Whether it’s kids, colleagues, or friends, there’s a science to being inspiring to others, and we’re exploring what it takes to boost the people around you effectively

There are likely times in all our lives when we would like to inspire others around us. It may be with children, guiding them towards a happy and confident future. Or perhaps in the workplace, when we want to create a supportive environment that’s ripe for creativity and problem-solving. Or it may be in our friendships, when we’d like our friends to realise their true value and potential.

But what actually goes into an ‘inspirational’ interaction? What sets the ground for meaningful change? And what can muddy the waters when it comes to supporting others? It turns out, science may have the answer.

A new study from researchers at Case Western Reserve University, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, used neuroimaging to evaluate the brains of the study participants while they received two different styles of coaching. They wanted to understand what happens in the brain that causes people to either resist or embrace change.

To do this, 47 students each received a 30-minute coaching session before entering a brain scanner. What the researchers were looking to compare was what psychology labels as a person’s ‘ideal self’ (the person that they would like to be) and ‘real self’ (the person that they actually are).

Each participant had one face-to-face coaching session that focused on the ‘real’ self’ and were then randomly assigned a varying number of ‘ideal self’ coaching sessions. What the researchers found was that there’s often a conflict between these two ways of thinking about ourselves, suggesting that ‘shoulds’ and self-critical thoughts can often get in the way of moving towards our ‘ideal self’.

The researchers concluded that, in order to achieve successful personal development, we need to stop and recognise that negative thoughts can create resistance to change. We should then work to develop a clear vision of what our ‘ideal self’ is, with the researchers highlighting that experiencing more positive emotions makes us more open to new ideas and motivation.

So, what does this look like in practice?

“Many managers overestimate the importance of telling their employees about their strengths and weaknesses. The real trick is to help someone get to a place where they are actively seeking feedback for themselves,” said Tony Jack, the Elmer G. Beamer – Hubert H. Schneider Chair in Ethics and an associate professor in philosophy at Case Western Reserve. “Companies, coaches and managers who want people to change must hold their tongue about what they think needs fixing. Instead, they must put their faith in the individual’s intrinsic desire to grow and allow them to direct their own development process. Otherwise, they are likely to hit a wall of psychological resistance.”

You can apply the same thing to inspiring children and young people. Rather than speaking to them about their flaws, what are their dreams? The idea would then be that, once they have a clear idea of where they want to be in life, they will have the motivation to figure out how to get there.

Another example is talking to a friend in a bad relationship. If you lay into the partner, pointing out all their flaws, it's likely the friend may get defensive. But, if you ask them about what their ideal relationship would look like, it’s much easier to see the changes they need to make in order to achieve it.

Often, when it comes to giving advice to others, we can get focused on trying to ‘fix’ them. This study is more evidence that in order to get the best out of others, we should focus on guiding them towards self-recovery. Ultimately, when it comes to working on yourself, you really have to be in the driving seat. So, if you want to inspire someone else to make a change, start the conversation, but then take the back seat.