Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic approach from counseling and psychology that aims to enhance a client’s intrinsic motivation.
The four key principles of motivational interviewing are remembered through the acronym RULE (Haque & D’Souza, 2019): resist the righting reflect, understand the client’s motivations, lisen with empathy, and empower the client (explained later in this article).
“Describe to me how your life would be different if you were to achieve your goal?”
Motivational Interviewing Questions Examples
For the sake of this article, I’ve separated out motivational interviewing examples into four primary categories: exploring ambivalence and importance, assessing confidence and self-efficacy, exploring personal goals and values, and developing a change plan.
Each category, explored in order, can help to facilitate important principles from the motivational interviewing technique, and especially, the principle of client empowerment.
1. Exploring Ambivalence and Importance
These questions are designed to help clients self-reflect on ambivalent feelings (such as feelings of uncertainty or conflict) on relation to life changes they are contemplating.
Counselors will often work with clients to explore the change from various perspectives, including pros, cons, and alternatives, in order to help them gain clarity (Hohman, 2021).
- Can you tell me about the pros and cons of making this change?
- Tell me about your current concerns about the situation. What is concerning you that’s making you want to make changes?
- Let’s explore the potential benefits of making this change. Can you tell me about some things you might see as positive outcomes of the change?
- Okay, how about your life if you don’t make the change? Could you describe life if you chose not to make a change?
- You said you feel uncertain about whether or not to make this change. Tell me what those feelings are?
- Let’s look at what’s most important in your life. Could you list for me the things that you consider most important, and how might this change affect those factors of your life?
- Do you think you could verbalize your internal conflicts that you may be feeling regarding this change?
- Let’s explore some drawbacks of making this change. What do you consider to be the main potential negative outcomes?
- Let’s name some things that would make you feel more confident about making the change. What would have to happen to trigger you to become excited about this change?
2. Assessing Confidence and Self-Efficacy
This category is all about self-belief. It involves asking questions that are designed to help clients reflect on whether they have an internal locus of control, which means whether they think this change is within their power and control.
Several methods in clinical psychology can be used here, including focusing on realistic expectations rather than outliers (from CBT), exploring previous successes and challenges, and looking at resources within their control (Miller & Rose, 2015). Ideally, these questions can help clients get a realistic understanding of their own capacity to effect change.
- On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you in your ability to make this change? What factors contribute to that level of confidence?
- What would it take to move one point higher on that scale?
- Can you think of a time when you faced a similar challenge? How did it end?
- In that previous time you faced the challenge, what resources and people did you draw upon to help you through?
- Can you describe a past experience where you overcame a challenge and successfully achieved long-term change? What did you learn from that experience?
- What personal strengths or resources do you have that could help you make this change?
- Compared to the last time you made an effort to effect change, are there new resources, skills, or support networks you can draw upon?
- What specific strategies have worked for you in the past that have really helped you to achieve intrinsic motivation? What do you realistically think it would take to get back to that mindset?
- What obstacles have you faced in previous attempts to make a change? How might you approach these obstacles differently this time?
- What skills or knowledge do you think you would need to acquire or improve upon to feel more confident in making this change? How could you obtain them?
3. Exploring Personal Goals and Values
These questions ask a student to self-reflect on the underlying reasons for wanting to take action. It reflect on their personal values, their goals, and whether their goals are aligned with their values (Miller & Rollnick, 2002; Naar & Suarez, 2021).
If a change is connected with the client’s deeper goals (long-term) and aspirations, the client may develop a deeper intrinsic motivation mindset.
- What is most important to you in life? How does making this change fit with those priorities?
- How would your life look different if you successfully made this change?
- What are your long-term goals or aspirations? How does making this change relate to those goals?
- How does your current behavior or situation align with what truly matters to you?
- What aspects of your life do you feel most proud of, and how does this change connect to those achievements?
- How do your personal values or beliefs support your desire for change?
- If you were to look back on your life 10 years from now, what would you want to have accomplished or experienced? How does this change fit into that vision?
- What specific aspects of this change are most closely aligned with your personal values or goals?
- How does making this change contribute to your overall sense of well-being or personal fulfillment?
- Are there any ways in which your current behavior conflicts with your personal values or long-term goals? How does that make you feel?
4. Developing a Change Plan
Questions in this category are about taking actions that align with the client’s values and aspirations.
These questions tend to emerge later in the process when the client has achieved some clarity and overcome ambivalence (Rosengren, 2017).
Such questions help clients identify specific steps that will enable them to achieve the goals they have independently committed to.
It is important that the actionable plan is perceived to be realistic to the client (Naar & Suarez, 2021); and in that vein, the client should also be able to anticipate potential barriers and identify how they will handle them when they arise.
- In what ways can you break down the change process into smaller, more manageable steps that would increase your confidence in achieving the overall goal? (explore the ‘chunking technique’ with your client)
- What are some concrete steps you can take to start making this change?
- How can you overcome potential obstacles or challenges in the process?
- How will you monitor your progress and adjust your plan as needed to stay on track toward your goal?
- What are some strategies you can use to maintain motivation and commitment when you face setbacks or difficulties during the change process?
- How can you establish a realistic timeline for achieving your goal, considering the various steps and milestones you’ve identified?
- What self-care or coping strategies can you incorporate into your plan to manage stress or other emotional challenges that may arise during the change process?
- How can you involve your support network, such as friends, family, or professionals, in your change plan to provide encouragement and accountability?
- How will you celebrate or reward yourself for reaching milestones or successfully making progress towards your goal?
Read Also: Intrinsic Motivation vs Extrinsic Motivation
Motivational Interviewing Principles
At the beginning of this article, I noted four motivational interviewing principles, which are summarized in the acronym RULE: resist the righting reflect, understand the client’s motivations, listen with empathy, and empower the client (Haque & D’Souza, 2019).
Below, these principles are summarized.
- Resist the righting reflex: The righting reflex is a reflexive desire to “fix” or “correct” the client’s statements, thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. This is ideally resisted in counseling in order to allow the client to achieve personal self-discovery, which will lead to more commitment in the long term. This also amplifies the client’s sense of self-empowerment and locus of control (Naar & Suarez, 2021).
- Understand the client’s motivations: The client’s motivations may be unclear, different to what we may assume, or even surprising. Acknowledging that each person has their own motivations allows us to learn about their motivations without making assumptions or inserting ourselves into the conversation. Furthermore, when we learn the client’s motivations, we can often learn how these motivations do or do not connect with their values (Haque & D’Souza, 2019).
- Listen with empathy: A nonjudgmental space is necessary to help the client worth through their concerns and desires (Hohman, 2021). Without nonjudgmental empathy, the client may not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings authentically and fully. Listening with empathy requires validating the client’s experiences and demonstrating active interest.
- Empower the client: A core goal of motivational interviewing is to have the client leave with a sense of intrinsic motivation and control over their path forward (Haque & D’Souza, 2019). To do this, the counselor can work with the client to name their strengths, resources, and abilities they can draw upon moving forward. By emphasizing the client’s autonomy, competence, and confidence, the motivational listening process shows the client that change is in their hands.
Motivational Interviewing Techniques
Separate from the principles, we also have techniques, which are ways to apply those principles. The four techniques, which form the foundations for our motivational interviewing questions, make the acronym OARS (Haque & D’Souza, 2019; Miller & Rollnick, 2002):
- Open questions
- Reflective listening
1. Open-ended Question
Open-ended questions, such as those we’ve explored earlier in this article, are about getting the client to express themselves without pushing them into a specific direction (Haque & D’Souza, 2019).
Open-ended questions are highly effective in getting clients to open up because the answers are necessarily fully-formed explanations rather than yes/no responses.
By eliciting fuller, more detailed responses, we’re inviting the client to express themselves more fully and authentically.
In turn, it is our job to genuinely listen and engage with the statements they are making in a non-judgmental way.
Affirmations are statements to the client that affirm the client’s experiences and feelings. They help the client feel heard and acknowledged.
Statements of affirmation may also help build a client’s self-belief, especially when the affirmations bring to the surface the client’s genuine personal strengths, such as the resilience they have shown or their unique abilities (Haque & D’Souza, 2019).
However, the affirmations need to be genuine in order for them to be effective and to sustain an honest relationship with the client.
3. Reflective Listening
Reflective listening is all about ensuring communication is clear and well-understood. It reflects what has been said in order to achieve clarification.
This can help in situations where the listener misunderstood or misheard what was said, or when the speaker said something in a way that wasn’t exactly what they had intended to mean.
Miller & Rollnick (2002) identify three core techniques in reflective listening: repeating or rephrasing, paraphrasing, and reflecting feelings.
Repeating and rephrasing involves repeating synonyms of what has been said or the direct phrases of what has been said to ensure the meaning behind the message is effectively received.
Paraphrasing is similar but involves a complete rewording of the core sentiment of what was said in order to check for understanding.
Reflection of feeling involves re-stating how the speaker felt. This demonstrates empathy and captures the intent as much as the exact meaning of the speaker’s message.
Extending from reflective listening, a summary will occur at a checkpoint in the conversation such as a transition point or conclusion to a part of the discussion.
During a summary, the speaker states that they will be summarizing and asking for input on the content of the summary. For example, you might say “So, what I understand you to be saying so far is…”
The speaker should also be focusing on what Miller and Rollnick (2002) call ‘change statements’, such as statements that the client has made that a) recognize the problem, b) demonstrate concern, c) express intention to change, and d) express optimism.
However, be sure to be authentic and accurate in your summary by, for example, reflecting the speaker’s ambivalence or concerns.
Motivational interviewing is used by counselors when they are working with clients who struggle to achieve behavioral change in their own lives. Through this method, the counselor helps the client to work through ambivalence, align their goals with their values, and recognize their power to effect change in their own lives.
Arkowitz, H., Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (Eds.). (2015). Motivational interviewing in the treatment of psychological problems. Guilford Publications.
Haque, S. F., & D’Souza, A. (2019). Motivational interviewing: the RULES, PACE, and OARS. Current Psychiatry, 18(1), 27-29.
Hohman, M. (2021). Motivational interviewing in social work practice. Guilford Publications.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change. Guilford press.
Miller, W. R., & Rose, G. S. (2015). Motivational interviewing and decisional balance: contrasting responses to client ambivalence. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 43(2), 129-141. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1352465813000878
Naar, S., & Suarez, M. (2021). Motivational interviewing with adolescents and young adults. Guilford Publications.
Rosengren, D. B. (2017). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioner workbook. Guilford publications.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]