What are we naturally inclined to do when someone has “behavior problems?” Confront them, pound the truth into them, get them to just listen! “Scare them straight,” titled one popular TV program. The problem is, these tactics go against the last 50 years of research, evidence and data.
These methods are not only ineffective, but detrimental.
Research (including longitudinal studies) makes this one point exceptionally clear: If you want to truly change a person, coercive means, aggression and even confrontation decreases the change desired in the individual and can lead to more problematic behaviors.
In one study, confrontation not only showed an increase in patient’s resistance to change, but problematic behaviors increased during the confrontational periods of intervention as well.1
In another study, clients that were confronted to stop drinking, actually drank more. When less confrontation was used in therapy, the less drinking clients engaged in. 2
Coercive tactics, the use of power, or trying to pound views or truth into someone simply fails. So why then, do people and organizations use such methods?
These unsuccessful tactics are still used in some AA, NA groups and twelve-step programs. They call it “hot seat therapy” or “attack therapy.” But there wasn’t a single line of research showing successful clinical outcomes using these methods.3
Is it really our concern for the welfare of others we seek, or is it our frustration or our need to be right that guides us?
If hypocritical behavior, coercive means or scaring someone “straight” doesn’t work, what does initiate a positive change in people?
Answer: Empathy and genuineness.
The University of New Mexico conducted a study that examined therapists and their approach with alcoholics. The therapists tried to get the alcoholics to stop drinking. What they discovered is that the successful outcomes actually stemmed from the level of empathy used during treatment.4 In fact, this study also showed that empathy in treatment contributed to long-term positive effects up to 2 years following the intervention.
These studies were repeated and the results were consistent.5, 6
Therapist, Carl Rogers termed “accurate empathy” which includes reflective listening to the client as well as amplifying the client’s views, meaning and experience. Research shows that this is the best way to start a successful change7,8 and actually promotes sobriety in patients that have addictions.9
Studies reveal that it is the way in which a therapist interacts with a client that either increases or decreases their problem behaviors, not necessarily the theories they implement.
Where have we gone wrong? Why do humans think confrontation, aggression, imposing views, and directive interviewing gets results, when studies show it does just the opposite?
Is it that we confuse our need to be right with our desire to help? Do we lash out on others out of our own frustration or self-righteousness? Are we constantly criticizing beyond the balm to lift up?
It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to loose your cool. Its easy to play a power role in a power differential. The true challenge is to be genuine and empathetic to someone who is really in need.
Moreover, what does this mean for Christians? Christ was always mindful of the one. He may be infinite, yet also intimate. Christ is the ultimate “people changer.” He was extremely empathetic and genuine. The only people he rejected and repelled were the hypocrites -the very people that dished out criticism, unfettered self-righteousness and even used coercive tactics on Christ himself!