Motivational Interviewing and Motivation – Is “You can do it!!” enough?

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April 29, 2016 by Kathleen O'Connor

How does motivational interviewing fit with “motivation”?

“I wish I could find the motivation to…”, “if only she could get motivated to…”, “ugh, he is just not motivated to…” – any of these sound familiar?

Motivation is a value-laden word that often comes to mind when thinking about many behaviours that society views as undesirable: procrastinating, overeating, exercising, smoking, drinking, staying up too late/sleeping in too much… the list goes on and on. The fundamental conclusion: motivation = good, no motivation = bad.

If you’ve ever felt challenged by motivation (either for yourself, or on behalf of someone whose behaviour you’ve wanted to change), you may have turned to sources outside yourself – like the Internet – in search of some inspiration. If so, you may have found posters or graphics that look something like this:


In the world of psychology, phrases like those above are often referred to as “affirmations”; that is, they’re meant to remind people about what’s important to them in life (their “core values”) and why they should push through with their efforts even when times are tough. These affirmations can definitely strike an inner chord – after reading the posters above, how many of you suddenly feel the urge to lace up your gym shoes and hit the pavement? Research does suggest that weight management interventions focusing on these affirmations can be helpful – this paper, for instance, describes an intervention where some women who were dissatisfied with their weight were asked to reflect on a personal value that was important to them. More than two months later, these women had smaller waistlines and lower BMIs than women who had been asked to reflect on values that were not important to them. So is making healthy lifestyle changes all about finding the affirmation that fits best for you?

While the possibility above is tempting (“if I can just find the right thing to tell myself, motivation will be a breeze!”), it’s probably not the whole picture. Take this article, for example. It presents an interesting perspective on the timing of affirmations by suggesting that they can work, but mostly before defensiveness sets in – that is, before those inner walls go up and we turn our efforts towards resisting and protecting ourselves from perceived criticism. As noted in the article, people who have already justified certain health behaviours in their minds may be less open to discussing change and how it fits with their core values. In other words, if someone has already decided that their busy schedule leaves them too tired to exercise, reminding them that they are “healthy and filled with energy” might not gain a lot of traction.

So where does motivational interviewing (MI) fit in? I mean, the name includes the word “motivation” – what part of it involves interviewing someone until you find the magic phrase that will make him or her realize where they’ve gone wrong and decide to change forever? Actually, very little of it – if any. Affirmations do play a big role in MI, but they must come from the client. For instance, instead of telling a client what to think or believe, a therapist might listen carefully; take note of the client’s strengths, successes, and efforts to change (however small, on the outside!); and then build upon those – ideally avoiding statements that can sound shallow and over the top (“wow, that’s awesome”!) and focusing more on those that are genuine and as specific to the client as possible (“you showed a lot of [integrity, strength, creativity] by handling the situation in that way”).

Another feature of MI that makes it different from approaches focused just on affirmations relates to the second article above – the one addressing the topic of defensiveness. How do MI therapists work with defensiveness – or “roll with resistance”, as an MI therapist might say? Stay tuned for another blog entry!

What role do affirmations play in your life? What do you notice about how you react to affirmations depending on when and how you receive them?

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