5 Things I've Learned From Motivational Interviewing
Building Strength, Hope & Resiliency

5 Things I've Learned From Motivational Interviewing

By: Sean Gilpatrick, Wayside clinician and blog contributor

Posted January 26, 2017

The first time I heard about Motivational Interviewing was at Wayside's Waltham office, just a few minutes into my first day. And I had absolutely no idea what it was. If I had to guess (and luckily no one actually made me guess), I would've said it was about interviewing potential new employees or something like that. It didn't even occur to me that it might be a therapeutic technique that I'd be using with the kids and families I work for. 

Since then, as an agency, Wayside has embraced Motivational Interviewing as one of its core philosophies. And while it's definitely informed my clinical work, there's also been some overlap in my personal life too. Here are five things I've learned from MI that I've taken home with me:

Unsolicited Advice

One of the core elements of MI is about evoking, rather than imposing, ideas from a conversation. Instead of acting like an authority, MI takes the stance that people are the experts on their own lives and their insights on their problems are invaluable. Among other things, that means that advice shouldn't be dispensed unless it's asked for. 

And that's hard. It's difficult for me professionally to bite my tongue sometimes when I think I have the perfect solution to a problem. It's even harder in my personal life with my friends and family. Once, I got a homework assignment from an MI training to not give out any unsolicited advice at all for a week straight, and it was nearly impossible. 

But, in retrospect, the difference was night and day. Both at work and at home, people would tell me they felt heard a lot more when they talked to me. And it helped me listen, really listen, to what someone else was saying. Rather than looking for an opportunity to solve someone else's problem, I was instead trying to help them solve their problems for themselves. 


Another core principle of MI is collaboration. In this dynamic, it's important that the person I'm working with feels heard. MI uses a technique called reflecting (or reflective listening) where the counselor will listen and respond in a manner that indicates we're all on the same page. And it's not as simple as repeating someone's words, because that's not really helpful for anyone. 

Instead, a good reflection requires that you hear not just the words someone says, but also the intention and perspective behind them. It's a technique I've found helpful in any situation where I'm trying to let someone know that I'm on their side. Instead of me vs. them, it becomes us vs. the problem. 

Rolling with Resistance

In MI, resistance happens when a client feels that their view of the problem (or a potential solution) is different than the counselor's view. It might also happen when the client feels like their thoughts and choices aren't being respected. And when resistance happens, MI encourages us to 'roll with it.' Instead of struggling over whose viewpoint is 'right,' MI asks that we try and find a way back onto the same page. 

For me, this view of conflict helped me avoid a lot of arguments. It's easy to get drawn into a struggle, but it's rarely productive especially when there's a problem to solve. So when I encounter resistance, I try to roll with it. I try to think about how we can get back to understanding each other, because that's ultimately more effective. 

Putting Aside My Own Agenda

A lot of our communication is aimed at making ourselves heard, and making ourselves understood. And with good reason, right? Most of the time when we talk, we're trying to accomplish some goal with the words we say. 

From MI, I've learned that there are times when I'll have to set aside my own agenda for the sake of what's helpful. And it's never easy to do. There's never a time I like putting my goals aside, but sometimes it's necessary. And practicing that with MI definitely makes it easier. 


Being Thoughtful About What I Say

The biggest thing I've taken away from MI is the idea that what I say can have a huge impact on someone else. It's something I knew before, but MI places such an intense focus on how words, expressions, and reactions matter that it really drilled it home.

And knowing that comes with a lot of responsibility. It keeps me aware of what I'm saying, what I'm doing, what I'm feeling, and how it might impact the people around me. MI didn't just change the way I approach my work, it also changed the way I looked at how I communicated with others in my life.

There's a lot to take away from MI, and a lot of extends further than the office. Especially if you're looking out for it. 


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