What Is Motivational Interviewing and How Can It Be Used to Make Positive Changes?

Change is never easy. Whether you want to implement healthier eating habits, or you’ve been debating on quitting smoking, change comes with its challenges.  

If you’re feeling unmotivated or resistant to taking the first steps in making a change, you may benefit from a therapeutic technique called motivational interviewing.    

What is motivational interviewing?

Motivational interviewing or MI is a practical, shortterm process that helps you resolve any ambivalence or insecurities about making a positive change and sticking to it. Originally used in addiction treatment settings, motivational interviewing has also been successfully applied to behavior change goals – including treatment for eating disorders, anger management, and establishing new healthy behaviors such as exercise. 

Encouraging people to think and explore their own personal reasons for change ultimately minimizes resistance and increases motivation. Having your “why” makes it easier to stick to a plan for lasting change. 

The spirit of motivational interviewing.

MI utilizes 3 key elements while incorporating 4 guiding principles to help you in making positive changes. The 3 key elements include: 

Evoking. In this process, you gently explore your own reason for the “why” behind your ideas and motivations. Without judgment from your therapist, any hesitation or resistance in making a change is identified and normalized. Your therapist can help draw out ideas for change rather than imposing their own opinions. You’ll explore your thoughts, feelings, goals, and solutions around the barriers to achieving your goal.  

Collaboration. Your therapist will work to build rapport with you and establish a sense of trust, therefore creating a partnership that is focused on your own experiences and point of view. This distinguishes MI from some other approaches to addiction treatment, specifically those in which the therapist is confrontational. In those treatments, the therapist imposes their own point of view about the person’s addictive behavior. 

You work together with your therapist to create goals in a trusting, therapeutic environment. This doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with one another, but the therapeutic process focuses on creating a mutual understanding where nobody is right or wrong. 

Autonomy. There is no authority figure in MI, as it recognizes that the true power to make changes is within you. Your therapist can’t demand this change from you. Although this can be empowering, it also holds someone accountable for taking action towards their own recovery.

4 guiding principles of motivational interviewing.

Since the road to recovery and making changes looks different for everyone, therapists who use MI tend to adapt 4 principles throughout the process: 

Empathy. MI is non-judgmental and empathetic. Your therapist guides you along the journey of change, rather than demanding or telling you what is right. The intention is to establish a productive working relationship through careful listening to understand and accurately reflect the person’s experience and perspective while affirming strengths and supporting your independence. 

Supporting self-efficacy. MI is a strengths-based approach, meaning it operates on the belief that you’re already capable of making changes successfully. Self-efficacy instills hope by establishing that change is possible, and you have all the tools you need built within you to achieve your goals. If you’ve attempted to change your own but haven’t been successful, your therapist will guide you in focusing on your previous success and skills that you already have.  

Rolling with resistance. Change doesn’t always happen because we want it to. It’s natural to change your mind about making a change-whether due to uncertainty on what this change will bring or what it will look like. Rather than challenging or opposing any doubts or uncertainty, you’ll develop a new understanding and meaning of what this change means to you and why resistance might come up 

Discrepancy.  A therapist supports and reinforces your strengths to make the changes you want. Any recovery or change requires support, as it helps you create a new identity and improves your self-confidence. With ongoing support, you’ll be able to recognize your own abilities and align your values with your actions.  

Motivational interviewing strategies

Below are a few of the approaches utilized by counselors who practice successful motivational interviewing: 

  • Open-ended questions – Rather than “yes” or “no” questions, open-ended questions facilitate a productive, explorative discussion.  For example, “What should we focus on today?” “What makes you feel this way?” or “How have you overcome this challenge in the past? “ 
  • Affirmations – Genuine affirmations can help build strong relationships. They are statements that recognize your strengths and acknowledge the actions that are leading you in the right direction. Affirmations can increase your confidence in your ability to change. 
  • Reflective listening – This technique demonstrates that your counselor understands what you’re saying and feeling. By reflecting, summarizing, and repeating back to you, provides them with a better understanding of your thoughts.  

In conclusion.

Motivational Interviewing is a great tool to use to not only build rapport, but also to challenge your thought process to see things in a different light. It is applicable in any relationship: with family, friends, romantic relationships, working relationships and even your own relationship with yourself. Making a change takes time and purposeful practice; if MI seems like a tool that would help you make positive changes in your life, many of our licensed therapists utilize motivational interviewing in their sessions and would be more than happy to help support you on your journey to positive change 


About the Contributor

Mandy Paysse

Proofed and Verified by: Erica Aina, LCSW

Erica is the Clinical Supervisor and one of many therapists at Elliott Counseling Group. As the Clinical Supervisor she supports clinical growth, oversees protocols, and provides mentorship, monitoring, support, and supervision to therapists. As a therapist, she specializes in trauma work, depression, children/teen issues, and crisis management.


We offer medication management, therapy, and counseling services in Champaign, Urbana, Mattoon, and Teletherapy in Illinois. There are no long wait lists and we are accepting new clients. We would love to see if we fit your needs well. Contact our client care team to get started.