It is vital to distinguish between the spirit of motivational interviewing and techniques recommended to manifest that spirit. Clinicians who become too focused on matters of technique can lose sight of the spirit and style that are central to the approach. There are as many variations in technique there are clinical encounters. The spirit of the method, however, is more enduring and can be characterized in a few key points.
- Motivation to change is elicited from the client, and not imposed from without. Other motivational approaches have emphasized coercion, persuasion, constructive confrontation, and the use of external contingencies (e.g., the threatened loss of job or family). Such strategies may have their place in evoking change, but they are quite different in spirit from motivational interviewing, which relies upon identifying and mobilizing the client's intrinsic values and goals to stimulate behavior change.
- It is the client's task, not the counselor’s, to articulate and resolve his or her ambivalence. Ambivalence takes the form of a conflict between two courses of action (e.g., indulgence versus restraint), each of which has perceived benefits and costs associated with it. Many clients have never had the opportunity of expressing the often confusing, contradictory and uniquely personal elements of this conflict, for example, "If I stop smoking I will feel better about myself, but I may also put on weight, which will make me feel unhappy and unattractive." The counselor’s task is to facilitate expression of both sides of the ambivalence impasse, and guide the client toward an acceptable resolution that triggers change.
- Direct persuasion is not an effective method for resolving ambivalence. It is tempting to try to be "helpful" by persuading the client of the urgency of the problem about the benefits of change. It is fairly clear, however, that these tactics generally increase client resistance and diminish the probability of change (Miller, Benefield and Tonigan, 1993, Miller and Rollnick, 1991).
- The counseling style is generally a quiet and eliciting one. Direct persuasion, aggressive confrontation, and argumentation are the conceptual opposite of motivational interviewing and are explicitly proscribed in this approach. To a counselor accustomed to confronting and giving advice, motivational interviewing can appear to be a hopelessly slow and passive process. The proof is in the outcome. More aggressive strategies, sometimes guided by a desire to "confront client denial," easily slip into pushing clients to make changes for which they are not ready.
- The counselor is directive in helping the client to examine and resolve ambivalence. Motivational interviewing involves no training of clients in behavioral coping skills, although the two approaches not incompatible. The operational assumption in motivational interviewing is that ambivalence or lack of resolve is the principal obstacle to be overcome in triggering change. Once that has been accomplished, there may or may not be a need for further intervention such as skill training. The specific strategies of motivational interviewing are designed to elicit, clarify, and resolve ambivalence in a client-centered and respectful counseling atmosphere.
- Readiness to change is not a client trait, but a fluctuating product of interpersonal interaction. The therapist is therefore highly attentive and responsive to the client's motivational signs. Resistance and "denial" are seen not as client traits, but as feedback regarding therapist behavior. Client resistance is often a signal that the counselor is assuming greater readiness to change than is the case, and it is a cue that the therapist needs to modify motivational strategies.
- The therapeutic relationship is more like a partnership or companionship than expert/recipient roles. The therapist respects the client's autonomy and freedom of choice (and consequences) regarding his or her own behavior. Viewed in this way, it is inappropriate to think of motivational interviewing as a technique or set of techniques that are applied to or (worse) "used on" people. Rather, it is an interpersonal style, not at all restricted to formal counseling settings. It is a subtle balance of directive and client-centered components shaped by a guiding philosophy and understanding of what triggers change. If it becomes a trick or a manipulative technique, its essence has been lost (Miller, 1994).
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