Understanding Motivational Interviewing

January 7, 2024

Unlock the power of motivation with the principles of motivational interviewing. Discover empathy, discrepancy, resistance, and self-efficacy.

Understanding Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing is an evidence-based approach that aims to facilitate behavior change by exploring and resolving ambivalence. It is widely used in various fields, including healthcare, counseling, and addiction treatment. By understanding the purpose and principles of motivational interviewing, professionals can effectively support individuals in making positive changes in their lives.

The Purpose and Benefits of Motivational Interviewing

The purpose of motivational interviewing is to help individuals find their own motivation and commitment to change. Rather than imposing advice or persuading, motivational interviewing focuses on eliciting and strengthening an individual's own reasons for change. This collaborative and person-centered approach empowers individuals to take ownership of their decisions and actions.

Motivational interviewing has several benefits, including:

  • Enhancing motivation: Motivational interviewing helps individuals explore their intrinsic motivations and values, leading to increased commitment and willingness to change.
  • Resolving ambivalence: Ambivalence is a common barrier to change. Motivational interviewing helps individuals recognize and explore their conflicting feelings, allowing them to resolve ambivalence and move towards change.
  • Improving engagement: By creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment, motivational interviewing promotes trust and rapport between professionals and individuals. This improves engagement and increases the likelihood of successful outcomes.
  • Promoting autonomy: Motivational interviewing respects an individual's autonomy and decision-making. It encourages self-exploration and empowers individuals to make choices that align with their own values and goals.

The Principles of Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is guided by four key principles:

  1. Express Empathy: Creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment is essential in motivational interviewing. Professionals demonstrate empathy by actively listening, showing understanding, and validating the individual's experiences and feelings. This helps build trust and rapport, fostering an open and collaborative atmosphere.
  2. Develop Discrepancy: Motivational interviewing helps individuals recognize the discrepancy between their current behavior and their desired goals or values. By exploring and highlighting this discrepancy, professionals can increase an individual's motivation for change. This process involves gentle exploration of ambivalence and the exploration of the potential positive outcomes of change.
  3. Roll with Resistance: Instead of meeting resistance with confrontation, motivational interviewing aims to navigate resistance with empathy and understanding. Professionals aim to shift perspectives, explore the underlying reasons for resistance, and encourage self-reflection. This approach helps individuals resolve their ambivalence and move towards change.
  4. Support Self-Efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to an individual's belief in their ability to change. Motivational interviewing focuses on building confidence and enhancing self-efficacy by acknowledging an individual's strengths, past successes, and available resources. This support helps individuals develop a sense of empowerment and belief in their capacity to make positive changes.

By adhering to these principles, professionals can effectively engage individuals in the process of change and help them overcome barriers to achieving their goals.

Principle 1: Express Empathy

In motivational interviewing, expressing empathy is a foundational principle that sets the tone for effective communication and collaboration between the interviewer and the client. This principle involves creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment, as well as utilizing active listening and reflective responses.

Creating a Supportive and Non-Judgmental Environment

To express empathy in a motivational interviewing session, it is essential to establish a safe and supportive space where the client feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. This can be achieved by:

  • Demonstrating genuine warmth and respect towards the client.
  • Using open-ended questions to encourage them to express themselves fully.
  • Avoiding judgmental or critical statements.
  • Acknowledging the client's strengths and efforts.

By creating an environment that fosters trust and acceptance, the client is more likely to feel comfortable exploring their ambivalence and considering positive changes.

Active Listening and Reflective Responses

Active listening is a crucial skill in motivational interviewing that demonstrates empathy. It involves fully engaging with the client's words, both verbal and non-verbal, and providing reflective responses. Here are some key aspects of active listening:

  • Paying close attention to the client's words, tone of voice, and body language.
  • Summarizing and paraphrasing the client's statements to show understanding.
  • Reflecting back the client's emotions and values.
  • Using open-ended questions to encourage further exploration.

By actively listening and providing reflective responses, the interviewer conveys empathy and understanding, which can enhance the client's motivation for change.

Remember, the goal of expressing empathy in motivational interviewing is to create a safe and supportive environment that encourages the client to explore their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without fear of judgment. By incorporating these principles into the interview process, you can effectively lay the groundwork for productive conversations that can lead to positive change.

Principle 2: Develop Discrepancy

Motivational interviewing aims to evoke and strengthen a person's motivation for change. The second principle, "Develop Discrepancy," plays a crucial role in this process by helping individuals recognize and explore any ambivalence they may have about their current behaviors and goals. By highlighting the discrepancy between their current behavior and their desired outcomes, motivational interviewing encourages individuals to consider change more seriously.

Recognizing and Exploring Ambivalence

Ambivalence is common when it comes to making changes in our lives. It refers to the coexistence of conflicting feelings or thoughts about a particular behavior. In motivational interviewing, it is essential to recognize and explore ambivalence rather than trying to resolve it immediately.

Motivational interviewers create a safe and non-judgmental environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing their ambivalence. They acknowledge and validate the mixed feelings someone may have, allowing them to openly explore the reasons behind their conflicting thoughts. By helping individuals delve deeper into their ambivalence, motivational interviewing supports them in gaining a better understanding of their own motivations and values.

Highlighting the Gap between Current Behavior and Goals

Developing discrepancy involves drawing attention to the discrepancy between a person's current behavior and their goals, values, or aspirations. By shining a light on this gap, motivational interviewing prompts individuals to reflect on whether their current behavior aligns with their desired outcomes.

Motivational interviewers use reflective listening and open-ended questions to help individuals explore this discrepancy. They encourage individuals to articulate their own reasons for change and to consider the potential consequences of maintaining their current behavior. This process helps individuals gain clarity about their goals and aspirations, motivating them to take steps toward change.

By recognizing and exploring ambivalence and highlighting the discrepancy between current behavior and goals, motivational interviewing creates an opportunity for individuals to reflect on their desire to change. This principle sets the stage for further exploration of motivation and commitment to change in the subsequent stages of motivational interviewing.

Principle 3: Roll with Resistance

In motivational interviewing, one of the key principles is to roll with resistance. Instead of engaging in arguments or confrontations, the focus is on shifting perspectives and encouraging self-exploration. This principle recognizes that resistance is a natural response to change and that forcing or pressuring individuals can hinder progress. By adopting a non-confrontational approach and working collaboratively with the individual, motivational interviewing aims to overcome resistance and facilitate positive change.

Avoiding Arguments and Confrontations

Engaging in arguments or confrontations can often lead to a breakdown in communication and hinder the motivational interviewing process. Instead, motivational interviewers strive to create a supportive and non-judgmental environment where individuals feel safe to express their thoughts and concerns. By actively listening and showing empathy, motivational interviewers can foster trust and establish a collaborative relationship with the individual.

Rather than challenging or contradicting the individual's beliefs or behaviors, motivational interviewers seek to understand their perspective and explore the underlying reasons behind their resistance. This approach helps to create an atmosphere of respect and encourages individuals to open up about their ambivalence or concerns.

Shifting Perspectives and Encouraging Self-Exploration

Motivational interviewing recognizes that individuals may have mixed feelings or conflicting motivations when it comes to change. Instead of trying to persuade or convince individuals to adopt a particular viewpoint, motivational interviewers employ techniques that encourage self-exploration and help individuals uncover their own motivations for change.

Motivational interviewers may ask open-ended questions, such as "What are your concerns about making this change?" or "What do you see as the pros and cons of continuing with your current behavior?" These questions allow individuals to reflect on their own values, goals, and aspirations, facilitating a deeper understanding of their ambivalence and motivations.

By shifting perspectives and exploring the individual's own reasons for change, motivational interviewers can help individuals find their own intrinsic motivation to make positive changes in their lives. This approach empowers individuals to take ownership of their decisions and increases their commitment to the change process.

Understanding the principles of motivational interviewing, including rolling with resistance, allows practitioners to effectively engage with individuals and support them in their journey towards positive change. By avoiding arguments and confrontations and instead focusing on shifting perspectives and encouraging self-exploration, motivational interviewers can create a collaborative and empowering environment for individuals to explore their motivations and make lasting changes.

Principle 4: Support Self-Efficacy

Motivational interviewing aims to empower individuals and enhance their belief in their ability to bring about change. Principle 4 of motivational interviewing focuses on supporting self-efficacy, which refers to the confidence and belief in one's capacity to make meaningful changes. By fostering self-efficacy, motivational interviewing helps individuals overcome their doubts and build the motivation necessary for lasting change.

Building Confidence and Belief in Change

Building confidence and belief in change is a fundamental aspect of motivational interviewing. The goal is to help individuals recognize and acknowledge their own capabilities, strengths, and past successes. By emphasizing their ability to change, motivational interviewing helps individuals develop a sense of self-efficacy.

To build confidence and belief in change, motivational interviewing practitioners utilize various strategies, such as:

  • Exploring past successes: By reflecting on past instances when individuals successfully made changes, the interviewer can encourage a sense of self-efficacy. This highlights their ability to overcome challenges and reinforces the belief that change is possible.
  • Affirming efforts and progress: Acknowledging individuals' efforts and progress, no matter how small, helps to reinforce their belief in their ability to make further changes. This positive reinforcement boosts their confidence and motivation.
  • Setting achievable goals: By setting realistic and attainable goals, motivational interviewing supports individuals in taking small steps towards change. Achieving these goals enhances their confidence and reinforces their belief in their ability to make further progress.

Identifying and Amplifying Strengths and Resources

Motivational interviewing recognizes that individuals possess inherent strengths and internal resources that can support their journey towards change. Principle 4 involves identifying and amplifying these strengths and resources to enhance self-efficacy.

During motivational interviewing sessions, practitioners focus on:

  • Exploring strengths: By engaging in discussions that highlight individuals' strengths, talents, and positive qualities, the practitioner helps individuals recognize their personal resources. This process fosters a sense of self-efficacy and instills confidence in their ability to overcome challenges.
  • Identifying external resources: In addition to internal strengths, external resources such as social support, community services, or professional help can also contribute to self-efficacy. The interviewers assist individuals in identifying and accessing these external resources to further support their journey towards change.

By supporting self-efficacy through building confidence, belief in change, and identifying strengths and resources, motivational interviewing promotes individuals' motivation and commitment to making positive changes in their lives.

Applying Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a collaborative and person-centered approach to facilitating behavior change. It involves a series of stages and utilizes various techniques and strategies to empower individuals and support their motivation for change.

The Stages of Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing typically follows a structured process that consists of four stages:

  1. Engagement: In this initial stage, the practitioner establishes rapport and builds a trusting relationship with the individual. Active listening, empathy, and creating a supportive environment are key elements of this stage. By establishing a safe and non-judgmental space, the practitioner sets the foundation for effective communication and collaboration.
  2. Assessment: This stage involves exploring the individual's current situation, beliefs, values, and goals. The practitioner uses open-ended questions and reflective listening to gain a deeper understanding of the individual's perspective and motivation for change. Assessing readiness for change is an important aspect of this stage, as it helps determine the individual's willingness and commitment to making a change.
  3. Planning: Once the individual expresses a desire to change, the practitioner collaborates with them to develop a plan of action. This stage involves setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. The practitioner helps the individual identify strategies, resources, and support systems that will assist them in achieving their goals. The plan is tailored to the individual's unique circumstances and preferences.
  4. Action: The final stage focuses on implementing the plan and supporting the individual in taking steps towards behavior change. The practitioner continues to provide guidance, encouragement, and reinforcement throughout the process. This stage may involve exploring potential barriers and problem-solving to overcome challenges that arise along the way.

Techniques and Strategies in Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing utilizes a range of techniques and strategies to facilitate behavior change. Some commonly used techniques include:

  • Open-ended questions: These questions encourage the individual to express their thoughts, feelings, and motivations in their own words. Open-ended questions promote self-reflection and exploration.
  • Affirmations: Affirmations involve acknowledging and highlighting the individual's strengths, efforts, and past successes. By recognizing their positive attributes, affirmations enhance self-belief and motivation.
  • Reflective listening: Reflective listening involves paraphrasing and summarizing the individual's statements to demonstrate understanding and empathy. This technique helps to deepen the individual's self-awareness and encourages further exploration of their motivations.
  • Eliciting change talk: Change talk refers to the individual's own expressions of their desire, ability, reasons, or need for change. The practitioner uses techniques such as asking for elaboration, exploring the importance of change, and weighing the pros and cons to elicit and reinforce change talk.
  • Decisional balance: Decisional balance involves exploring and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of both maintaining the current behavior and making a change. This technique supports the individual in considering the potential benefits of change and the costs of maintaining the status quo.

By applying these techniques and following the stages of motivational interviewing, practitioners can effectively support individuals in their journey towards behavior change.


Motivational interviewing is a powerful tool for behavior change. By understanding its fundamental principles, practitioners can create a collaborative environment that fosters intrinsic motivation and commitment to change.

Through techniques like open-ended questions and reflective listening, motivational interviewers help individuals explore their motivations for change and develop effective plans of action. By following a structured process, practitioners can effectively support individuals in achieving their goals.

Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based approach that has been shown to be effective in addressing a wide range of behaviors and conditions. Whether you are a healthcare provider or an individual seeking positive changes, understanding the principles and techniques of motivational interviewing can be a valuable asset.







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