Cathy Cole on Motivational Interviewing

Cathy Cole on Motivational Interviewing

by Victor Yalom
An expert MI trainer and practitioner discusses the foundations and applications of Motivational Interviewing. Learn how MI can be used with clients struggling with addiction and PTSD, and get a sneak peek into the MI training process.


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Talking About Change

Victor Yalom: I think a good place to start would be to define and describe exactly what Motivational Interviewing is.
Cathy Cole: Motivational Interviewing is a counseling approach that has a very specific goal, which is to allow the client to explore ambivalence around making a change in a particular target behavior. In Motivational Interviewing, the counselor is working to have clients talk about their own particular reasons for change and, more importantly, talk about how they might strengthen that motivation for change and what way making that change will work for them. It’s a way for the counselor to guide a conversation toward the client’s goals, making the choices that are going to work for a particular person.
VY: I know the founder of this, Bill Miller, started in the field of addictions, where, at least for many counselors, there is a very different model of change, which is that the counselor needs to somehow break through the client’s resistance or denial about their drinking problem. In that context, MI has a very different philosophy.
CC: We really wouldn’t view that as resistance. In Motivational Interviewing, we’re listening very closely to what the client says and, more importantly, how the client is saying it. We’re listening for two kinds of language with clients: either sustain talk or change talk. What we might have considered resistance or what had been called denial in the past would actually just be consider sustain talk—reasons not to do something different, like reasons why stopping drinking would not be important, or reasons why, even if it’s considered important, the client doesn’t think they’re capable, or reasons why the client says, “I’m not ready to do this.”

VY: So in traditional alcohol counseling, for example, reasons why they don’t want to change are seen as resistance or denial.
CC: That was considered denial in the past. And it was viewed as the client not having paid enough attention yet to what the professional said they need to take a look at.
VY: So the professional is really the expert.
CC: That’s right. And in Motivational Interviewing, the client is considered the expert.
VY: Miller gives a lot of credit to Carl Rogers’s person-centered therapy in that regard.
CC: He does, and the basic conversational methods that are used in Motivational Interviewing came out of some of the client-centered work, particularly the use of reflective listening. When Bill Miller began to discuss this, he talked about the client being the expert. The clients are the ones who know themselves better than anyone else. The clients have strengths and capabilities, and clients have the ability to decide if making a change is important to them and why, and what would work best for them in terms of going about that change.

This is quite different from the traditional model of, “Here’s your problem. Here’s what you need to do. And if you don’t do it, that’s your problem, too.”
Of course, the counselor has an important role with this, because sometimes clients want to make change but they don’t really know how. So if, after fully exploring clients’ ideas about making change and what would work for them, the client still feels lost, we’re able to come in and provide some ideas for them to consider—things that we know have been helpful to other people or specific ways of approaching, say, stopping drinking. But ultimately, the clients are the ones who decide what they’re going to do. So this was quite different from the traditional model of, “Here’s your problem. Here’s what you need to do. And if you don’t do it, that’s your problem, too.” 
VY: That’s the underlying philosophy of it, and then there are a lot of specific techniques. It’s very strategic, from my understanding. You mentioned one idea of sustain talk, and that is the clients telling you why they want to sustain or continue what they’ve currently been doing.
CC: Right. They’re telling you why they’re not going to do something different.
VY: When you’re hearing sustain talk, your goal is not to try to argue them out of it. You’re not trying to show them that they have some irrational thinking or beliefs. What’s your goal in listening to sustain talk?
CC: To me, there are two goals in listening to sustain talk. The first goal is for me to listen so that I really understand the client’s perspective and of why they are where they are with this particular behavior, and what might be interfering with them considering making a change. So I want to first really work on understanding that. And the way that I’m going to convey that I’m understanding that is by the use of reflection. The next thing that I want to do is to use various kinds of open questions to help the client completely explore the sustain talk, again, toward the goal of the client being able to make an informed choice about whether or not they’re going to change.
VY: And the other type of talk, to call it that, is change talk. That’s a really interesting idea, I think, especially for therapists. What is change talk?
CC: Change talk is when the client begins to shift and say that perhaps making change is important, or perhaps they are able to do it, or perhaps they are ready to do it. They begin to shift away from the reasons not to and they move into the direction of the reasons to make change, or the capability of making change, or that readiness to make change. And that change talk can be very subtle; it can be something that we have to really listen for. It may not be the dramatic, “Yes, I have changed my mind. Now I am definitely going to start losing weight or stop drinking or making a change in my drinking.” It could be as subtle as, “Maybe I should start thinking about that.” And the moment that that occurs, we want to then change what we’re doing in relation to that change talk.
VY: I know that Motivational Interviewing is used in a wide variety of settings, from addictions to healthcare, medicine, the criminal justice system. But just to keep things simple for now, let's use the example of addictions, where it started. Can you give me an example of someone is struggling with drinking and give an example of sustain talk and change talk, and how you might listen for the change talk, and what you might do with it?
CC: The sustain talk might be something like, "My drinking is no worse than any of the other people I hang around with. In fact, sometimes I don't think I drink as much as they do." So that's saying this is no big deal.

A shift of that might be, "Well, when I think about it, I realize that some of the people I drink with actually do say 'I've had enough' and they quit. And I don't always do that. Even if I feel like I've had enough, I just keep on drinking." Many people might not hear that as change talk, but I hear that as change talk because the person is beginning to take a look at this and the drinking in a different way. I would really want to attend to that very carefully, and then help the client expand on that.
VY: How do you help them expand on it when you first hear that subtle shift?
CC: Continuing this example, my first response would be to do a reflection. I might say, "You're beginning to pay attention to how your drinking pattern is not the same and realizing that there could be some pretty important differences." I'm reinforcing the beginning of the client looking at this in a different way. By doing the reflection, that then provides the opportunity for the client to expand on what he's beginning to think about.
VY: But you're not jumping on it.
CC: No, I'm not jumping on it like, "Okay, so you really want to do something different," because I'm just hearing the beginning of it. Again, MI is very client-centric, so I am helping the client move forward just a little bit, and I'm letting him now expand on this little bit of daylight that has started to show up here in terms of him thinking, "Maybe this is something I could look at in somewhat of a different way." I want to help him move that along. But if I get too far ahead by saying, "Okay, so you realize that you have a problem," the client will probably immediately push back to sustain talk because I will have gotten ahead of the client or really created some discord in the relationship at that point. So it's very strategic in terms of how far ahead I'll actually move.
VY: I know it's a really important concept in Motivational Interviewing, for the therapist or counselor not to be the one arguing for change.
CC: Absolutely. The clients are always the ones that argue for change. We set the stage for them to be able to do that, should they want to, but they always present the argument for change.
VY: What is the rationale behind that?
CC: The rationale is if we have decided on our own that making a change is important, we're far more likely to do it. And it's also human nature that if someone else tells us that we have to make a change, even if we know we need to do that, we argue against it. We push back.
VY: So with this hypothetical client, say you reflect back the early change talk. How might it progress from there?
CC: Then the client says, "Yeah. I realize that if we go out drinking on the weekends, my other friends know that maybe they can drink a little bit more on a Saturday night, but when it comes to Sunday that they need to cut back and maybe not drink at all, or just have one drink. And they go to work on Mondays. I often don't really slow it down. I continue to drink just as much on Sunday, sometimes maybe even a little more. And I sometimes don't end up going to work. So I'm a little bit different than they are with my drinking."

To that, I might actually say a reflection back: "Your drinking takes on a life of its own. It actually gets ahead of you."
VY: Okay, you summarize what they're saying. You say you don't want to get too far ahead of the client, but sometimes you might amplify their reflection?
CC: I'll amplify that a little bit more. I took a little bit more of a step out this time, a little bit more of a risk, because the client actually started giving me more information. He started to have a different perspective. So I edged it out a little bit and really did a metaphor: "Your drinking has a life of its own, and sometimes it moves ahead of you." I started to help the client really compare and contrast his drinking with other people's drinking and just expanded, really, on what the client has said.
VY: It's really a conversation between the two of you. The therapist does a lot of reflection and trusts that ultimately it's the client's decision whether they're going to stop drinking, start exercising, manage their diabetes better, or whatever the behavior is. Does this tend to go on for a long period of time throughout a course of counseling? Is it very focused on a specific behavior?
CC: Motivational Interviewing the way that we're using it is focused on a particular target behavior. It's something that the client is talking about with a sense of, "I need to figure out how to deal with this." Motivational Interviewing is actually considered a somewhat brief way of working with people in that the person is deciding whether they're going to do something and then what they're going to do.

Let's say the drinking from our earlier example is the target behavior. The client decides over the course of a couple interviews that this is a bigger deal in life than he had looked at before, so he's saying, "Now I'm going to do something about this." Now we're getting a clear message of, "Yes, I want to move ahead." So we begin to take a look at how capable the client feels of doing something about this and what it is he wants to do.

Let's say I'm an outpatient therapist and doing a specific alcohol treatment is not necessarily my strong suit, but I have this client who comes in and that's what the client wants to explore. It could be that in the course of that conversation, the client decides, "I'm going to do something about this. I'm going to go to a specific center or perhaps even an inpatient program that deals with alcohol problems." Or let's say that it's a brief intervention to help the client get to the place of saying, "Yes. Now I'm going to do something about it," and then he moves into planning how he's going to do something about it. That might mean that the person moves away from me and that I'm not working with him any longer.

But let's say that I am comfortable working with an alcohol problem. So now we have resolved that initial ambivalence. We've moved toward, "Yes, this is what we're going to work on together." At this point, we're going to be working with whatever the client needs to take a look at: for instance, is he planning to try to moderate, or is he planning to try to stop altogether? If he's going to stop altogether, what do we need to address with that? What might be barriers for him in continuing to maintain abstinence once he's established it? So we're not into the nuts and bolts of how he's going to do it. I'm still not telling him what to do, but I've shifted away from that first part of Motivational Interviewing, which is just to resolve that ambivalence about doing it in the first place.

But let's say that client is continuing along in therapy and with this change plan, and couple of months down the line, the client now says, "I don't know. Maybe I don't really need to continue to do this any longer." So now we're just going to explore that again. I'm always listening for where the client might become uncertain about continuing to work on this particular behavior. Then we're going to come back and use Motivational Interviewing to work with that ambivalence.

Stages of Change: Importance, Ambivalence, Confidence

VY: Coinciding with this interview, we've just completed a series of Motivational Interviewing videos with you. The first one lays out the general principles, and then the next three address different stages in the change process. It's an interesting way of thinking about the process of change in general. The first one deals with the idea of increasing importance. Can you just state briefly what is meant by that?
CC: When we talk about increasing importance, we are basically talking about the client's buy-in around making change. The client has to decide, "Why is this an important issue for me in the first place? Why is it important for me to take a look at the role of drinking in my life? In what ways might it be creating problems for me? In what ways would taking a look at this and making some changes enhance, perhaps, parts of my life or what difference does it make for me to actually control my diabetes when I'm going to have it forever anyway? Why would I stop smoking? Why would that be important?" That's the first thing when we're talking about making a change. First, we have to believe that making the change is important, because if we don't believe that it's important to make a change, then we're really not going to do anything.
VY: So first the client has to at least consider that it is important for them to change. And even when they consider it's important, the idea that they might change is often counterbalanced by inertia or sustain talk—they still might be ambivalent about actually going ahead with it.
CC: Exactly. If we think about it, probably one of the most common questions that the majority of people deal with is, "Is it important that I eat in a certain way so that I maintain the health that I currently have? Is it important that I have a regular exercise routine?" And a lot of times, clients don't actually realize that it is important for them to make a change.

Let's take an example of a client who has had a yearly physical with routine screenings, lab tests, things like that. The doctor points out that some of her lab values are off. Let's say liver enzymes are off or cholesterol is high. The client has really not even considered that she needs to make any kind of a change, and now the doctor is saying, "These are indicators to me that you should take a look at these things in your life—that you should take a look at your diet, you should take a look at your drinking, you should take a look at the use of exercise to have an impact on these particular health issues that I have a concern about."
VY: So this is all new information to the client. For the first time, she thinks, "Gee, maybe it's important that I make some lifestyle changes."
CC: Exactly. And other times clients have sought counseling about something that they think might be important, but they're not sure yet. So they've come to sort that out for themselves. Or perhaps someone is saying, "I've really always identified myself as a person who speaks my mind. I want to express myself honestly, but I'm beginning to get some feedback at work from my boss that that is really not going to help me advance in my career. So I'm thinking maybe I should take a look at that, but I'm not so sure." So he's trying to figure out if changing something about the basic way that he has been interacting is important for him to work on.

Or perhaps a young mother has been following the ways that female relatives have been telling her she needs to be dealing with her newborn baby, but she's read some literature that maybe that's not quite the right thing. So she wants to talk to the baby's pediatrician about whether or not she should do something different, because she's getting conflicting information.
VY: We're moving into territory where the client is aware that there's some potential need to change, reason to change, but they're ambivalent. There might also be a reason not to change.
CC: Right. It's so much easier to do things the way that we've been doing them all along. In the case of the young mother, it could be that going against the grain of what she's being told by these other significant people in her life is something that, while she might think it's important, maybe she doesn't think she can pull it off. Maybe she thinks she's not really capable of standing up to them and saying, "I'm going to bring my child up in a different way," so it's easier for her to say, "No, I don't think it's that important."
VY: Throughout the course of counseling, assume you resolve this ambivalence in one way or other and the client decides, "Yes, I do want to cut back on my drinking," or, "I want to quit my drinking," or, "I want to lose some weight." Then you move into the territory of whether they have the confidence to make that change.
CC: Exactly—whether they feel that this is something that they're capable of actually doing. And if we look at, say, people who have decided that they want to stop smoking, many, many people can say, "I know it's important not to smoke, but I have tried and failed so many times to stop smoking that I'm just not sure that I can actually do it. So maybe I should just keep on smoking because I really don't want to fail again." Now we're now helping them take a look at the issue of confidence and capability.
VY: What is MI bringing to the table there? How do you help increase someone's confidence or likelihood of making that change?
CC: One of the things that I would do is explore with these people any past attempts that they've had. If they've had any success at all, even if it's just been for a day, I'd like to find out what helped them, or what happened that they were able to be successful even for a short period of time. I'd also want to explore with the person other areas in their lives where they have actually tackled some sort of challenge or made a change successfully, and help them talk about what helped them be successful at that time. Perhaps it was outside support from another person, or it was buddying up with a person to be able to pull off an exercise routine.

I also help them determine what natural traits and characteristics they possess that help them tackle things in life that could be difficult, and how could they use those particular traits to help them in this particular area.

Another thing that helps with confidence is actually giving people sufficient information about how they might go about making this change, and helping them explore whether or not they think that would work for them.
Most of us are not going to step out into making a change unless we think we can pull it off, so to actually have an idea of how to go about it can be very helpful.
Most of us are not going to step out into making a change unless we think we can pull it off, so to actually have an idea of how to go about it can be very helpful.

Offering Advice and Information

VY: As I said, Motivational Interviewing is widely used in healthcare and medicine, although our audience for this interview is mainly counselors and therapists. I think it's just important to note that, say, in a medical setting, a healthcare provider might have very specific information about managing diabetes or quitting smoking. But also in counseling, if we have particular expertise in addictions, again, we might not tell them what to do, but we might say, "Based on our experience, this is going to be more likely to be successful than this."
CC: If a person is saying, "I want to do this, I just don't know how, and therefore I'm not confident," we might say, "If it's okay, I can give you some information on what has been helpful to other people, and from there we can see what you think about that in terms of it being useful for you." I might present two to three ideas, then stop and go back to the client and explore again. "What do you think about that?" And see how they would work with that.

So in addictions, I might say, "Some people find it helpful to do things like 12-step recovery and others find it helpful to go to specific treatment kinds of programs, while still others use things like web-based programs to help them deal with establishing abstinence and getting support. Other people have turned toward their faith, if that's been something that's important. So I'm just wondering, out of some ideas that I've presented, what ideas that brings up for you or what other questions that you might have."

I'm always coming back to the client and checking in again, because ultimately the client is the one who's going to decide.
VY: That again, is quite different from an approach where you say, "You really need to go into an inpatient program."
CC: It's very different from a prescriptive approach. I want to make sure, though, that folks listening to this don't misunderstand: the counselor can actually provide specific recommendations, but it's done in a way that ultimately our clients still know that they are the one making the choice. We're reinforcing our clients' autonomy.
The counselor can actually provide specific recommendations, but it's done in a way that ultimately our clients still know that they are the one making the choice. We're reinforcing our clients' autonomy.

Let’s say that I have done an assessment with someone in relationship to drinking patterns and what kind of impact drinking has had in this person’s life. And let’s say that the client is now trying to decide whether or not he wants to do some harm reduction, or whether he wants to be completely abstinent. The client might ask me what I think, and it’s perfectly okay for me to give my point of view, but I would say it perhaps in this way: “Ultimately, you’re the one that’s going to make your choice. But from my review of your history and from what I hear about you trying to do moderation in your past attempts, it looks for me like going for abstinence is the right thing for you to do, certainly at this time. That’s my professional recommendation based on what I learned from your history. But again, I want to know what you think about that. Ultimately, you have to make the decision.”

What's New About MI?

VY: It sounds very consistent with how a lot of therapists work in general. We generally don't tell the client what to do. We think that we're listening to them and being supportive. For the therapist who wants to integrate this into their general work with clients, what's most new about this? When you are training counselors, what do you find really stands out for them about this approach?
CC: Particularly with seasoned counselors, what stands out as new for them is listening for when the client becomes uncertain again about addressing their target behavior—when they begin to shift and begin to have some doubt, perhaps, that they are capable of doing this or that it. It remains important to listen for that and realize that when we begin to hear that, we now need to shift and start to explore that uncertainty again and not act as if we're continuing to move forward, because then we're not really in sync with the client any longer.
VY: By that, you mean the client has been exploring the possibility of change but then hit a roadblock and start to get stuck back into ambivalence.
CC: Yes. They go backwards. They shift directions and move back into sustain talk. Let's stay with the drinking example: say your client has decided that he wants to establish abstinence and he's done that, and he's been abstinent for three months and continued to work on possible barriers in supporting that.

Then he comes in one session and says, "I'm doing really well with this, but I'm beginning to think that I just needed a break. I just needed to stop for a little while. I could probably go back to drinking again." So he's shifted directions. He's said, "I'm thinking about this in a different way" which means that we have to now shift and begin to explore what's happened and see where they want to go with this. Perhaps he has decided that the break is what he's had and now he would like to try harm reduction or moderation. So now we're attending to this in a new way.
VY: And the therapist needs to watch out for that tendency to want to kind of jump on the client, saying, "But you already decided this."
CC: That's exactly right.
The temptation is to come in and try to convince the client, "You've made this decision. You shouldn't turn back. You should keep going with this decision." But then we will have moved into a position with the client where we're not partnering with him any longer.
The temptation is to come in and try to convince the client, "You've made this decision. You shouldn't turn back. You should keep going with this decision." But then we will have moved into a position with the client where we're not partnering with him any longer. We've decided that we're the expert and we're going to tell him what to do.

The other thing I think is new, in terms of really attending to it, is this difference between sustain talk and change talk. Motivational Interviewing really emphasizes that in a way that other counseling approaches doesn't, and we're really explicit about this. I find that this is new territory for counselors, to think about client language in this way.

In the years that I have been doing training, I have found that it's challenging for people to pick up on change talk and to reinforce it. Counselors have to really start to tune the ear to pick up on change talk, to notice when that occurs and then shift direction and actually start to reinforce that change talk. Counselors often know the good client-centered skills, as you have mentioned. But listening for that change talk and beginning to reinforce that is often novel.

I think there's something about us as therapists, and I think it's our desire to know, and to know more detail. We get really seduced by the detail. We want to keep hearing more about the why-nots that are on the side of sustain talk. Our curiosity about knowing everything on that side of the world gets us in trouble sometimes, because when that change talk occurs, we really need to abandon everything that has occurred up until that time that has to do with sustain talk, and move ahead. It doesn't mean that we don't come back later and explore some of the barriers that the person might have talked about. But we do that once we've moved ahead and we're saying yes to change. Now we may look at what gets in the way. But actually hearing the change talk and, when we hear it, immediately moving with it, can be a challenge.
VY: One way I'm hearing what you're saying is, as therapists, we often like to look at people's struggles and how they get stuck. It reminds me of an interview we did with Martin Seligman on positive psychology and psychotherapy, where he said that most traditional psychology is focused excessively on pathology and not giving equal focus on positive factors, on our strengths. So I'm thinking of it in that light, that therapists may get stuck on wanting to explore people's challenges and problems and not give equal weight to hearing about people's motivations for change and exploring that equally.
CC: I think you're absolutely right. And in some ways, I think our initial training may have set us in that direction. To look at the positive side of this for us, we are really good at sitting with the struggles that a client has, at being able to understand it. And sometimes I think that strong capability that we have in that area might get in the way of us hearing those subtle changes of, "I don't want to struggle this way any longer." So we have to be very tuned into that.
VY: And sometimes therapists think, "Well, if you're moving into just supporting them to change, that could be superficial." I've seen you work, and I've seen videos of Bill Miller as well. And what strikes me is it sounds simple, but to do it well it's really very nuanced. It's very subtle and very strategic.
CC: Yes, very strategic. And there's nothing more exciting to me than to have a client begin to embrace the changes possible and begin to believe in the capability that they can have in making that change and just watching that deepen. That, to me, is an extremely exciting thing to see happen. And I've equally seen the same thing when a client is with a counselor and they have started to say, "I'm really tired of talking about why I wouldn't change. Now I would like to talk about why I would change and what I'd like to do about it." When the counselor doesn't listen to it, the light goes out of the client and the interview. It's like the client gives up. So it's a very special way of working with people, to reinforce client autonomy and to realize the extremely valuable role that the therapist has in guiding this process. If clients already knew what to do to make change, they wouldn't be sitting in our offices in the first place.

It's very rewarding to work in this way and to watch clients become excited about themselves and what they can do.
It's very rewarding to work in this way and to watch clients become excited about themselves and what they can do. They often will say, "Thank you so much for telling me what to do," when we've not said anything about what to do. They've come up with those ideas themselves, but they kind of think that we have. It's a very fascinating thing for me to watch, and I often will say, "No, you're the one that came up with that. I didn't tell you what to do at all. You came up with that idea." But they appreciate the process.
VY: Again, the counselor or the therapist has expertise in the process of change but they're not the experts on clients' lives and what clients should do to live their lives.
CC: That's exactly right. Our role is to help our clients figure that out and to put words to that, so that they can really solidify that and deepen it.

MI with PTSD

VY: You work in the VA, where of course they're very concerned about treatment being effective and using empirically validated approaches. I know there's been a lot of research on Motivational Interviewing. Are you familiar with the research?
CC: I'm familiar with the research on Motivational Interviewing. There's lots of evidence that clients make more changes in whatever the target behavior is when Motivational Interviewing approach is used rather than some other standard approach. Motivational Interviewing has a specific niche, and that niche is resolving ambivalence to change. I can give a brief example of how I use that in my work.

I work with folks who often have had long histories of problems related to trauma, particularly sexual trauma in my line of work. They have posttraumatic stress disorder and have developed a number of behaviors, primarily avoidant behaviors, to help themselves feel safe in the world. And at some point in time they've come to my office, either self-selected or by a referral from someone else in the hospital, because they've screened positive on a PTSD score or they've said something to their doctor, and the doctor has encouraged them to see me. So now they're in my office and we've done some history. We're now at the place of the client deciding, "Am I going to do something about it?" The target behavior is this avoidance behavior, perhaps, that's come from the PTSD, and clients now have to consider, "How important is it for me to actually do something about this? What's that going to mean for me and my life? Am I willing to go through what might be a painful process to address this? Am I willing to face these fears in order to make some changes in my behavior?"

I'm using Motivational Interviewing at that point toward clients letting me know yes or no. "Am I going to work with this or am I not going to work with this?" That's the engaging, the focusing, and the evoking part of Motivational Interviewing processes that we use.

Let's say a client comes to a clear yes: "I really need to get on top of this because my 25-year-old son is saying to me, 'I won't leave home until you are less fearful,' and it's not okay for me to hold my son up in his life." So the importance is not based so much on what the client wants for herself; it's based on what the client wants for that son. It's a clear value issue around the son. The client is now saying, "Okay, I'm willing to do this because it would benefit my son. And perhaps I'll get some benefits, too, but it's really so I don't hold my son up in life."

Now I have a clear yes, and we're going to move into talking about the possible ways that this client can actually go about doing this work. And that's where I can then present the evidence-based therapies that are available, either through me or through our institution, so that the client can then decide which of those evidence-based therapies she will use. So I have done the first task of Motivational Interviewing, which is resolving ambivalence, and now the person moves into some other specific form of therapy.
VY: Which you might provide or someone else might provide.
CC: Exactly. I can then review what we currently offer. I'm still using Motivational Interviewing because I'm letting her know the possibilities, and then she can decide from those possibilities which one do she thinks she would like to try, what might work best for her.
VY: It's a nice example because it shows how you can integrate MI into a traditional course of therapy and also shows how you can use it with a problem. It's not as circumscribed as a drinking problem or a specific healthcare issue. It's a psychological problem that results from PTSD and fear. But it's circumscribed enough that you can use MI to decide whether or not a client wants to tackle it or not.
CC: Right. So then the client has made a clear, informed decision. I continue to talk about Motivational Interviewing as informed consent. The client is thoroughly exploring the issue and making the decision, and that's informed consent.

Teaching MI Skills

VY: Another thing that's impressed me about it from what I've heard primarily from you, Cathy, is the training in Motivational Interviewing is very detailed. A lot of training in our field is more theoretical or overview focused, but from what I understand, to be certified in MI or as a trainer, people really look at your work and you get very specific feedback.
CC: Right. I always speak to the certification issue. There's no particular certification process for people learning Motivational Interviewing, but many people go through training with folks like myself who provide training in MI. And it's not just coming and sitting through a lecture; it very much involves practicing all the parts of Motivational Interviewing. Then, working with a person who can provide feedback and coaching by actually listening to interviews is what increases trainees' competency in using Motivational Interviewing.
VY: When you're listening to someone's interview, what are you listening for?
CC: Actually, there's a particular scoring guide that many of us use who provide coaching and feedback. I'm listening for whether or not the person is using what we call MI-adherent behaviors, using open-ended questions, using a higher reflection-to-question ratio, avoiding telling the client what to do, working fully to understand what's happening with the client's point of view.

We're listening for whether or not the therapist is keeping the focus on the direction in the interview; focusing on the target behavior, helping the client fully explore and understand the current issue, allowing the client to explore their own ideas about change, and helping the client deepen the meaning of making change.

There are many counselors who are very good at guiding the direction of an interview. They can keep a client on target. But they don't necessarily do very well at exploring the client's understanding, exploring the client's own ideas for change, really validating. They might hear a client's idea and immediately say, "Yeah, that's a good idea, but let me tell you a better one." That statement is completely non-adherent.

We're listening for all of those things in an interview and providing very direct feedback on what the counselor's doing. We know that the only way to really develop skill in Motivational Interviewing is to get feedback.
VY: I think we've really covered a lot of material here, at least to introduce people to some of the core concepts of MI. If folks are interested in learning more, where would you direct them?
CC: There's the Motivational Interviewing website, and trainings are listed there. I certainly provide training myself. The trainings that I provide throughout the year are all listed on my website. There are a number of trainers who provide workshops throughout the United States. It's also possible to engage a trainer to come to an area and provide a two- to three-day training for a group of people that someone organizes locally. So there are a variety of ways to go about getting training.
VY: You've been training therapists and counselors in MI for a long time. How have you evolved personally in your understanding and skills?
CC: Yes, I've been practicing Motivational Interviewing since 1992 or so, and I've been training since 1995. It's changed me as a therapist very much in terms of my ability to listen, to not judge the client, to really be accepting of the client and the struggle that the client is bringing to the table. Again, that's basic Rogerian counseling, and it sounds simple. You can spell out the principles in a couple sentences. But it's very subtle and it's not easy to do.
VY: Are there gradations in that ability to accept clients where they're at? Do you see yourself doing that more, better, deeper now than you did 10 or 15 years ago?
I feel calmer as a therapist working in this way. I'm not disengaged from the process or detached from it at all, but I'm fully appreciative that responsibility for change lies with the client.
Yeah, I do. I think that when I became aware of Motivational Interviewing and I began to learn the very specific ways to have a conversation with a client using MI methods, I became even more aware of the strengths that clients bring to the table, and I became even more appreciative of clients knowing what is right for them, when it's right for them, and accepting choices that clients make, whether or not I thought they were the right choices for the client or not.

I feel calmer as a therapist working in this way. I'm not disengaged from the process or detached from it at all, but I'm fully appreciative that responsibility for change lies with the client and that I have a very important role to help that client fully explore this possibility, but that ultimately, I'm there to respect the decision the client makes. It's a very refreshing and calming way to work. I think the feedback from clients really reinforces that for me. It's not a struggle.

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Cathy Cole Cathy Cole, LCSW, has trained thousands of diverse professionals in MI since 1995, and is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. She maintains an active clinical practice.

See all Cathy Cole videos.

Victor Yalom Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder and resident cartoonist of He maintained a busy private practice in San Francisco for over 25 years, but now sees only a few clients, devoting the bulk of his time to creating new training videos for He has produced over 100 videos, conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and currently leads consultation groups for therapists.  More info on Victor and his artwork and sculpture at

CE credits: 2

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the history and principles of Motivational Interviewing
  • Recite the advantageous uses of MI
  • List further educational and training opportunities in MI

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here