Ambivalence and Making Things Happen

Posted by Tony on March 5, 2013

First, I totally misunderstood the meaning of the word AMBIVALENCE, and it’s a really important word. I thought it meant “not caring.” Not at all. Here’s the definition: State of having simultaneous, conflicting feelings.

So, what it really means is that you are not sure what action to take, but you do have thoughts and emotions. The higher you raise ambivalence, the more you have at stake, and the more the lack of decision grates at you.

Second, I’ve always thought that ambivalence was tied to a lack of action or engagement. Wrong again. For low ambivalence, this might be true, but there’s a direct correlation between heightened ambivalence and the probability of some action being taken. This is key for things like smoking cessation. People who have high ambivalence towards smoking have lots of contradictory emotions, so they’re really driven to take action because there’s a lot of personal tension surrounding their habit. In fact, raising a person’s ambivalence about smoking is considered a crucial step toward quitting.

Tension is a really good thing when you want someone to change.

Consider the way people sell products, or coach employees. Many of us like to be nice and amiable. All our conversations tend towards agreement and making things easy. We consider interactions that are without tension to be successful. “Gosh, they were really happy through the whole conversation! That meeting rocked!”

Here’s the catch: A lack of tension often means a lack of emotional engagement, and without engagement, almost anything you want to happen will almost certainly be forgotten. The issue or change at hand has no importance. If you want to make things happen, you have to shake things up, make people uncomfortable, create tension. Be blunt, be direct, be aggressive, be honest. Raise their ambivalence.

“Don’t lead with your offerings, lead to your solutions.”

Once you’ve raised the tension and grabbed someone’s attention, offer them a real solution. Show how you can help them with the issue, which is now a big concern. Make them nervous, and then make them happy by providing what they now know they need. This is how you still walk out of a meeting with satisfaction—the difference is that people are happy, but also focused and engaged. Now change can happen.