By: Jennifer Shapiro, Training and Technical Assistance Manager, ICF

Jennifer Shapiro is a manager at ICF, where she supports clients in addressing their participants’ challenges to employment through a person-centered, trauma-informed approach.

The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.


Motivational interviewing (MI) builds upon basic communication principles of active listening and paraphrasing, which are designed to “first seek to understand” the message being conveyed. By deploying a variety of strategies, MI explores what motivates individuals, what prevents them from following through with agreements or pursuing their goals, and what types of support they need to succeed.

In Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he explains in Habit 5 that we must “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” More often than not, we form opinions based on our own experiences without trying to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. In doing so, we miss the opportunity to learn more about the context in which people are making decisions and the motivation behind them.

What is MI?

MI is a counseling approach that Professors William R. Miller, Ph.D., and Stephen Rollnick, Ph.D., developed while working with patients experiencing substance use disorders and mental illness. It “evolved from Carl Roger’s person-centered, or client-centered, approach… to help people commit to the difficult process of change.” It has since been widely adopted by human services organizations as one of many strategies for supporting families, especially those experiencing multiple challenges to long-term self-sufficiency. However, it is also an effective technique for navigating difficult conversations in general, including those that may occur in the business world.

We know that change must come from within, so how can we help those around us reflect on their circumstances and the possibility of change without leaving them feeling like we are trying to control them? MI operates from the premise that we are each the subject matter expert of our life and that we will make decisions based on what we think is best for ourselves and our loved ones in that moment. MI seeks to work in partnership with another person to explore their goals, resources, and support within a conversational, purpose-driven dialogue that allows them to self-reflect—despite resistance or ambivalence to change—on what may be getting in the way of achieving their own goals.

A Few MI Strategies

When you observe a discrepancy in someone’s values, behaviors, or agreements, try the following:

  • I’m confused. I thought you want/need/value X, but when you do Y, it seems to conflict with X. Can you help me understand what’s going on?

When you are unsure if someone is ready for—and confident in committing to—change, you could ask the following questions:

  • On a scale of 1–10, with 1 being not at all and 10 being very much,
    • how important is X to you?
    • how confident are you that you can do X?
    • how committed are you to doing X?

So, the next time you feel stuck in a difficult conversation that isn’t leading to the outcomes you envisioned, try these MI strategies, and see where they take you! Check out this research to practice brief authored by ICF and partners on coaching and MI in TANF programs.