How do you motivate someone who claims to have no motivation?

September 19, 2014 by Joshua
in Exercises, Leadership

An attendee from a recent seminar asked a common question I get about learning other people’s passions: How do you motivate someone who claims to have no motivation? He did the exercise in this post, “How to make someone feel understood: the Confirmation Cycle,” where you ask the other person their passion.

He wrote:

How do you deal with the “I don’t know” when you ask people what they enjoy or what they’re passionate about?

I found this in trying out this exercise with several family members, I believe it’s related to the idea that as a leader, it’s your job to find out what other people’s motivations are but it can still be hard to get around. I also wonder how to frame this question in a way that doesn’t seem combative or accusatory. For example, I texted someone I’m interested in dating that noted that she was going to a feminist book club the question “What does feminism mean to you? I’m curious” and immediately regretted it. Other variations I’ve gotten are “Why are you asking so many questions?” Basically, I’d love to know how to sort of reset and reframe the C-Minor scale in such a way that people don’t find it invasive.

The premise of that exercise, and much of leadership, is that you can motivate people more with their existing motivations than by trying to impose your motivations on them. The challenge is to make them feel comfortable sharing their motivations, which the exercise helps with. His question is broad so I’ll answer from several perspectives. I think the first and last sections will help him most.

Put their interests first

Asking about passions is asking about vulnerabilities. If someone senses you asking for yourself more than for them, they’ll stop answering to protect themselves. They don’t want to be your dancing monkey—someone who performs by answering your questions without you contributing—or to go out on a ledge by making themselves more vulnerable than you.

When you added that you were curious, for example, you put your interests first. You asked them to share their vulnerability to satisfy your interest, not theirs.

If they say you seem to ask a lot of questions, you probably sound like you’re asking to satisfy your interests. The Confirmation Cycle is designed not to satisfy your interests, but to make them feel understood. Ask to understand what they’re saying, not to get new information, but to clarify what they already said.

See, even if they give a curt answer, internally they’re connecting with something big and important. They want to share that big important thing. They’re worried about being used or laughed at, which happens when the other person is asking for their reasons.

Basic technique

If it fits your relationship you can ask someone “What’s your passion,” “What’s a passion of yours,” or something direct like that. If it doesn’t work, I recommend starting with complimentary remark about something I noticed that they care about, then ask why they care more than the average person does. Examples:

  • “I noticed you take the time to participate in this club. You already graduated, so you don’t have to. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your motivation?”
  • “When you do the weekly report you do it more thoroughly than most people. How come you take the time and attention to do it that way?”

Polite, firm persistence

If they dodge or don’t answer the question, asking again politely but firmly usually gets a response. I have to repeat the question a lot. I rarely change more than a few words. Sometimes I’ll add a few explanatory words in front.

Again, they have something big and important inside. They want to share it, only they’re worried about you using it against them. When you ask by putting their interests first, they’ll get the feeling that this is their chance to share something important to them.

Don’t make them work with open-ended questions

A question like “What does X mean to you?” takes negligible effort on your part but forces them to dig into their psyche to come up with an answer. If they care about it and want to share already, you didn’t have to ask anything, so at best you break even with open-ended questions.

If you’re not sure, stick with the wording I describe to remove variables when trouble-shooting.

The question “What’s your passion” or the bulleted examples above are designed to get short answers, referring to specific motivations they have. When people put care into something, they have a clear motivation. Those questions access that specific thing. What something means to someone is broader.

The meaning of your question isn’t exactly clear, at least not to me, so they have to spend time making sense of the question. Your question has the structure of an interview question, asked by someone who knows nothing about you and wants you to put yourself on display so they can evaluate you.

Start simple, work up to hard

If you’re starting practicing the exercise with people who don’t answer, leave them aside and practice with people who do answer.

This is like saying if you’re learning the piano and difficult pieces are too hard, leave them aside and practice simpler pieces, or even scales. Or if you’re starting lifting weights and can’t life them, start with less weight.

Asking a woman you’re thinking of dating involves complex emotions. A coworker or friend might be more receptive. With practice, things that seemed moderately hard will become simple and harder things will become moderately hard. With more practice even the once-hard things will become simple. Eventually it will become second-nature to learn about other people’s passions and to make them feel comfortable sharing

Nonverbal communication

I can’t comment on your nonverbal communication without having been there, but it conveys much of the meaning of what you say, especially the emotional content. Pay attention to your vocal tonality, pacing, eye contact, facial expression, posture, gesturing, and things like that.

Have effective beliefs

When I ask someone about their passions, I have no doubt they have many passions, and I also expect they’ll feel shy about sharing. The beliefs below motivate me to do all of the above. If you don’t have those beliefs, or equally helpful ones, you risk undermining your communication.

  1. Everybody has passions
  2. Everybody wants to share their passions
  3. But sharing them makes them feel vulnerable
  4. They aren’t used to the attention
  5. They want reassurance you genuinely find them compelling)

Claiming no motivation

Sometimes someone will claim they have no motivation or no passion. Since I believe everyone has motivations all the time, I don’t believe them. Inaction doesn’t mean no motivation. It means motivation not to act. Calmness is an emotion that motivates relaxation. Similarly with satisfaction, contentment, laziness, and so on.

So when someone says they have no motivation or passion I say something like, “Well, you got out of bed this morning. No emotion whatsoever would mean lying there until you die. But you eat and go to the bathroom, so that’s a start. And you choose what you eat, so you care about some things more than others. What have you cared about more than something else?”

If someone repeatedly insists on having no emotion, then that insistence is a passion. A rebellious teenager who claims to care about nothing, cares about implying they care about nothing. When you realize that, you can ask, “You seem to have a motivation to resist strong emotions. Is that right? … What’s behind it?”


With practice you pick up on increasingly subtler signs of passions and overcome increasingly challenging defenses, making more and more people feel comfortable sharing increasingly deep passions with you.

But it takes time and practice, like any meaningful discipline.

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