We now know that motivation is not a personal characteristic of your teenagers but is instead a function of your relationship with them. Therefore, you need to examine that relationship to see if it has the three essential qualities of a motivational relationship: cooperation, elicitation, and empathy.
Cooperation – A truly motivational relationship is not confrontational. Nor is it adversarial. In a motivational relationship, no one is “right.” One member does not try to convince the other of anything. Rather, it is a collaborative process with members sharing expertise and each person listening to the other in good faith.
Some parents believe that pointing out their teens’ shortcomings will prompt them to improve their performance, or that punishments, scoldings, reprimands, lectures, and threats will do the same. You know from your own experience that these efforts are ineffective. They don’t work because they are acts of confrontation, not the conduct of a member of a motivational relationship. While there is clearly a place in the relationship for the parent to exercise authority, it is not when you are trying to motivate your teenager.
Elicitation – True motivators elicit the motivation of teenagers rather than dictate what the teens need to do. You make no attempt at persuasion, since that indicates you are correct and your teens are misguided. Advice-giving is not motivational; it is a “one-up” approach to relationships that places the teenager in the “down” position, feeling condescended to rather than motivated.
Rather than directing your teens from the outside-in, you should be attempting to evoke their intrinsic motivation from the inside-out. It involves listening and understanding their view of the situation so that you can answer the question “What are they motivated for?” instead of “What might they be motivated by?”
Empathy – There are two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy involves feelings; it is actually a form of sympathy. This is not the type of empathy that is motivational; it is not helpful to merely commiserate with your teenagers. More effective is cognitive empathy, which is the process of simply letting your teenagers know that you understand their version of events and what their experience of those events is.
Some parents have a difficult time expressing this empathy because they believe that cognitive empathy indicates that they agree with or condone their teenagers’ actions. But the expression of cognitive empathy says no more to your teenagers than “This is your experience as I understand it.”
That is a powerful message for anyone to hear, but especially a teenager from an adult. And it is that message that is the foundation of a motivational relationship.