What Is Motivational Interviewing? Why Is It Important?

Motivational interviewing is a counseling style that helps people change their behavior and resolve ambivalence. Learn how it works on HealthyPlace.

Motivational interviewing is a client-centered counseling style that helps evoke motivations for change and promote independent decision making. It was developed in part by clinical psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in the 1980s but drew on Carl Rogers' optimistic and humanistic theories. Motivational interviewing expresses the importance of being listened to and understood, but it also grants you—the client – the autonomy to solve your own problems and meet challenges head-on. In short, it aims to replace ambivalence with motivation for positive change. So how exactly does motivational interviewing work, and why is it such an important therapeutic technique?

What Is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational interviewing was defined by Miller and Rollnick in 1995 as "a directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence."

Motivational interviewing works on the basis that ambivalence is the main obstacle to motivation. It works on the grounds that people only change their behavior when they are ready – not when they're told to do so. As the client, you are in the driver's seat of your healing journey, and your therapist is merely a "helper."

Miller and Rollnick believe that this approach activates motivation and the capability for beneficial change that everyone possesses. Therefore, anyone can benefit from motivational interviewing if they want to change their behavior – even those who feel they might not be "ready" for change.

Who Does Motivational Interviewing Help?

Motivational interviewing is commonly used in people with substance abuse or addiction issues. It can also help patients with severe ongoing health issues to feel more in control of their lives. The technique can also help people tackle smaller changes, such as improving their overall health or managing money.

Motivational interviewing is grounded in four core beliefs:

  1. Ambivalence about change is normal and is an important motivational obstacle to recovery
  2. The relationship between client and therapist is the most critical part of therapy
  3. Ambivalence can be resolved when people are encouraged to get in touch with their intrinsic motivations and values
  4. A directive, yet empathetic and supportive therapy style is important if change is to occur. More aggressive or confrontational approaches can make people more defensive and reduce their capacity for change.

Motivational Interviewing Technique: How Does It Work?

R.U.L.E is the core motivational interviewing technique:

  • R – the therapist will resist the urge to change or influence your behavior. Instead, you will be encouraged to draw on your own goals and motivations.
  • U – your therapist will be understanding about your unique challenges, as well as your reasons for wanting to change. Motivational interviewers believe that understanding and compassion are vital to eliciting change in their patients. Your therapist may use a technique called "reflective listening." This involves them repeating back what you have said to ensure they have understood what you are thinking and feeling.
  • L – listening is vital in motivational interviewing. Rather than offering solutions, your therapist will listen to your challenges and encourage you to draw on your own problem-solving skills. He or she may ask open-ended questions to help you to talk about your problems at length.
  • E – motivational interviewing aims to empower you so you can draw on your own innate ability to change your behavior. Your therapist may draw on affirmations to help you build a stronger relationship with yourself.

Motivational Interviewing Goals and Benefits

If you are ready to make a change in your life – whether it's a small change or a big one – motivational interviewing has many benefits.

  • You feel heard and understood
  • You are free to express yourself in a conflict-free environment
  • You develop confidence in your ability to problem-solve
  • The approach encourages autonomy, so you become more reliant on your own coping skills rather than external comforters like alcohol, drugs or excessive spending
  • Therapy is self-reflective, so you learn about yourself and your obstacles toward motivation and change.

The aim of motivational interviewing is to help you find internal motivation to make long-term change, whether this means dismantling an unhealthy habit, becoming healthier or better with money or recovering from a substance abuse problem. It has proven to be highly effective at eliciting change in people who are ambivalent or lacking the motivation to meet their goals.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, September 18). What Is Motivational Interviewing? Why Is It Important?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 23 from

Last Updated: October 15, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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