Siding with the Negative: A Motivational Interviewing Technique to Shift Perspectives

Siding With the NegativeI like to think of motivational interviewing as conversational judo. Rather than putting your opinion forward in the conversation, you wait for the other person to make a stand and then work with those dynamics to gently lead the other person where you’d like them to be.

Siding with the negative is a specific technique within motivational interviewing. It may be responsible for many accusations of “reverse psychology,” because it does in fact involve saying something you don’t believe to be true.

The idea behind siding with the negative is that when a person makes a pessimistic statement about their situation (“I’ll never lose weight,” or “I just don’t have what it takes to do this.”), you don’t fight them. You actually agree with them:

“You’re probably right. You’re never going to lose weight.”

“Yeah, some people just don’t have the right stuff to overcome this challenge. Maybe you’re one of them.”

You would be surprised how many people respond to this tactic by switching sides of the argument. “Well, actually, I have lost weight before. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it again,” or, “Hey, I’m actually pretty tough . . . I could do this if I wanted to.”

And that is coaching gold, because now you’ve gotten the person to make what we call “change talk.” They’ve opened their minds to the possibility of change and put some of their own language around why it might happen for them. A simple “tell me more” will coax some people further down the change talk road, while others will need more encouragement. In any case, by siding with the negative you’ve opened the door to change.

Like any coaching technique, siding with the negative requires you to filter it through the lens of your relationship with the person you’re coaching and your best judgment. It may not be the best thing to do with someone who’s deeply depressed or feeling truly hopeless. It may make some people angry. The key is to identify who will bristle against your agreement with their negative statement, who will see the absurdity in the negative talk or react by wanting to prove you wrong. I would never try siding with the negative in a digital experience, because it’s just too hard to know if you’re hitting the target. But in a real relationship? It just might work for you.