Why You Want to Try Motivational Interviewing

As I’ve discussed in several recent blog posts, workplace conflicts are pretty common. Fortunately, there are many ways to resolve differences of opinion at work. For instance, mastering the art of persuasion might help you convince others to see your point of view. On the other hand, working on our empathy can help us see where others are coming from. What if you need something more? Especially for those who manage teams, it’s important to resolve any issues that arise with employees effectively. I figured I’d share what I know about Motivational Interviewing with you to help you navigate some challenging situations.

The Point of Motivational Interviewing

I learned about Motivational Interviewing (MI) in graduate school. I was studying social work, which, like many other helping professions, relies on techniques for working effectively with clients. As explained in this overview of the practice, MI actually arose out of work in substance abuse. Dr. William Miller and Dr. Stephen Rollnick created this communication style for that field at first. Basically, they wanted to better support their clients in making changes in their lives. However, the practice has grown a lot. Nowadays, MI has been recognized for its success in many different fields.

The research backing Motivational Interviewing is extensive. Studies document the efficacy of this practice in many situations. For instance, MI works for people looking to make changes related to their wellness in general and diet in particular. Do you know an employee who might need to take care of themselves better? This might be just what you need to support them! What if an employee feels overwhelmed after returning from parental leave? Well, MI has also worked for those going through parenting-related changes. Research has also found that it helps people of various ages, races and ethnicities, religions, and other identities. That’s useful to know for our increasingly diverse workplaces

In short, Motivational Interviewing is a technique you can use to support anyone looking to make changes in their life. It’s not pushy like some other approaches are. Instead, it’s all about strengthening the motivation a person already feels to change. Acceptance is at the core of its practice, along with some other key principles.

The Foundation

As that overview of Motivational Interviewing explains, several principles set this practice apart from others. First of all, it’s based in acceptance and respect. In Motivational Interviewing, both participants in the conversation are equal partners. MI encourages a communication style that is very collaborative. This means that one person won’t just tell the other person what to do because they’re in control. Instead, both people will need to communicate to figure out what’s going on and how to move forward.

Motivational Interviewing also focuses on empowering people by listening to what they’re saying. This approach assumes that everyone really wants to do well. I think it’s pretty reasonable to think that your employees would like to succeed at work. However, not everyone does succeed. Why? Well, it might be related to any number of challenges. However, this doesn’t mean that the person isn’t motivated to change. With support from you, they may be much more successful. MI encourages you to focus on “change talk,” or statements a person makes that show they want change. 

Change talk can take a lot of forms. In general, it either reveals motivation to change or commitment to do so. Motivations vary. For instance, a person might express a desire to change. Imagine your employee says, “I wish I felt more confident in meetings.” They could also describe a reason why they feel compelled to change. Think, “I know I need to build my network to make more sales.” If the person is expressing commitment, they might share an action they’ve taken to jumpstart change. That could sound like, “I’ve already asked a coworker to give me some feedback on my work.” Whatever the form, change talk is the fuel that drives Motivational Interviewing.

Skills to Practice

When you’re ready to start incorporating Motivational Interviewing into the workplace, you’ll need some key skills. The four main skills of this practice are easy to remember. Just think of the acronym OARS. That stands for open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summarizing.

hand holding question markAsking open-ended questions means looking for more than yes or no answers. Instead, you open the door for employees to share where they’re at. You might find out what makes them want to change, as well as what’s stopping them. Asking the right questions makes this process work. Affirmations are one way of responding. This helps build a person’s confidence that they can change. You might notice that they’ve already made some effort or succeeded in the past. Highlight that to give an affirmation. The next skill is reflection, which I discussed in this blog on active listening. When you reflect another person’s words, you’re demonstrating empathy. Finally, summarizing the conversation makes sure that you understand each other. All these skills are necessary for Motivational Interviewing to be useful.

You might wonder about when to ask more questions and when to do more reflecting. In fact, Motivational Interviewing has four different processes to it, and they require different skills. In the first one, you’re engaging the other person. To establish a respectful, collaborative relationship, you’ll probably want to ask lots of questions and reflect what you hear. Next, you’ll be focusing your conversation. This involves identifying the key issue, and it should also be collaborative. Again, open-ended questions can be really useful here. Once you’re evoking, affirmations and reflections are key. Whenever you hear change talk, you should highlight it. Finally, in the planning process, you’ll want to be sure to summarize so that you’re both on the same page.

When Motivational Interviewing Comes in Handy

confused person feels ambivalentAs I mentioned, Motivational Interviewing is useful for many different situations. This overview suggests some special opportunities to introduce this practice. For example, it’s very effective when a person feels ambivalent about making a change. In other words, it works well for mixed feelings. MI is also useful for someone who’s unsure if they can make a change or if they want to. In these cases, a person might not be clear on the disadvantages of the status quo.

This makes me think of how people might feel during organizational change. For instance, people can have a hard time with new technologies and automation. As I mentioned here, it might be hard for employees to get used to a new system, like Pyrus. In those cases, MI can help managers support employees through a successful transition to the new software. This study found that Motivational interviewing works to increase employees’ readiness for change. If you want to know more about how it works, I recommend reading this longer text. Basically, MI is really useful for navigating organizational change. 

This video features neuroscientist Dr. Mylea Charvat talking about other applications for Motivational Interviewing in the workplace. One example she gives involves motivating an employee who struggles to meet deadlines.  In this Forbes article, another example is provided. Motivational interviewing can help you support employees in setting goals for their professional development.

Ideas for Incorporating Motivational Interviewing into Your Meetings

So now that you’re excited to try this, where do you start? Articles like this one from Forbes can get you started brainstorming questions to use. For instance, the author talks about asking her employees, “What is preventing you from achieving your goals?” Another open-ended question she uses: “How can I help eliminate the obstacles preventing you from achieving your goal?” If you’re really ready to learn this technique, though, I recommend this free training. To channel some MI myself, I’ll ask you a question.

What are you excited to use Motivational Interviewing for at work to help your employees succeed?