A Brief Description of Motivational Interviewing


In response to some questions on CESNET, I’m posting a brief description of Motivational Interviewing. Of course, Miller and Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing text is a much more thorough source and is highly recommended if you want more complete information.

This description is an excerpt from the second edition of our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories textbook. If you’re interested, you can check it out here: http://bcs.wiley.com/he-bcs/Books?action=index&itemId=0470617934&bcsId=7103

For the third edition (in preparation now), we’ll be substantially expanding this section and so if you have insights, publications, or other information that you think we should be aware of, please email me at john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

Here’s the excerpt:

Motivational Interviewing: A Contemporary PCT Approach

Person-Centered Therapy (PCT) principles have been integrated into most other approaches to counseling and psychotherapy. However, there are three specific approaches that are explicitly new generation person-centered therapies. These include:

  1. Motivational interviewing
  2. Emotion-focused therapy
  3. Nondirective play therapy

Next, we discuss motivational interviewing. Due to its strong integrational characteristics, emotion-focused therapy is covered in Chapter 14. Additional resources are available on nondirective play therapy (Landreth, 2002).

Moving Away From Confrontation and Education

In his research with problem drinkers, William R. Miller was studying the efficacy of behavioral self-control techniques. To his surprise, he found that structured behavioral treatments were no more effective than an encouragement-based control group. When he explored the data for an explanation, he found that regardless of treatment protocol, therapist empathy ratings were the strongest predictors of positive outcomes at 6 months (r = .82), 12 months (r = .71), and 2 years (r = .51; W. R. Miller, 1978; W. R. Miller & Taylor, 1980). Consequently, he concluded that positive treatment outcomes with problem drinkers were less related to behavioral treatment and more related to reflective listening and empathy. He also found that active confrontation and education generally led to client resistance. These discoveries led him to develop motivational interviewing (MI).

MI builds on person-centered principles by adding more focused therapeutic targets and specific client goals. Rollnick and Miller (1995) define MI as “a directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence” (p. 326).

Focusing on Client Ambivalence

Client ambivalence is the primary target of MI. When it comes to substance abuse and other health related behaviors, Miller and Rollnick (2002) view ambivalence as natural. Most all problem drinkers recognize or wish they could quit, but continue drinking for various reasons. Miller and Rollnick described what happens when therapists try to push healthy behaviors on clients:

[The therapist] then proceeds to advise, teach, persuade, counsel or argue for this particular resolution to [the client’s] ambivalence. One does not need a doctorate in psychology to anticipate what [the client’s] response is likely to be in this situation. By virtue of ambivalence, [the client] is apt to argue the opposite, or at least point out problems and shortcomings of the proposed solution. It is natural for [the client] to do so, because [he or she] feels at least two ways about this or almost any prescribed solution. It is the very nature of ambivalence. (pp. 20–21)

In many situations, humans are naturally inclined to resist authority. Therefore, when resistance rises up in clients, MI advocates person-centered attitudes and interventions. This leads to Miller and Rollnick’s (2002) foundational person-centered principle of treatment:

It is the client who should be voicing the arguments for change (p. 22).

Although Miller and Rollnick describe Rogers as collaborative, caring, and supportive—they emphasize that he was not nondirective (W. R. Miller & Rollnick, 1998). Instead, they note that Rogers gently guided clients to places where they were most confused, in pain, or agitated and then helped them stay in that place and work through it. The four central principles of MI flow from their conceptualization of Rogers’s approach (W. R. Miller & Rollnick, 2002). According to these principles, it’s the therapist’s job to:

  • Use reflective listening skills to express empathy for the client’s message and genuine caring for the client.
  • Notice and develop the theme of discrepancy between the client’s deep values and current behavior.
  • Meet client resistance with reflection rather than confrontation (Miller and Rollnick refer to this as “rolling with resistance”).
  • Enhance client self-efficacy by focusing on optimism, confidence that change is possible, and small interventions that are likely to be successful.

MI is both a set of techniques and a person-centered philosophy or style. The philosophical MI perspective emphasizes that motivation for change is not something therapists can effectively impose on clients. Change must be drawn out from clients, gently and with careful timing. Motivational interviewers do not use direct persuasion.

A Sampling of MI Techniques

Miller and Rollnick (2002) provide many excellent examples of how reflection responses reduce resistance. The following interactions capture how reflection of client efforts lessens the need for resistance:

Client: I’m trying! If my probation officer would just get off my back, I could focus on getting my life in order.

Interviewer: You’re working hard on the changes you need to make.

or

Interviewer: It’s frustrating to have a probation officer looking over your shoulder.

Client: Who are you to be giving me advice? What do you know about drugs? You’ve probably never even smoked a joint!

Interviewer: It’s hard to imagine how I could possibly understand.

Client: I couldn’t keep the weight off even if I lost it.

Interviewer: You can’t see any way that would work for you.

or

Interviewer: You’re rather discouraged about trying again. (pp. 100–101)

In the following excerpt from Clinical Interviewing (2009), we describe the MI technique of amplified reflection:

Recently, in hundreds of brief interviews conducted by graduate students in psychology and counseling with client—volunteers from introductory psychology courses, consistent with Miller and Rollnick’s (2002) motivational interviewing work, we found that clients have a strong need for their interviewers to accurately hear what they’re saying. When their interviewer made an inaccurate reflection, clients felt compelled to clarify their feelings and beliefs—often in ways that rebalanced their ambivalence.

For example, when an interviewer “went too far” with a reflection, the following exchange was typical:

Client: I am so pissed at my roommate. She won’t pick up her clothes or do the dishes or anything.

Interviewer: You’d sort of like to fire her as a roommate.

Client: No. Not exactly. There are lots of things I like about her, but her messiness really annoys me.

This phenomenon suggests that it might be possible for interviewers to intentionally overstate a client’s position in an effort to get clients to come back around to clarify or articulate the more positive side of an issue. In fact, this is a particular motivational interviewing technique referred to as amplified reflection.

When used intentionally, amplified reflection can seem manipulative, which is why amplified reflection is used along with genuine empathy. Instead of being a manipulative response it can also be viewed as an effort on the interviewer’s part to more deeply empathize with the client’s frustration, anger, discouragement, and so on. Examples of this technique include:

Client: My child has a serious disability and so I have to be home for him.

Interviewer: You really need to be home 24/7 and really need to turn off any needs you have to get out and take a break.

Client: Actually, that’s not totally true. Sometimes, I think I need to take some breaks so I can do a better job when I am home.

Client: When my grandmother died last semester I had to miss classes and it was a total hassle.

Interviewer: You don’t have much of an emotional response to your grandmother’s death—other than it really inconveniencing you.

Client: Well, it’s not like I don’t miss her, too.

Again, we should emphasize that amplified reflection is an empathic effort to get completely in touch with or resonate with one side of the client’s ambivalence (from J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2009, pp. 316–317).

End of excerpt

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