How to Build Motivation in Motivational Interviewing

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If you work in human services, chances are high that you’re familiar with Motivational Interviewing. Further, you may know a key component of MI is helping people build motivation to embrace healthy behavior changes. But how to build motivation can sound like a tall order and can sometimes be elusive to new learners of MI.


If you’re wondering how to build motivation, we will break it down by exploring the process of evoking change talk.


Talking People into Change

Can we build motivation in others? Can we get others to change through talk?


MI is not convincing people into change by installing reasons. It is not a Jedi mind trick.


Instead, building motivation is all about supporting people and empowering them to find the answers within themselves–the ones they already have inside them. Building motivation is an inside-out job.


If we want someone to embrace new, healthy behaviors, we must help them discover their reasons to build on their internal motivations. When we talk about change talk, we often hear the word “evoking.”


When we evoke change, we’re drawing it out from the person. We’re not installing or forcing it. We’re not even causing the change. It’s something that’s deep within the other person. We’re helping them build motivation within themselves. The seeds are already there to be surfaced, nurtured and supported to grow.


Because we’re evoking change talk to build motivation, we can employ affirmations. In Motivational Interviewing, affirming is an integral part of the process. Because MI is all about relationships and building rapport, affirmation is part of that connection. When we affirm someone, we may recognize something within them they have not yet owned. This also helps us to connect, form trust, and express our respect for the served person.


An affirmation is an acknowledgment of a strength or an effort. It recognizes the way someone is showing their power and overcoming obstacles. When we affirm someone, we notice that their journey is difficult and that even though change doesn’t come easy, they’re doing it.


There are many different types of MI affirmations that we’ve explored. In the highest form, we note the other person’s strength, making it about them and their efforts. It’s deeper than offering general praise, saying “good job,” and the like. It’s acknowledging their efforts and respectfully reinforcing their inherent capacity and resilience.


In regard to evoking change talk, affirmations can target taking steps, past successes, and even insights they are having regarding the “whys” of their behavior change.


How to Build Motivation by Developing Discrepancy (aka The Collision)

Affirmation is an important part of change talk, but sometimes we have to dig in to help someone their reasons for change. One of the most helpful ways to building motivation is by developing discrepancy.


In Motivational Interviewing, we use the term discrepancy as a fancy word for collision. It’s a collision between a person’s positive values and goals and unhealthy behavior. We’re supporting the person to internally connect with their own discrepancy to help them become more self-aware of that internal collision that’s already happening within them.


Forty years of MI science tells us that when people discover this discrepancy, it can be a powerful motivator for change. So how do we help develop discrepancies to fuel change? Once again, the process is adaptable to different circumstances and conversations. There’s no set formula for saying x, y, or z to build motivation. Conversations to build motivation can be windy because they are best when they are natural and organic. As skillful guides, we can support those we serve to navigate all the twists and turns, ins and outs of the trails of behavior change, and keep them energized (motivated) along the way by building motivation from within them.


There are different levels and depths that we can dig into the person’s change talk as we support the person to build motivation from the inside out.


At the first tier, we discuss the personal, high-level values that the person may hold. Getting into these points requires us to know the served person and build rapport and trust with them. Each person might have different values. What motivates one person may not work for another. Most importantly, what may work for us may not work for the person we’re serving, even if we are a peer support specialist.


In most cases where healthy behavior change is indicated, high-level values most often conflict with an unhealthy or conflicting behavior. For example, “I want to be a present and positive parent to my child, but I often drink to manage my depression.” Implied in this statement is, “My drinking is distancing me from being the parent I want to be.”

Take a moment to bring mind one of the people you are serving. What are their positive values and goals? What are the behavior(s) that are in conflict with those positive values and goals? That’s discrepancy.


Often, if we are listening skillfully, we will hear the values being expressed. If they aren’t it might be an indicator that the person isn’t quite feeling safe enough with us yet–very reasonable. In those moments, building rapport through expressions of empathy so that we can travel out deeper into the ocean of vulnerability, where the person reveals these deep seeded values.


Once we hear the discrepancy, that collision between behavior and values, there are three tiers to support the person connecting with it from the inside out.


Tier #1: Tell Me More About Your Value

Simply invite them to tell you more about the value. So, from our example above, a response might be: “Tell me a little bit more about how you want to show up for your kids.” As the person shares, often discrepancy will naturally pop out and they will say something along the lines of: “And, yeah, I know. I know. The drinking gets in the way of that.” Sometimes that will happen and sometimes it won’t. When it doesn’t, we can move on to the next tier.


Tier #2: Explore Other’s Concerns

We may also find it helpful to note concerns that other people have shared about unhealthy behaviors. For example, “You mentioned that your daughter was upset the last time you were drinking and couldn’t pick her up on time, tell me a little bit more about that.” Often by exploring other’s concerns, it helps the person become more aware of the discrepancy. If not, here comes tier 3!


Tier #3: Ask a Key Question

Finally, at the top tier, we have that “right moment” type of question. This happens when you summarize the person’s values and bring the idea full circle. For example, “Your kids are really important to you, you want to spend time with them, and you work hard to provide for them. Can you tell me a little about how drinking supports all that?”


The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. When people are faced with this collision—this discrepancy—this builds motivation within them.


You may be familiar with Simon Sinek’s work on “finding your why.” In many ways, this technique—pointing out the discrepancy between the behavior and values—helps people recognize their why. For example, “I want to stay sober to be a present parent for my children.” This underlying reason is a powerful motivator for any behavior we want to encourage.


Authenticity Creates Rapport

It can sound strange when we talk about motivating others, almost like a manipulation tactic. However, the principles of MI teach us that sincerity and authenticity are critical for building rapport and creating a trusting relationship with those we serve.


Whether we work in education, medicine, social work, criminal justice, or another field, we are often connecting with people who have experienced trauma during their journey. By recognizing that a great deal of resilience is required to show up with another person face-to-face, we are already taking that first step toward building a connection.


But it’s vital that we also recognize and respect that people are bringing their experiences in when they meet with us. They may have protective defenses up, they may have a hard time pinpointing their values, or they may not feel comfortable sharing those details with someone else.


Building motivation and helping people discover their inner motivation takes time. We may not get to the top-tier conversations right away. But, sometimes, it’s just about helping them find the motivation to walk in the door for their next appointment.


Motivational Interviewing is a powerful tool to help others recognize their strengths and resilience. It’s up to us to meet people where they are, with authenticity and genuine interest, so we can continue to help them discover positive behaviors to support the life they want to lead.


Please get in touch with us for more on Motivational Interviewing and other trauma-informed, culturally reverent approaches we teach at Share Collaborative. We have materials, training, and resources to help individuals and organizations on their journey. We’d be honored to support your journey!


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