By Erik Gordon
Miller and Rollnick define it as, “the natural desire of helpers to set things right, to prevent harm and promote client welfare.” In other words, it’s the want to help people and the belief that we can provide them with solutions to their problems as well as lead them to living a healthier lifestyle. To some degree, we all have the righting reflex or it’s likely that we wouldn’t be in this industry of trying to help people. In all actuality, the righting reflex is a very selfless mindset to approach the world and it really takes a strong individual to commit themselves to helping others.
That being said, having great intentions can sometimes be counterproductive. Consider those who are contemplative in the change process. They understand the need and/or their own wants to change, but there’s something preventing them from doing so. Sometimes, our righting reflex will sometimes force the client to argue for staying with the status quo. It’s as if we elicit the exact opposite of the desired client response.
Think about someone who smokes cigarettes. It’s almost general knowledge that cigarettes are “bad for you” and that they can ultimately lead to some serious health complications. As a young health educator, I had a strong righting reflex. I was on a mission to make everyone healthier. Naively and subconsciously it’s almost as if I had envisioned conversations with clients going as follows:
ME: “Cigarettes are bad for you. They can cause cancer and you really need to quit.”
CLIENT: “Wow, I never realized that. I’ll quit today.”
In reality, most people understand the reasons to quit and the reasons not to. Allowing the righting reflex to kick in and provide the importance for the client only forces them to strengthen their commitment to smoking and defend the habit.
The righting reflex isn’t always inappropriate. For instance, if you noticed someone dropping their wallet in the grocery store without noticing, it’s completely appropriate for you to pick it up and return it to them. If someone asks for information, it’s appropriate to answer them. However, when it comes to personal choices or determining when, if, and/or how one should go about changing a behavior, we need to leave that up to the true expert in the situation- the client.