Six ways to understand other people’s motivations and achieve your own goals

Motivation is the force that keeps us going and the drive behind why we do, what we do, when, and how. It’s important to understand it to get what you want.

Six ways to understand other people’s motivations and achieve your own goals
[Photo: Josh Calabrese/Unsplash]

January is the month of self-motivation. The focus is on New Year’s resolutions and understanding how to leverage your own drives to adopt a new habit or accomplish your goals.


This makes February the ideal time to consider how a better understanding of the motivations of others is both a more positive and empathetic way of navigating life. It also significantly increases your own ability to achieve desired outcomes.

That’s because when we appreciate the motivations of others, we can more effectively navigate potentially difficult conversations and propose solutions that can more easily be agreed upon, all with a greater sense of mutual satisfaction.

Objectively, motivation is an amazing and almost spiritual concept. It’s the force that keeps us going and the drive behind why we do what we do, when and how we do it.

Researchers and business experts offer numerous theories, including those grounded in biological, social, emotional, or cognitive foundations to explain the source, maintenance, and channeling of motivation.

Since understanding the source of our own motivations is so difficult, considering its application in the choices of someone else can seem daunting. Ideally, there would be lots of time and information to inform your “motivation audit.” Here’s how–even at a moment’s notice–you can be more deliberate, intentional, and effective when considering the motivation of others.


Prioritize doing it

Whether it’s a critical team discussion or an awkward conversation with a roommate, much of our emotional and mental preparation is focused on our own agenda. We define what we want from the encounter, and then justify why our outcome is warranted.

“In order to find the win-win sweet spot that is at the crux of abundant thinking,” says Katia Verresen, “we need to bend our mind to truly understand the motivations of those around the table. Equally important, adds the CEO and founder of KVA Leadership, are those who may not be around the table but impact the decision.

“I typically have clients draw a power map of all those involved, write down their needs and motivation, the ‘why’ for each one,” explains Verresen. “This encourages a better understanding of each person’s perspective and enables them to track the flow of discussion, and deliberately influence for a greater win-win result.”

Check yourself

The authors of the book Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People argue that between 80% to 90% of our mind works unconsciously. In just the past decade, there have been over 1,000 studies that conclusively show that despite our best intentions, our perceptions are all impacted by our bias.

That’s why, in order to effectively and objectively consider the motivations of others, we have to do our best to mitigate the impact of our biases.


“When it comes to checking your own bias in or before an exchange, ask yourself, why you are asking these questions, and would you ask these questions universally?” suggests Lisa Mattam, who prior to founding Sahajan, an Ayurvedic skin care brand, led a global consulting firm focused on diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias. And if not, she posits, then consider what is informing the line of conversation or curiosity.

Really listen

Listening is hard because we’re often consumed with ourselves,” says Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center. “Unfortunately with the hectic, chaotic, complicated pace of work life today, people are even more committed to getting their own agenda accomplished,” he observes. However, understanding starts with really listening.

I cultivated my own listening superpowers while researching two nonfiction books that collectively involved over 800 interviews. I wrote down everything that was said so I could go back over my notes, which included observations on body language and tone, along with their verbatim remarks to make sure I was getting what people were actually saying, not just my perception of the conversation.

Take a big-picture look

Understanding another person’s motivations includes considering what they are deliberately not sharing, as well as what may be unconsciously influencing them.

To really engage individuals with philanthropy, for example, it’s important to understand their motivations for giving. Colin Hennigar, vice president of Major Gifts at the SickKids Foundation, says, “Those could include recognition, leaving a legacy, donating in honor of someone, or being part of something that is bigger than they could do alone.”


“I personally like to know a bit about the donor I’m meeting for the first time,” explains Hennigar, “but I also have a list of questions, the answers of which I use to understand their motivations and curate the donor’s experience with the hospital. The most important skills are observing and listening, which ultimately lead to building a trusting and meaningful relationship with a donor.”

Look for a win-win

“The cliché Hollywood portrayal of combative negotiations often leads to bad outcomes,” says Seth Rosenberg, an investor at Greylock Partners. “Be transparent if you want to increase your ability to arrive at a win-win,” he says.

Rosenberg cites a classic business-school case study in which two teams need to negotiate over the distribution of oranges. “If you start with bartering over oranges,” he says, “neither team wins.” By sharing information instead, Rosenberg points out, “you realize that one team only needs the peel and the other one the juice–and you have a deal.”

Find what you have in common

Finding common ground is a great way to establish the kind of connection that will help you achieve what you set out to do.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a person that I’ve negotiated with in this city who hasn’t heard about one of my travel stories or my favorite places to dive,” says Jennifer Stojkovic, executive director at, a San Francisco initiative for technology and social responsibility.


Stojkovic believes that contrary to much of the business-focused advice you often hear, showing a more personal, emotional side of yourself helps you build a deeper connection with the other person. “They may not agree with you or even remember the details of your negotiation,” she says, “but they won’t forget how you made them feel when you told them a great story or gave them a big laugh.”