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Motivational Interviewing

If you’re looking for an effective, collaborative treatment plan that will inspire healthy behavior change, consider motivational interviewing. This evidence-based talk therapy helps individuals explore their feelings while working toward a goal.

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What is motivational interviewing?

Motivational interviewing (MI) was developed in the early 1980s as a way to motivate people to commit to change. The idea is to use structured interviews to help people identify and shift their negative feelings and thoughts to create healthier habits. This evidence-based approach to behavior change is especially helpful for those who are reluctant or conflicted about quitting addictive or harmful behaviors, such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.

Woman participating in motivational interviewing with therapist online

The spirit of motivational interviewing

If you're familiar with MI or know someone who has practiced the technique, you may have heard them mention "the spirit of motivational interviewing." The theory suggests that each person holds the power to create their own change, and that motivation comes from within. To that end, motivational interviewing focuses on:

  • Collaboration instead of communication
  • Evolution instead of education
  • Autonomy instead of authority
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Benefits of motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing can be used on its own, but it can be most effective when used with other therapy approaches—especially for people who are initially resistant to trying treatment or making lifestyle changes. Some of the leading benefits of MI include:

  • Building a person’s self-confidence and trust in themselves
  • Allowing people the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions 
  • Helping people imagine a future without substance use or certain mental health struggles
  • Helping people talk through their problems or concerns
  • Helping people find the motivation to make healthy change

Four key concepts of MI

Before you agree to try a new therapy approach, it’s good to know exactly how it works. Motivational interviewing utilizes four key techniques to help inspire behavior change:

1. Open-ended questions

A therapist will use open-ended questions to encourage a thoughtful discussion based on your own experiences and perspectives. Examples of open-ended questions include: 

  • How can I help you with ___?
  • What was your experience with ___?
  • How would you like things to be different?
  • What is your fondest memory from your childhood?
  • What gets you out of bed each morning?
  • What treatments have you tried in the past, and what did you like or not like about them?

2. Affirmations

These are statements that capture and recognize your strengths. Affirmations acknowledge behaviors that can lead to positive change and help you build confidence in your ability to change. To be effective, affirmations must be genuine and not just empty slogans. Many times we don’t recognize our own power to create positive change in our lives, so this affirmation stage is pivotal to helping people connect with that realization. 

3. Reflective listening

You can also expect your therapist to use active listening skills during your session. Reflective listening allows you to steer the conversation, while your therapist takes a back seat to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. They might do this by paraphrasing your thoughts or repeating your statements to clarify that they understand you.

4. Summaries

As with reflective listening, summaries are a way to recap your thoughts—but this time at the end of your session. The summary allows you to revisit any topics you're still working through, and ensures that you're ready to continue the conversation next session. 

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Is motivational interviewing right for you?

Over the last four decades, motivational interviewing has successfully been used to encourage behavior change in a variety of contexts. Below we break down when it may—or may not—be an appropriate form of care:

Yes, give it a try.

MI is frequently used to help kick addictions—such as smoking, alcohol, and other forms of substance use disorder. It’s also used to influence behavior and lifestyle habits, such as healthy eating, weight loss, exercise, and medication adherence. Mental health professionals even use MI to help people leave an unhealthy relationship.

Another type of therapy might be a better fit.

MI can be used to supplement cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety disorder, depression, and trauma, but it’s considered to be a less effective treatment for those conditions on its own. Its success also largely depends on a person’s mindset. For example, MI might not work as well for people who are already highly motivated to make a behavior change or for those who are adamant that they don’t have a problem requiring change.

Therapist and man practicing motivational interviewing

How to get started

As mentioned earlier, MI is usually part of a larger, multi-pronged approach to care. Whether you're already on the road to recovery or just starting your healing journey today, Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) are a great way to help young people understand and overcome their mental health struggles.

Motivational interviewing is a collaborative experience, so it's important to find a mental health professional you click with. This person needs to be supportive, empathetic, and a good listener. Depending on your needs, you might consider a provider who specializes in LGBTQIA+-affirming care.

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Motivational Interviewing at Charlie Health

Thinking about motivational interviewing or another type of therapy to kick-start change in your life? Charlie Health’s team of compassionate mental health professionals are here to listen to your needs, answer your questions, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan. Learn more today.

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