From self-determination theory, we learn that we have a need for autonomy, for feeling in control, to feel that we have some impact on our surroundings and what happens to us. To look at it from another angle: We have a need for power. We do not like to feel that we have no influence on other people, our environment or what happens to us.
Example 1 of thwarting this need: You and your friend are going on vacation together. You are planning your trip, and you shoot down every suggestion from your friend. You stubbornly insist on doing it your way and do not ask for any input from him. Eventually, your friend resigns and agrees to do it your way.
Example 1 of supporting this need: You are planning your trip. Your friend is silent, but instead of just pushing forward with your suggestions, you actively engage him in the planning by asking him questions. You try to get to the bottom of what he wants to get out of the trip, while you also communicate what you want to get out of it. You are flexible, and actively integrate these needs into the trip, so that both of you feel ownership of it.
Example 2 of thwarting this need: You rarely ask open-ended questions. Almost all your questions are closed-ended, like: “Don’t you think it is annoying when…?”, “Shouldn’t we do this instead?”, “Did you have nice weekend?” Close-ended questions are fine to use to a certain extent, for example when you want to steer the conversation in a certain direction or want to get a specific answer to something. Their downside, however, is that they cause the other person to be locked into the frame you create, forcing them to answer the question in a particular way that they have not chosen.
Example 2 of supporting this need: You strike a balance between closed-ended and open-ended questions. Open-ended questions give the other person the opportunity to take control of what they want to talk about: “What do you feel when X happens?”, “What do you want to do?”, “What do you think about…?”, “Tell me more about…”, “What did you do this weekend?” They give the other person the opportunity to steer the conversation into areas they find interesting and relevant, supporting their autonomy and increasing the likelihood that they will get to talk about something they think is enjoyable to talk about.
Example 3 of thwarting this need: You want to engage in some sketchy activity, but you are too afraid to do it alone, so you try to push your friend into doing it with you. He declines, but you push and push and push, and eventually he gives in and joins you, silently resenting you for pushing him into doing something he clearly did not want to do.
Example 3 of supporting this need: You respect his boundaries. If the activity is something that you think he would enjoy, but that just is outside his comfort zone, you might push him a bit, but if he clearly does not want to, you respect his choice.
Example 4 of thwarting this need: Every time you and your friend are out in the city together, you take charge and choose what to do, without having thought through your friend’s preferences.
Example 4 of supporting this need: You take charge and initiative (which is a great quality, by the way), but you are mindful of how your friend responds. Perhaps you know that he generally likes that you lead the way. Thus, you are aware that his preference is to be led by you to a certain extent because you choose activities that he also enjoys. He feels that you take care of his needs as well as your own. That means that it is his choice to be led, which means that his autonomy is supported. Occasionally you check in with him on how he perceives things. If you get indications that he does not like what you are doing, you explore what he would like to do instead. For example: “What would you like to do?” If the answer you get generally is: “I’m not sure, what do you think?”, then it is fine for you to lead the way if he seems to have a good time. You can also lead the way and support his autonomy by suggesting something and asking, “Does that work with you?” or “Anything else you’d rather want to do?” However, if your friend also prefers to lead, then you occasionally should take your hands off the steering wheel. By also giving him the opportunity to choose what you do, you create a healthy balance in the relationship.
Example 5 of thwarting this need: You planned to meet your mate at 4 pm. However, something important has happened that you must handle. You send him a message and say: “X has happened and I must attend to it, I’ll come at 8 pm instead” (assuming that he will be okay with waiting for you for four hours).
Example 5 of supporting this need: You say: “X has happened and unfortunately I must attend to it. Does it work for you if we start at 8 pm instead?” Here you respect that he might want to change his plans for the evening since you will be four hours late.
Key take-away: Do not lock others in a cage with your language or actions. Instead, create opportunities for them to take the steering wheel and feel ownership of what will happen.
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