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7 Motivational Interviewing Techniques For Professionals

Whether you want to inspire a client on their health journey or motivate an employee to be more productive, use this method to empower someone to change.

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According to clinical analyses, motivational interviewing techniques are over 70% effective1 at helping people resolve physiological and psychological challenges. Whether you want to inspire a client on their health journey or motivate an employee to be more productive, you’ve probably discovered how ineffective it is trying to force someone to change. External pressure can, paradoxically, make someone less likely to change2,+W.+R.,+%26+Rollnick,+S.+(2013).+Motivational+interviewing:+Helping+people+change+(3rd+ed.).+New+Guilford+Press.&ots=c1IlcOkeHS&sig=iLmKSE0M28j_6THqzcBT39yJQOY#v=onepage&q&f=false

Motivational interviewing does just the opposite: It empowers people to ignite change within themselves. Here is everything you need to know about motivational interviewing, including the science and practical applications to any industry. 

What is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a collaborative communication method to help people change their behavior for the better. While it was originally developed3 to help people recover from addiction and alcoholism, it is scientifically proven to help with everything from smoking cessation4 to boosting student engagement5 to reducing employee sickness absence6 You can even use these communication skills in personal relationships and parenting! 

Instead of telling someone what to do, this guided style of communication encourages the interviewee to recognize where they need to improve and feel empowered to take action for themselves. In other words, MI uses intrinsic motivation rather than external force to facilitate change.

MI includes three core principles:

  1. Collaboration: Emphasize a team effort to resolve an issue.
  2. Empathy: Validate their feelings and show that you care.
  3. Autonomy: Empower the interviewee to make their own choices.

Additionally, clinical psychologist Bill Matulich, Ph.D., describes four core skills used by MI practitioners:

  1. Open questions: Encourage the individual to elaborate and dive deeper.
  2. Affirmations: Boost their confidence by affirming past and present accomplishments.
  3. Reflections: Use active listening to make them feel important and heard.
  4. Summaries: Demonstrate your understanding by mirroring 1-2 broad summaries of what the interviewee shares with you. 

These skills can be abbreviated by the acronym OARS. Below, we explore how to use them and other key people skills to help you succeed at motivational interviewing in any setting.

3 Core Principles of the Motivational Interviewing Technique

The main goal of motivational interviewing (MI) is to collaboratively work with a client or interviewees to help them change their behavior. Motivational interviewing is used by therapists, social workers, teachers, managers, and parents. This technique is goal-oriented and encourages teamwork, empathetic listening, and an emphasis on personal freedom. 

Let’s dig a little deeper into the three core principles of MI:

1. Collaboration

The heart of motivational interviewing is collaboration, where both parties work together to accomplish a shared goal of positive change. Instead of framing yourself as an expert or leader, MI creates a partnership between you (the interviewer or coach) and the client or interviewee.

To emphasize collaboration:

  • Treat the individual or client as an equal partner in the change process. 
  • Regularly acknowledge the contributions, insights, and strengths that the interviewee contributes to the conversation. The affirmations described below are a great way to do this.
  • Maintain approachable, open body language. For example, seat yourself at the same level as the other person. Avoid superior or confrontational body language like speaking loudly or using a steepling hand gesture.
  • Try to talk to them as an equal. Avoid speaking too slowly, which could send the message that you think they are dumb or beneath you.
  • Mimic similar posture to the interviewee. For example, if they are sitting straight up, you don’t want to lean back in your chair. But if they are slouched in a relaxed position, you may want to look more relaxed.

Do you feel like people struggle to open up to you? Here is How to Get Someone to Open Up Using 20 Body Language Cues.

2. Empathy

Empathy is crucial for creating a safe space where someone can explore their feelings, thoughts, and hindrances or motivations for change. It is the art of making someone feel understood and cared for and building rapport with the interviewee. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re convincing your friend to stop smoking or coaching a client about fixing their time management; you must show that you understand where they are coming from!

To express empathy in the MI process:

  • Practice mirroring by matching the individual’s body language, pace of speaking, or hand gestures. This can help build rapport and establish trust.
  • Practice active listening by leaning forward, making eye contact, triple-nodding, and using verbal cues like “mhmm” or “I understand.” Never look at your phone or appear distracted; this can send a message that you don’t care.
  • Validate their emotions. Use statements like “I can see why you…” or “It makes sense that you would feel…”

Need to upgrade your empathy? Here are The 15 Habits of Highly Empathetic People (Empathy Guide)

3. Autonomy

Reactance theory7,perceived%20magnitude%20of%20the%20threat. explains why people feel threatened or even aggressive when they feel like they’ve lost their sense of freedom. Have you ever tried telling someone they must do something, only to find they do the opposite? This is a psychological attempt to protect their autonomy.

In motivational interviewing, autonomy is an essential core principle that respects a person’s individual freedom of choice and self-efficacy. MI leaders Miller & Rollnick explain that this entire technique “is about eliciting the person’s own inherent arguments for change.”

Encourage autonomy by:

  • Respecting and honoring the choices of the individual. For example, “Clearly, you are the master of your life. When everyone else’s opinions are pushed aside, what do you truly want out of this situation?”
  • Avoid imposing advice or solutions. Instead, guide them toward their own preferences and options. For example, if you want to help an employee overcome burnout by rekindling their motivation, you could say, “I know you are a creative person. In what ways could more creative or artistic assignments help you feel more excited about your role?”
  • Supporting informed decision-making by helping them weigh the pros and cons of an option they propose. For example, if someone has decided to wean themselves off of cigarettes rather than quitting cold turkey, you can discuss the benefits of a slow stop and the drawbacks of continued expenses and potential for relapse.
  • Promoting flexibility and adaptability so the person feels like their goals and plans can change throughout the process. MI emphasizes personalized plans rather than rigid or constrained protocols.
  • Encouraging self-exploration through open-ended questions (described more below).

As a motivational interviewer, you want to make it very clear that you believe in this person’s inherent capacity to change. The behavioral change should be aligned with their personal values, goals, and preferences rather than anything imposed upon them from an external opinion.

7 Motivational Interviewing Techniques for ANY Industry

Theories are nice, but you need actionable steps to use with your clients, patients, or employees. Use these science-backed techniques8 to inspire a person’s internal motivation to change without forcing them to do so.

1. Ask open-ended questions

The first step to motivational interviewing is to ask open-ended questions that encourage the other person to delve deeper into their personal strengths, values, and existing resources. Compared to yes/no (closed) questions, open-ended questions are proven to elicit deeper discussions9 and more detailed answers10

If you have a specific change in mind (for example, you want an employee to be more proactive in their job so they can move up in the company), you may ask questions that lead them to see why this behavior change would be beneficial to them. The key is to frame questions so that the interviewee feels like the change is their idea (because, ultimately, the transformation is in their hands).

Open-Ended Questions (Ask These!)Closed Question (Avoid These!)
What are the pros and cons of change in this scenario?Would this change be good for your health/finances/happiness?
Can you tell me more about your thoughts or feelings about this situation?Do you feel overwhelmed/intimidated/frustrated?
How would accomplishing this goal change your day-to-day life?Would this transform your daily experience?
What values are most important to you in this situation?Do you want to improve?
What steps or actions could help you get to where you want to be?Would daily check-ins help?
How do you feel about this?Are you happy/sad/upset?
What do you think you could improve upon?Did you make a mistake?

Here is more about How to Ask Open-Ended Questions That Spark Good Conversation.

2. Set collaborative goals

Collaborative goals imply that you are working together with the person to establish achievable and meaningful goals that benefit both parties. Ensure that the goals align with their values, motivations, and readiness for change. 

For example, consider a manager who is coaching a team member on improving their customer service skills:

  • Manager: “Sarah, I appreciate your commitment to improving your customer service skills. Let’s work together to set some collaborative goals that align with your aspirations and the organization’s objectives. What specific areas would you like to focus on?”
  • Employee: “I think I could improve my communication skills when dealing with difficult customers. I often feel flustered and struggle to find the right words.”
  • Manager: “That’s a great area to target. Effective communication is crucial in handling challenging situations. What specific goals do you have in mind to enhance your communication skills?”
  • Employee: “I would like to learn techniques for active listening and de-escalating tense situations. I also want to develop better strategies for empathizing with customers and finding mutually beneficial solutions.”
  • Manager: “Those are excellent goals. Let’s break them down into smaller, actionable steps. How about we start by providing you with training resources on active listening and de-escalation techniques? We can also set up regular role-playing exercises to practice. Additionally, we can schedule regular feedback sessions to discuss your progress and identify areas for improvement. How does that sound?”

In this scenario, the manager uses language like “let’s” and “we” to emphasize teamwork. The goals are also directly beneficial to both parties. The company will train a better customer service agent while the employee has the opportunity to reach her own professional development goals.

Learn more about setting specific and achievable goals in this free mini masterclass:

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3. Send positive nonverbal cues

In motivational interviewing, body language plays a crucial role in establishing rapport, conveying empathy, and creating a supportive environment. By being mindful of your own body language and observe the non-verbal cues of the individual you are engaging with, so you can help them feel more comfortable.

These therapeutic communication techniques can be really helpful for establishing trust:

  • Lean slightly forward to show active engagement and interest in what they are saying.
  • Get on their same level. Research shows that nurses who sit down11 with patients have a higher satisfaction rating. Standing or sitting above the other person could portray you as someone in a position of power.
  • Maintain good eye contact to convey attentiveness and respect, but avoid staring for more than 5 seconds at a time, as this could make the interviewee feel uncomfortable.
  • Use self-disclosure to share something about your personal life that shows you can relate to the individual. This helps humanize you and show that you can relate to their struggle.

Need more tips? Here are 7 Body Language Secrets from the Internet’s Greatest Experts.

4. Elicit change talk

Change talk refers to someone’s personal statements about the desire, ability, reasons, and need for change. By guiding an individual to express their own motivations for positive change, you can help increase their intrinsic motivation and commitment to achieving workplace goals.

For example, imagine you are a manager who wants to encourage an employee to be more productive. You could ask them, “What are some reasons why you would like to improve your time management skills?”

The employee might respond, “Well, I know that better time management would help me be more productive and reduce my stress levels. I also want to set a good example for my team and be more reliable.”

By asking the employee to articulate their reasons for change, you reinforce the importance of time management and helping the employee connect their goals to personal values and the broader team impact.

5. Affirm and validate the interviewee

Studies show that people with low self-esteem tend to have lower intrinsic motivation12 This means they are less motivated to accomplish things on their own because they may feel held back by a lack of confidence. 

As a motivational interviewer, you want to empower the individual through affirmations that boost their self-esteem and make them feel more confident about their ability to transform.

Throughout your discussions, regularly make positive statements that recognize the interviewee’s strengths. You may emphasize: 

  • Awards and achievements (“Weren’t you recognized as a top salesperson in the company last year? You have a lot to be proud of.”)
  • Challenges they’ve overcome (“You’ve overcome some tremendous obstacles to get where you are. I have no doubt in my mind that you have the resilience and determination to make this happen.”)
  • Effort they have made (“I can see the effort you’ve put into making healthier choices.”)
  • Personal growth (“Your passion for learning and personal development is evident. You’ve made huge strides in improving your communication. I can tell that you are very self-aware and dedicated to improving.”)

Focus your affirmations, particularly on positive statements related to the desired change. By focusing on the good (rather than the critical), you are helping the individual feel excited and motivated to keep going. 

Learn more about Positive Reinforcement: What is It, and How Does it Work?

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6. Practice active and reflective listening

Active listening is scientifically proven13 to build rapport and trust. For example, when a lawyer reflects back to a client what they said, they are able to gather more facts and stories to build a strong case. 

During MI (or any conversation, for that matter), you want to show the speaker that you are paying attention to what they are saying. Here are some key differences between active and passive listening:

Active ListeningDistracted (Passive) Listening
Consistent eye contactDarting eyes or checking phone or notes
Nodding and gesturingBlank stare or no movement
Facing toward themAngling your body away
Demonstrate understandingLack of feedback or stoic face
Reflect back what they saidNo response or change topic

7. Provide summaries

Throughout a motivational interview, practitioners are encouraged to provide summaries of the client’s experience. Summaries are really just long reflections on what they said.

This is another active and reflective listening practice, sometimes called mirroring: you repeat or mirror back what the person said. This makes them feel validated about their experience. You emphasize the concerns, feelings, experiences, fears, and excitements that they’ve shared with you about the change at hand.

For example:

  • If they say, “I feel intimidated by the people ahead of me in the competition.” Try responding, “I can understand why you feel intimidated by the rest of the team.”
  • If they say, “I’ve been struggling to find the motivation to exercise regularly.” You can respond, “So, you’re finding it challenging to get yourself out the door to the gym?” 
  • If they say, “I don’t know how I’ll talk to people at the work party without drinking. I feel super anxious and awkward.” You can respond, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but based on what you’ve said, you’re feeling awkward about socializing without alcohol since you’re so used to drinking at parties.”

Reflective statements acknowledge you are listening and truly hearing the client. They convey empathy and understanding so we can start to see the world through the interviewee’s eyes.

Key Caveat: You don’t want to over-summarize to the point where a listener feels like they are being patronized or made fun of. Only use this technique once or twice per session to express a broad understanding of what they’re saying. Ask for clarification like, “Did I get that right?” or “Do I understand you correctly?”

8. Bonus: Try Behavioral Interviewing

You might also try combining motivational interview techniques with behavioral interview techniques and questions.

See our founder Vanessa Van Edward’s video here:

Motivational Interviewing Techniques Examples + Case Studies

Over 119 studies have validated14 that MI produces significant, durable results in a range of situations, from treatment adherence to substance use disorders to simple behavioral changes in schools or the workplace. 

If you’re wondering what motivational interviewing looks like in action, here are three different case studies from different industries.

Business setting: Employee performance improvement

Jasmine, an employee, is struggling to meet performance expectations. Her manager employs motivational interviewing techniques to explore the reasons behind her performance challenges. For example:

  • The manager helps Jasmine visualize what success looks like for her and creates a professional development plan to get to her desired position and salary.
  • They explore a few things distracting Jasmine during the workday, such as workplace gossip and the dull office environment without natural lighting.
  • Jasmine expresses her lack of confidence regarding recent project assignments and her need for more guidance.

By fostering a supportive and non-judgmental environment, the manager helps Jasmine identify her strengths, set achievable goals, and develop strategies for improvement. As a result, Jasmine’s performance improves, and she gains confidence in her abilities.

Motivational interviewing in health care: Smoking cessation case study

Sarah, a long-time smoker, visits a healthcare provider seeking assistance with quitting smoking. She is overweight and facing some financial troubles. She also has two daughters with asthma.

The practitioner utilizes motivational interviewing techniques to support Sarah’s motivation to quit, exploring her values, concerns, and goals. For example:

  • They ask how much money she could save weekly if she quit her cigarette habit. 
  • They ask how she feels after she smokes and what potential alternatives could provide her with a similar or better feeling. 
  • The practitioner also helps Sarah consider the benefits to her daughter’s health and the risks of continuing to smoke. 

Over the course of a few meetings, the healthcare provider helps Sarah celebrate small wins, like her reduction from 2 packs per week to 1 pack per week. By collaboratively developing a quit plan, Sarah successfully quits smoking and experiences improved health outcomes.

Motivational interviewing in education: Student engagement case study

John, a disengaged student, exhibits a lack of interest and motivation in his studies. A teacher implements motivational interviewing techniques to understand John’s perspective, uncover his underlying motivations, and address any barriers to learning. For example:

  • The teacher asks John how he feels about his classes, what interests him, and what bores him.
  • They explore why John feels like he is letting his parents and teachers down, but he doesn’t know how to improve.
  • The teacher knows John enjoys sports, so they find a sports figure role model and propose listening to a motivational podcast before school.
  • They celebrate John’s recent shift from predominantly C’s to B’s on many tests. They create a more engaging form of study with fellow students from his classes.

Through collaborative goal-setting and regular check-ins, John becomes more engaged, leading to improved academic performance and increased self-confidence.

Key Takeaways: Motivate Someone to Change By Supporting Their Self-Discovery and Personal Goals

Ultimately, motivational interviewing is an empowering method to help someone improve without imposing solutions or opinions upon them. To be successful at MI, remember to:

  • Ask open-ended questions that help individuals self-reflect and come to their own conclusions.
  • Regularly affirm and celebrate a person’s strength through positive reinforcement.
  • Practice active, reflective listening to show that you care.
  • Summarize and mirror back what they say to demonstrate your understanding and empathy.

Want to upgrade your interviewing skills in any setting? Here’s How to Be a Good Interviewer (With Pro Tips & Examples)

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