Despite his four decades in the public eye, most therapists are only vaguely aware of Tony Robbins and his take on personal change. But if you attract millions of people from a staggering range of backgrounds and interests to your seminars, it’s a good bet you might have something to offer. So what’s that elusive “something” that he transmits to people? And can therapists learn anything useful from him? In a recent interview, Networker editor Rich Simon sat down with him to find out. Read the full interview here.
PSYCHOTHERAPY NETWORKER: Your hallmark as a coach is your ability to have brief, highly charged, seemingly transformative encounters with complete strangers in front of huge audiences. What do you think therapists can learn from the way you work?
ROBBINS: I think therapists who have intense impact on their clients already do much of what I do. I teach all the coaches I work with that love is the ultimate therapeutic tool. When people feel safe, and when they feel that you truly love them, they'll let you take them places they otherwise wouldn't go. In my approach, I first need to find out who you are. What do you want? What do you need? What do you fear? I think life is the dance between what you desire most and what you fear most. And if I can expand what you desire, that hunger, and I can help you to eliminate or reduce that fear, then your life becomes bigger and richer.
Maybe the biggest difference between what I do—and what a lot of therapists have been trained not to do—is that I believe a big part of my job is to lead the client. In fact, I believe that not leading the client is one of the main reasons why it can take so many years to get something done in traditional therapy. So my whole approach is to move very directly to the heart of what people want in their lives. But I'm always aware that I need to find what you want—not what I want—and then I need to find out what's preventing it from happening, so that you're free to embrace all of who you are. But I don't believe that means always going back in the past and rewiring everything.
PN: It's one thing to describe what you do, it's another to actually embody it so fully in the moment. Where did the high-energy style that's become so identified with you come from?
ROBBINS: We've all heard about the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a complex skill. But the people who truly excel at something don't just practice, they practice at their edge. I think that the challenge for some therapists is that, while they've been well trained and are committed to what they do, they buy into what they see as the limitations of their clients instead of challenging what's getting in their way.
They forget that there's no such thing as a “resistant” client: their clients are just trying to preserve their mixed-up values and belief structures. But underneath all that, there's a part of them that knows what to do. My core belief is that I don't need to “fix” people—they're not broken. There may be a part of you that's sad, or part of you that's hurt, or that feels betrayed. And it'll probably always be there. But every one of us has multiple personalities. All I need to do is put a different part of you in charge.
A lot of therapists ask me, “What's the best thing I could do for my practice?” I say, “Transform yourself.” However great your life is, take it to the next level. Find the area that you're not really mastering, and go master it, because when you discipline yourself in an area—when you find a breakthrough—you can take others there because you've been there yourself. You can't touch someone if you haven't been touched. You can't impact somebody if you haven't been impacted. If it's just an intellectual exercise, and you're just analyzing people, they feel that versus when you can say, “Oh, I get it. I've been there in a similar situation. Let me show you another way to go. Let's do this together.” That creates a different level of trust, as well as a different sense of certainty about achieving your outcome.
PN: You're describing in broad terms some of the foundational principles of your approach. But let's focus on how you became what so many people see as a kind of force of nature. What influenced you in developing your particular style as an agent of change?
ROBBINS: It starts with a love for people that I was just born with. I grew up in a tough family. My mom loved us, but she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. The first time I shared that was maybe five years after she passed and I was working with a group of young people who'd been abused. I was telling them, “Who you become today is not based on your past. Biography is not destiny.” And I was watching their eyes, and I could see them going, “Bullshit!” All they could see was this big white guy who was doing well. And so I told them stories of my mom beating my head against the wall until I bled, or shooting liquid soap down my throat until I vomited because she thought I was lying. This person who I knew loved me the most was also the one hurting me. So I think a huge part of what makes me effective is I had to figure out early on that people aren't their behaviors. And it allowed me to have compassion for my mom, even if she was hurting me.
In a way, I became a practical psychologist at seven or eight years old. I became an expert in recognizing my mother's triggers. I started to see that she was a different woman when she was triggered by certain situations or tones of voice. Instead of saying she was crazy, I started saying, “There are situations that trigger her. I need to understand those to prevent myself and my brother and my sister from being hurt.” Gradually, I started seeing patterns not only in my own family life, but in the lives of my friends. By the time I was in junior high school, I was Mr. Solutions. If you had a problem, I wanted to help. I took a speed-reading class, and I read 700 books in seven years in the areas of human development, psychology, and physiology. I tried to learn from each book and immediately apply it.
PN: Clearly, there's no codified playbook for the often surprising and seemingly intuitive way you work with challenging people at your events. Can you take us inside what happens for you when you're feeling temporarily stumped?
ROBBINS: I remember I did a guest event one time in Vancouver with 2,000 people. I'd say, “Who's got a real problem? We'll handle it right here, right now.” And I'd demonstrate my skills so that people would then come spend three days with me. But it wasn't working because nobody was committed. At the end of it, there were probably 300 people left in the room, and I figured it out. I realized I was missing leverage, which is a key part of the process of change. First, you have to understand and appreciate the person's model of the world so you're not just evaluating them. How do they look at life? What do they value? What do they fear? What excites them? What are their conflicts? What do they want and what's in the way? And then, once I really understand and appreciate their model of the world, I have to find leverage. I have to find a way to make change a must for them—not in my mind, but in their mind.
PN: You're going to be a featured speaker this March at the Networker's annual Symposium. If there's a single message that you'd like to communicate to therapists, what would it be?
ROBBINS: I think that would be don't settle for limits in the results you think you can achieve in your work with your clients. And the best way not to settle with your clients is to not settle in your own life. Go to work harder on yourself than you do on your clients. If you can keep growing by leaps and bounds, you can take them along with you. But if you're just doing okay in your life, you're not going to take anybody to greatness. It's important for everybody who's working to help others to also take care of themselves, for their own benefit and their family's. So I'm coming not so much to teach anything in particular, but maybe to give your audience an experience that'll help them continue to enjoy their lives even more, grow more, succeed more.
This blog is excerpted from "A Q&A with Tony Robbins," by Rich Simon. The full version is available in the November/December 2017 issue, "Our National Blame Game: Can Therapists Help Find a Way Forward?"
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Topic: Professional Development