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How to use motivational interview questions to drive change

October 18, 2021 - 16 min read


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What is motivational interviewing?

Motivational interviewing questions and skills

The 5 principles of motivational interviewing

Identifying readiness for change

Why motivational interviewing questions matter

Use motivational interviewing questions to effect change

Making lasting behavioral change is hard work. If it were easy, we would do it all the time.

But, more often than not, we tend to resist any changes to the status quo. This is just as true at work as it is in our personal lives

Leaders who are trying to build a more resilient organization are often met with resistance to change from their employees.

People change for their own reasons rather than external ones. Motivational interviewing questions can help employees become self-motivated for change.

Let’s take an in-depth look at what motivational interviewing is, how to do motivational interviewing, and some key motivational interviewing questions and skills.

What is motivational interviewing?

Motivational interviewing is a coaching and counseling technique. It aims to increase intrinsic motivation to behavior change and is a collaborative approach to the change process. The interviewer guides the interviewee toward autonomous decision-making.

Motivational interviewing was first developed by psychologists Stephen Rollnick and William R. Miller in the 1980s. It encouraged participants to talk and think about their reasons for change.

Motivational interviewing techniques are based on the principles of humanist psychologist Carl Rogers. He encouraged his patients to open up by providing empathy and a non-judgmental environment. He also let them lead the direction of the conversation.

When the interviewee starts making self-motivational statements, this is known as change talk. The goal of motivational interviewing is to evoke change talk. These are statements that show that the interviewee has positive self-talk about making changes. The interviewer asks evocative questions that encourage change talk. They are more effective than closed questions that require yes or no answers.

Change talk reflects the interviewee’s: 

  • Personal goals 
  • Desire to change 
  • Ability to change 
  • Reasons for change
  • Commitment to changing their current behavior

The theory behind motivational interviewing is that many people are ambivalent toward change. Encouraging personal motivation for change can increase its likelihood and prevent relapse.

Leaders can use motivational interviewing to address skills gaps by helping employees become less resistant to change.


Motivational interviewing questions and skills 

The interviewee leads a motivational interview. The interviewer limits their interventions and avoids disagreeing with or challenging the interviewee.

The set of communication skills required for motivational interviewing is known by the acronym OARS, which stands for:

  • Open-ended questions
  • Affirming
  • Reflective listening
  • Summarizing

Let’s take a look at each of the motivational interviewing skills in more detail.

Open-ended questions

These are questions that invite the interviewee to explore their automatic thoughts and feelings around change. 

They usually begin with words such as what, how, when, or why.

Open-ended motivational interviewing example questions include:


Affirming is a well-established coaching technique. It helps the interviewee to feel seen, heard, and understood. Affirming validates the client's emotions. This can improve rapport with the interviewee and help them become more open to change.

An example of affirming might be: “That sounds like it must have been difficult. I can understand why you’re having a hard time.”

Reflective listening

With reflective listening, the interviewer reflects back to the interviewee what they’ve just heard using their own words. This helps the interviewer make sure they have understood correctly.

It also allows the interviewee the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve just said. This allows them to decide whether to:

  • Add any further reflections 
  • Revise the statement 
  • Move on with the conversation

In motivational interviewing, reflective listening is crucial. It helps the interviewee consider change in the context of their own thoughts and feelings.

An example of reflective listening may sound something like: “What I hear you say is that you’re struggling to concentrate on your work due to the conflict with your boss.”


Summarizing is similar to reflecting but usually comes at the end of the session. It’s a collection of the interviewer's reflections and observations. 

Summarizing helps both the interviewer and interviewee identify the key themes discussed. The interviewer should avoid interpretations and simply paraphrase the interviewee’s words.

When the interviewee hears the interviewer’s summary statements, they hear their own change talk reflected back to them. This is a key aspect of evoking the motivation needed for the interviewee to bring about change.

An example of summarizing might be: “To sum up, it seems like the relationship with your boss is the key factor affecting your motivation at work. Is that right?”

After summarizing, the interviewer should help the interviewee develop a change plan. This will help them successfully move through the stages of change. They should also establish follow-up sessions, if necessary.



The 5 principles of motivational interviewing

As well as using the OARS technique, counselors should follow the five principles of motivational interviewing. They are:

  1. Express empathy
  2. Support and develop discrepancy
  3. Deal with resistance
  4. Support self-efficacy
  5. Develop autonomy

Let’s take a look at how they work in practice.

1. Express empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. When you empathize with someone, you use your lived experience to imagine how they might be feeling.

Empathy is the foundation of an effective coaching or counseling relationship. When the clinician shows empathy for the patient, they begin to establish a rapport which allows trust to develop.

Once trust is established, the interviewee is then more likely to open up to the interviewer. They will begin to share more details about their concerns, problems, and personal history.

2. Support and develop discrepancy

Supporting and developing discrepancy helps the interviewee see the difference between possible outcomes. It also shows them how their behavior affects those outcomes.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs or behaviors. An example might be continuing to smoke cigarettes even though you know smoking is bad for you.

Developing discrepancy helps the interviewee build awareness of the gap between their goal and their current behavior.

3. Deal with resistance

Resistance to change is natural. The interviewer should avoid trying to convince the interviewee to change their mind or persuade them to see their point of view.

Instead, they should help the person explore their roadblocks. They can do this by examining their different points of view about the change. This allows them to choose the viewpoint that feels most aligned and can help them find the motivation to change.

4. Support self-efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to the person’s self-perception. Often, when change is needed, people think they won’t be able to see it through by themselves. This belief can hinder their motivation to change.

Reminding them of past successes can help the interviewee feel more capable of achieving their desired change.

For example, the person may believe they don’t have the commitment to make the change needed. In this case, the counselor may remind them of times they have kept their commitment to themselves in the past.

It can also be helpful to highlight other positive behaviors or examples of other changes they have made. This can help the interviewee feel more positive about their ability to change.

Supporting self-efficacy can be especially helpful when preparing for a job interview. If a person isn’t confident they can make the change or isn’t able to articulate their suitability for the role, they will be unsuccessful. Motivational interviewing can help a person recall all the evidence they have that they meet the competencies required.

5. Develop autonomy

The principle of autonomy helps the interviewee see that the power to change comes from within and doesn’t depend on the counselor or coach. 

The interviewer should encourage them to explore their own methods and find ways of implementing change that work best for them. 

Developing autonomy is empowering. It helps the interviewee understand that the ultimate responsibility lies in their hands. 


Identifying readiness for change 

The goal of motivational interviewing is to help the interviewee overcome their ambivalence. When they reach this point, they are ready to embrace change.

Interviewers need to be alert and able to spot change talk. The stronger the commitment in their change statements, the more likely it is they are ready for change. 

There are four key markers of change talk interviewers should look out for.

1. Willingness to change

The interviewee’s willingness to change can be identified by statements that show a desire to change. 

For example:

“I would have more energy for my kids if I started eating better.”

“I would feel so much better if I stopped smoking.”

2. Ability to make the desired change

Ability statements indicate that the interviewee believes they are able to make the changes they desire.

For example:

“I think I’ll be able to start exercising more if I get up a little earlier.”

“I think, with some support, I’ll be able to stick to the new diet.”

“I think I can do it.”

3. Reasons for change

People need to have good reasons for change in order to become motivated by it. Without a strong why, they have no motivation to change.

For example:

“I have to lose weight for the sake of my health.”

“I should start meditating to help manage my stress.”

4. Need for change

Whereas reasons for change tend to be cognitive, rational statements, need statements tend to be more emotional. 

For example:

“If I don’t stop gambling, my wife will leave me.”

“I can’t go on feeling this way. Something’s got to change.”


Why motivational interviewing questions matter

So why is motivational interviewing an effective technique? 

Because it doesn’t focus on asking “if” the interviewee is motivated to make significant changes in their life. This would be ineffective, as a person who is resistant to change would say, “No.”

Instead, the coach or counselor helps their client explore their own belief systems. This allows them to uncover their intrinsic motivations. When people arrive at these conclusions using their own words, they are more likely to follow through on making the necessary changes.

Organizations can use motivational interviewing to help employees overcome resistance to change. For example, they may be resistant to learning new skills in the face of organizational changes.

It’s also a way to deal with difficult employees by encouraging change before resorting to disciplinary action.

Use motivational interviewing questions to effect change

Imposing change on your employees in spite of their resistance can reduce productivity and lower employee retention rates.

Motivational interviewing questions can help employees find their own reasons for change. Evoking change talk is an art that opens employees to change and increases their motivation for it. 

If you’re a leader and you want to go a step further in supporting your employees through the change process, get in touch with BetterUp. Our expert coaches can help you build a thriving workforce.

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Published October 18, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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