found priming and cognitive dissonance to be a huge asset in my peer support work. The very essence of peer support is to cause that dissonance for change and recovery; to take that “hopeless” schema and challenge it by inserting “maybe not”. It’s interesting to tell an individual about the possibility of change, but even more interesting to witness their internal perception of true change being feasible.

  2. Jake Finger says:

    I have found priming and cognitive dissonance to be a huge asset in my peer support work. The very essence of peer support is to cause that dissonance for change and recovery; to take that “hopeless” schema and challenge it by inserting “maybe not”. It’s interesting to tell an individual about the possibility of change, but even more interesting to witness their internal perception of true change being feasible.

  3. […] we have long understood the power of values in the change process. If you have not read the post Maximizing the Importance Question, I really suggest you take a few minutes to review, as it gives a practical approach to maximizing […]

  4. […] we have long understood the power of values in the change process. If you have not read the post Maximizing the Importance Question, I really suggest you take a few minutes to review, as it gives a practical approach to maximizing […]

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