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Five Principles of Motivational Interviewing

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Motivational interviewing is an empathetic and collaborative style of counseling. By asking open-ended, nonjudgmental questions, you let your clients figure out why their behavior is risky and what they can do to change. Its five key principles include expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, avoiding arguments and confrontations, adjusting to client resistance and supporting a client’s self-efficacy and optimism. Therapists often use this style of counseling when working with someone who has a substance-abuse problem.

Express Empathy

Empathy is a key tenet of motivational interviewing, because it signals that you understand or are open to understanding what your client feels. The more empathetic you are to and for your client, the more likely your client will open up to you. The more open a client is, the easier treatment and counseling can be. For example, if a client feels like you understand his point of view and won't judge him, the client will likely talk about the reasons for substance abuse and why he can't stop.

Develop Discrepancy

Any type of counseling, regardless of its link to motivational interviewing, requires you to help your client see that current behavior will not help them reach any goals that they may have. Highlighting this discrepancy or gap can help your client realize the need to change his behavior to reach new goals. For example, if a drug addict admits feeling better about himself when not using, you can connect the abuse to not feeling good about himself. As your client recognizes this gap, he may be more willing to try new things and change behaviors to bridge this gap.

Adjust to Resistance

Your client may resist change or even therapy itself. Instead of forcing the issue, rolling with this resistance can encourage additional talking about your client's point of view. Instead of talking about why using drugs is bad, encourage your client to talk about why he uses and what some of the negative side effects are. This type of encouragement can help a client realize what isn’t working in life and begin developing ways of changing behaviors. The more open you are to the client's ideas and feelings, the more likely he is to share them. With time, your client will begin to realize the very thing motivational interviewing encourages -- sole responsibility for creating the life he wants.

Support Self-Efficacy and Optimism

Supporting self-efficacy means letting your client make decisions about his behavior without stepping in and telling your client what to do. You let your client figure out what will and won't work. Instead of telling a client with a drinking problem that going to AA will help him stay sober, for example, you encourage him to figure out what will support him sobriety. If he relapses, you can help him brainstorm other ways that may work. If your client believes he can change, then he may be more willing to try to change.

Avoid Argument and Confrontation

This fifth principle factors in with each of the preceding principles. If you argue with your client, he may argue his point of view and become less willing to change. Don’t force your client to see things the way you see them. This type of counseling can lead to relapse or to the end of therapy altogether. Instead help your client realize what to change on his own. Instead of arguing with a client who refuses to stop using drugs, talk further with him about what might be interfering with his sobriety.


William Henderson has been writing for newspapers, magazines and journals for more than 15 years. He served as editor of the "New England Blade" and is a former contributor to "The Advocate." His work has also appeared on The Good Men Project, Life By Me and The Huffington Post.

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