After the Webinar: Motivational Conversations for Supervisors. Q&A with Al Cobos

Webinar presenter Al Cobos answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Motivational Conversations for Supervisors: Easy to Learn Skills Needed to Move Your Team in the Right Direction. Here are just a few of his responses.


Audience Question: Are there points in time when as a manager, or in a given situation, is asking less appropriate than telling? Is there a better time to tell, and if so, when? 

Al Cobos: I’ve taken the tell approach is, generally, after, I’ve tried motivational conversation, ask versus tell, aspect of having conversations with people. So, you know, I try that first. And there are some people, eventually, you have to, to tell them, you know, what needs to be done. You know, specifically, some people are wired that way. I’ve had some of the drill instructors that I’ve trained just tell me what to do. I understand that. But I’m still going to walk you down this path because there’s a certain amount of self-discovery that takes place through the use of questions and motivational conversation. So, telling isn’t my first option. However, you know, being in law enforcement we have tactical situation is to come up, and depending on the set of circumstances, it may be a tell situation just because there really isn’t time to ask a question, we got to get this done right now. There’s a safety issue, a time issue, time constraints. There’s a time and a place for telling, but it just depends on the situation. However, 32 years in law enforcement and also being part of numerous teams, I still see that the ask the questions is usually more relevant than just telling people. So, that the challenge is to ask the questions, more often than telling. And again, it doesn’t mean you can’t tell people. It just depends on the set of circumstances. I hope I hope that answers the question.



Audience Question: How do you determine if it’s more of a telling situation versus an asking situation? Is there? Is there a hard and fast rule? Or is it kind of a judgment call? 

Al Cobos: It’s there’s really, really, no hard-fast rule. It gets to my previous working relationship with that particular person, If it’s, then, a situation where I’ve done the questions, I’ve asked my genuine intent, trying to move down a path, and it’s just not working. It doesn’t mean I switch 100% into a tell mode, but there’s a transition. If there’s time to throw a tell statement or two along with the question. So, it’s not just questions, but there’s, there are some tell statements in there. Then, dependent on how that goes. It may just turn it into a tell situation. Again, I’ve been supervising people since 2000. And it’s, it’s been rare. I’ve had to tell people, you know, as a sergeant, I can order people what to do, 21 years as a sergeant, I’ve ordered two deputies two separate occasions to do something where I actually had to use the words, “I am ordering you to do this,” which is a very direct tell statement. Now that doesn’t mean there’s the only change overhead conflict on my team but it’s, it’s been a rare occurrence. So I still offer the asking when needed, doesn’t mean a transition to, some tell statements with some questions, but it’s been a rarity for me where I actually had to order someone using it very direct tell statement, “This is what you’re going to do.” It’s because my other options just weren’t working,



Audience Question: How are motivational conversations different from motivational interviewing? Or is it kind of the same, drawing from the same skill sets? 

Al Cobos: No, it’s, like, calling motivational conversation, because, with the motivational interviewing, perception wise, when I spoke to my different students about this, it, lends itself to the interviewing process and the mental picture people get off, I’m sitting there and being asked a number of different questions. And when you really get into motivational interviewing, it’s about having conversations, it’s about creating conversations for exchange, and that’s, that’s why I call it a motivational conversation. I’m a visual person, so I guess, it’s a personal preference, but it kind of gives people a mental visual of, it’s a conversation, there’s a back and forth taking place between, at least two people. Versus the perception of an interview where it may be more one-sided. So, you know, there are definitely a lot of similarities with motivational interviewing, but then there’s the overlay of how to ask the question to ask, versus telling the strategies to use with that, and then, again, how to, uh, create the questions, you know, not using the word why, the word you, which is different from motivational interviewing, actually incorporates a number of different philosophies. So, that’s the main reason I call it motivational conversation because it really lends itself to there’s some taking place, there’s a back and forth, but there are definitely a lot of similarities.



Audience Question:  Can you explain more how to have a motivational conversation without having a specific outcome in mind, before the conversation? What if the person ended up with a decision that’s not quite what you wanted to see? So, for example, if you wanted the person to quit smoking, but the person really isn’t interested in quitting smoking? 

Al Cobos: Well, that would be kind of, you’ve got an outside influence coming in and say, “Hey, I see a change that needs to be to be made.” They don’t want to participate in it. But, again, it lends itself to asking the question to nudge them to consider maybe, not smoking. So, you know, we don’t have a goal in mind you want them to stop smoking. But, you can take the opportunity when appropriate. If they’re having some health issues, a cough. You could ask some questions like “What impacts does smoking have?” Usually what the way I like to present it is like, “Hey, we want to be retired a very long time and I want that for you. What are the impacts of smoking?” So, I mean, just a simple question like that, but prefaced with the fact that, we want to have a long, healthy retirement. So, it’s not just asking a question, “Why won’t you stop smoking?” But you connect with something that most people are going to find of value. Which is, I want to have a good long retirement. I know some people that I work with, they talk about, “Hey, I just want to take as much money from the retirement system as possible,” and that’s a big goal for them. So, let’s say, “Hey if that’s your goal, what can you do that to make that happen?” And if smoking is one of them, that’s something that they could bring up, and then you can start to walk down that path. There are some nuanced ways you can, you can bring the information in. You have to have a relationship with them, you got to know who they are. You got to have a working relationship in order to introduce that, particularly, if they’re not looking for it.

Host: I liked the way you prefaced, it. You said that “I want you to have a nice long retirement,” that’s also showing you care about them. You, as a co-worker, or a supervisor, have hopes and goals for this employee. You’re kind of like yourself a little vulnerable there a little bit too, that you wish the best for this person.

Al Cobos: I think it’s a commonality that most people, particularly for public sector work, we have for the most part defined benefit retirements. And there’s a certain satisfaction for some people, “I want to stick it to the retirement system as long as possible.” OK, Good, I want to see that. How did you get there? You know, what can we do to make sure that happens? And that’s an external motivator. You know because we’re looking at this pension system as someone who’s footing the bill. But it’s a motivator that may be important, that person. And now you certainly move them in the right direction because of the pension system versus health consequences. So, I mean it’s just so nuanced way to move people down the right path.



Audience Question: Is there a quick reference or checklist of dos and don’ts, or don’t use words or sentences, or just any additional kind of resources, worksheets, checklists, that that you know of? I’ve got a follow up to that after that. 

Al Cobos: Well, I have the handout that I provided, which has some of the information from the slides, which lends itself to the process. I’m looking at my left because I know there’s a book that I recommend when it comes to asking questions. Um, I believe it’s Ask Powerful Questions by Will Wise. And it’s a book that really delves into how to ask questions. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this one was so good, I actually bought the book. So that would be, recommend off the top of my head. The textbook, Motivational Interviewing, and that book, it’s relevant. I believe the psychologist that wrote it, and it’s broken up into three different sections. I think the first third is, for people like us, we’re not psychologists, and then it delves into a deeper, using a different process, but the outcome’s the same, creating conversations for change. Miller and Rollnick, third edition, Motivational Interviewing.  A valuable book, when I found it really changed the way that I not only had conversations but the way instructs my courses, I highly recommend that book also.



Audience Question: How do you handle or overcome that employee or that co-worker that’s just being a Debbie Downer or the negative person that personally hope frankly has nothing positive to say and just brings the whole mood down? How do you motivational conversations in that situation? 

Al Cobos: You got to find something, a commonality between yourself and that person. You know, I deal with a lot of negative people in my profession. I think most of it is that it’s a choice itself that they want to do, it becomes their identity. And if it’s our identity, it’s even more difficult to move them in the right direction. But, I would ask questions that lend itself to some of the good things that are going on. Even with COVID with all the stuff that we’re doing. You know, some people are really upset about that. I would preface it with a statement like, “You know, we’re very lucky that we get to work. Think about all the people that don’t have jobs right now because, because of COVID. What kind of resources or options do they have?” So, you know, put yourself in the position of the people that you know are experiencing the bad consequence of COVID so we can get an analysis. If they’re negative, it’s like, well, they deserve it. They should have had a job that they’re not going to get laid out for. “But is that their fault?” And I know that’s a closed-ended question, but what kind of impact it has on those people. So, you get them thinking about something different. So, you can bring them back, talk about the organization. And no organization is perfect, but it could even be the simple question of, “What are some of the good things about the team, the department, the agency?” I wouldn’t ask that question first, I would kind of work towards that. But, ultimately, that may be the more pointed question they’ll be asked. “With all the negative here what’s one of the good things about this team or, this agency, there’s got to be some.” And, then, again, it’s, it’s the basis for moving people in the right direction. What I’ve found with a lot of some of the negative people I have come in contact with. If we don’t address it, it’s just continued permission for them to be negative around you. So, just a quick example, I instruct a class, I was teaching at the Academy. And again, I’ve got some of the people in there, and one of the people, I know him well, just negative. And I told them during one of the group exercises like, “Hey, try and not make any negative comments.” And he’s told me negative comments. It’s like, all right. All right. So, it came into a tell situations like, I joked and put a cup here. And every time we say something negative, you’re going to have to put a dollar. That resonated with him for some reason. And he said, “I didn’t realize I’m being that negative,” so think about it. If you have to put a dollar in every time, for some reason, that stuck with them. But, again, you know, it just kind of moving them down that path, where they may not even think they’re being negative, it’s just the way they are. But you present it to them in the right fashion. He was still negative that day probably, during that week-long training session, it had been brought to his attention. And it actually bothered him. But again, it’s just nudging someone in the right direction. So, it’s just a matter of trying not to give them permission to be negative-oriented. It’s a nuanced conversation.


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