One of the things we share with each other is that we want to experience autonomy. As individuals we prefer to choose for ourselves as much as possible what we initiate and we want to control as much as possible what we do and don't. The satisfaction of our need for autonomy can contribute importantly to the degree to which we are engaged in what we do, how well we learn, how creative we are, how well we adjust and mentally healthy we are.
What we do can affect other people's perception of their autonomy
When interacting and working together, with other people, as parents, coaches, therapists, teachers, managers or colleagues, we can do things that either support or diminish their sense of autonomy (Visser, 2010). Some factors which may support their sense of autonomy are: providing and emphasizing choice, allowing them to follow their unique approach, encouraging self-initiative and experimentation, and providing a meaningful rationale for any suggestions or requests. Some factors which may thwart their perception of autonomy are: emphasizing different types of controls such as tangible rewards, deadlines, punishments, evaluations, awards, grades, and surveillance, using controlling language and imposing goals.
Limits to autonomy
Of course, there are limits to how much autonomy we can experience because, as individuals, we all need to adapt to our environments and we need to develop safely into well socialized adults. Whenever a parent, teacher, or manager demands something or forbids something, the child, student, or employee may feel a threat to his or her autonomy. Of course, it may be inevitable to demand certain things and forbid certain other things and this is not an inherently bad thing. It helps us adapt to the demands of the world and protect us from danger. Also, as well-adapted and well-functioning individuals we may find many new sources of autonomy.
Don't threaten people's need for autonomy any more than strictly necessary
Whenever we do things that are inevitably threatening to other people's autonomy it may be helpful to recognize clearly that we are doing this and to clarify why we do it. When we can clearly explain why we ask something this generally helps the other person to accept it more easily. If we cannot explain to ourselves why it is important that we demand something from someone or try to pose a limitation on what he or she does, we should perhaps think twice. Perhaps, an intervention on our part is not really necessary at all. Or, maybe some thinking can helps us explain better why an intervention is indeed necessary. The way in which we make our expectations clear is important too. When we do this in a controlling, impatient, unappreciative, threatening tone, the individual's autonomy will be threatened further and needlessly.
Deliberately support and enhance other people's autonomy
Even in circumstances in which the autonomy of other people is necessarily limited we can do things to support their autonomy. This is not only a matter of accentuating and respecting the choice people already have but may also be a matter of creating a context of choice for them. An example is how teachers can give homework assignments in such a way that students feel autonomous. Research by Erika Patall and colleagues (2010) shows that giving students choice in homework has these important benefits a) higher intrinsic motivation to do homework, b) feeling more competent regarding the homework, c) better performance, d) better homework completion. (Also read The autonomy-supportive teaching style).
Solution-focused autonomy support
Solution-focused counselors focus their approach on supporting and helping to fulfill their client's need for autonomy. For instance, in a solution-focused program for domestic violence offenders, both client responsibility and client choice are constantly emphasized: "We believe it is important to emphasize choice even when participants are mandated to attend. In this way, we emphasize and respect the participants' most basic right to assess what is best for them from the very beginning. In the few cases where participants decided not to attend the program we have complimented their decision to go back to the judge and argue their case. This led to a better commitment and rapport when the individual returned, requesting admission into the program."
As I describe in this article, the solution-focused approach has several specific ways in which client autonomy is supported and enhanced: 1) clients generate goals themselves, 2) usefulness questions and leading from behind help clients to determine the content, the direction and the pace of the conversation, 3) clients are encouraged to choose their own words, their own examples and their own conclusions, 4) client choice is enhanced by subtle and indirect interventions, like: "How did you decide to do that?"
Also read: Assumptions In Solution-Focused Change