Motivational Interviewing: An antidote to advice-culture
The seventeenth newsletter is about the spirit behind our conversations
We live in a society that loves to give advice.
Everywhere you turn, someone is telling you what to do, how to do it, and why you should do it that way. Your parents are the first in line, then your friends take over, after that, your boss is probably next. A constant stream of unsolicited masterclasses and lectures being thrown your way. Nowadays, even total strangers online seem to know what's best for you. But do they though?
Nope. Of course not.
Only you know what’s best for you. Because you have your genes, your upbringing, your packet of specific beliefs, hopes, dreams, and experiences. You’re the only one who could know. While they might have the best intentions, they simply are not you.
In the last newsletter I explained that I see a divide between coaches who lean towards giving advice (experienced informing) and coaches, like me, who trust that supportive listening is the way to go. I talked about the ambiguity of the word coach being at the root of this, or at least not helping coaching’s poor image.
Recovering advice dispenser
I didn’t always believe this though. Before I got trained as a coach, I was an avid advice dispenser myself. I even thought I was very good at it (which I totally was). Until some time into my coach-training I still believed that I was going to hand out advice to people for a living. I also believed that the power to change people’s behavior would come from the experience, training, and knowledge that I had acquired.
As an example, spending years researching and experimenting to recover from a health crisis, I had found the world of lifestyle medicine, self-improvement, and functional health. Although I had learned a lot of valuable insights, too valuable not to share with others I thought, during my coach training I discovered where the power in changing someone’s behavior really comes from.
The power to change people comes from listening to them.
Of all the models, frameworks, and techniques I was exposed to in my training, one approach to conversations in particular opened my eyes to this. If you really want to help someone change, listen to them.
Enter Motivational Interviewing
Motivational Interviewing was first developed by psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in the early 1980s. It is a way of helping people make positive changes in their lives by exploring their motivations and values, rather than telling them what they should or could do. So that means a lot of biting your tongue. Not easy, I know.
Central to MI is the belief that people are naturally motivated to change, but that change is difficult and requires support and understanding.
Maybe that sounds obvious, but we generally don’t acknowledge it in our daily communication with each other. Looking at others we might say or think: ‘Well, apparently they’re not motivated enough, otherwise they would have quit smoking, lost weight, or found a better job by now’. Not taking into account the individual and societal factors that can make these changes extremely challenging.
MI recognizes that people are not necessarily resistant to change itself, but that they may be 1. ambivalent or uncertain about exactly what changes they want to make 2. how to make these changes and 3. unsure if the changes are even worth the effort.
Often what seems like a lack of motivation isn’t a lack of willpower, but simply a lack of clarity.
Coaches trained in MI help clients find this clarity, by exploring their feelings, identifying their strengths and resources, and building confidence and self-efficacy.
The spirit of MI
MI is not just a set of steps to follow but a mindset and approach to working with people that emphasizes listening and understanding, rather than giving advice.
Although MI consists of a number of techniques (like reflecting, asking open-ended questions, and affirming), there’s a deeper layer that Miller and Rollnick call ‘the spirit of MI’.
The spirit of MI is about respecting the autonomy and self-determination of the client, acknowledging that they are the experts in their own lives, and working collaboratively with them to find solutions that are meaningful and relevant to their unique circumstances.
Not taking these into account results in this ‘advice-culture’ that so many people unconsciously follow. Slinging advice left and right without consideration for the person on the other end. But how to break the habit?
In practical terms, apart from using silence, reflective statements and open-ended questions (‘doing skills’, which I wrote about here), MI also offers a number of ‘being skills’ for approaching conversations and improving your listening.
Be present: Give your full attention to the client and try to tune out distractions.
Listen to understand: This will help to set aside the preconceived notions you have about the client or their situation.
Avoid judgment: Getting curious will help you ease your judgments or assumptions about the client's behavior or values.
I like the following anecdote from the book ‘Motivational Interviewing’ by Miller and Rollnick. It illuminates the difference in attitude and what a big difference it can make:
A therapist had been working with a client who had a drinking problem. The therapist had been trying to convince the client to stop drinking for several sessions, but the client was resistant and defensive. At a certain point the therapist asked the client, "What's good about drinking?" After being surprised by the question, the client opened up and talked about the positive aspects of drinking, things like the social aspect and stress relief. This led the way for the therapist and the client to work together to explore other ways of meeting those needs that did not involve alcohol.
I’m a coach, but I’m also a listening skills teacher. Because I believe that everybody needs these skills, not just coaches.
Whether you’re a coach or not, getting familiar with this set of conversation techniques, and the spirit behind them, will strengthen the relationship you have with the people in your life.
Because, maybe for the first time, you’ll be able to actually listen to them.
Wonderful Rik. The spirit of MI is a powerful embrace for the practitioner and the receiver. It’s sitting with them in their boat with their hand on the tiller, and gently placing your hand on theirs to help guide them through choppy waters. They set the destination. And as practitioners we help them set the direction, and navigate to get there.
Really great post Rik. I especially like the bit about “Often what seems like a lack of motivation isn’t a lack of willpower, but simply a lack of clarity.” Sometimes a solution to someone else’s problem seems so obvious to me, but in moments like that, the best thing I can do is listen, reflect, and perhaps seek to add clarity. Thanks for putting this out there!