Techniques of Motivational Interviewing

Empower others to find their own motivation to change.

Examples of the Techniques of Motivational Interviewing

Many people want to learn the techniques of Motivational Interviewing since it has become one of the most popular and well-researched communication styles. However, it’s important to know that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. What I mean by that is that it's imperative to acknowledge the spirit of Motivational Interviewing. As I mention in my post on the Spirit of MI, the techniques of MI will work the best when you are being collaborative, helping people to understand that you’re in partnership with them and that you’re understanding their experience, that you’re compassionate and accepting of who they are as a person. Learning about and staying in this spirit is essential to effectively apply the techniques.

The OARS Techniques

That said, there are certain techniques that we use in MI. We call these techniques the OARS. The OARS acronym helps you to remember what the techniques of Motivational Interviewing are:

O for “Open” or “Open-ended questions”, A for “Affirmations”, R for “Reflections”, and S for “Summaries”.

The OARS abbreviation is something that we can use to remember when we jump into giving advice prematurely in a conversation about change. Using the OARS can help us really be present with the person we are speaking with and help them argue for their reasons to change on their own.

O - for open or open-ended questions

We ask questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no. We ask questions that are more evocative in that they bring out the clients thoughts about change. For example:

  • “What do you think could change?”
  • “What is at stake if you don’t make a change in this area of your life?”
  • “What do you think would happen if you continue as you are?”

Those are all questions that can help the person you’re talking to really speak about change on their own terms and bring out their internal or intrinsic motivation for change. In this way, we increase the likelihood that the person argues for change instead of us.

A - for affirmations, pointing out specific, positive, inherent qualities

Asking yourself, “what’s inside this person that’s good already?” How can you help them to boost their own sense of self, their own confidence and self-efficacy, their ability and belief that they can change? By pointing those qualities or attributes out in a positive way, you increase the likelihood that they will change. Rather than simply praising them, saying a trite positive comment like, “nice job!”, an affirmation highlights a stable positive characteristic of the person based on observed evidence. Affirmations can often have the word “you” in them more than the word “I”.

  • “You’re really showing your dedication again today by those comments you made in that group discussion.”
  • "There's that patience and focus again. I saw it when you were listening to your son in the waiting area."

R - for reflections or reflective statements

When we are counseling or listening to someone with a problem or issue, we are tempted to ask questions or give advice. In MI we call this the “righting reflex”. However, we find that by demonstrating, using a statement - a listening statement, showing the person that you hear what they’re saying, that you both improve the relationship and create an opportunity to highlight reasons for change. For example:

  • “I’m hearing that you feel sad today.”
  • “You feel challenged by this difficult situation.”
  • "On one hand you want to continue to drink because for you it's a way to reduce stress, yet you also are worried about how the drinking impacts your relationship."

By making a statement like this you’re showing them that you understand. You’re showing them that you have a sense of empathy. Empathy has been shown to be really powerful in the change process. Sometimes we highlight what we call “change talk”, that is, when the person is talking about their reasons to change. In a reflective statement, we can point out a reason that the person thinks it is important to change. So a person might say, “I know I really need to eat healthier because I really want to be around for my kids later in life” and using a reflective statement, something like “What you’re saying is that your kids are really important to you”, you’re highlighting the reason for them, why they’d like to change, instead of imposing from without the reasons why you think they should change.

S - for summaries

One way to think about summaries is that they are a bunch of reflections that band together to highlight a theme the person you’re talking to is relating. You are helping them to see some the bigger meaning or the general concept that might be important to them. As someone I once trained in motivational interviewing once said, “A summary is like a magic mirror.” You’re holding up this mirror to the person a general picture of their life, and then they can see what they think needs to change.

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