Motivational Interviewing, Techniques, Theory into Practice, and Practical Application

Motivational Interviewing

The motivational interviewing (MI) approach was originally conceptualized by William Miller and later more fully developed by Stephen Rollnick and Miller in the 1980s. It was first used in the addiction counseling field and is now used in many different settings. Empirical research supports the effectiveness of MI for treating diverse populations for a variety of problems, including substance abuse, dietary issues, family planning, HIV prevention, etc. (Mason, 2009).

MI is defined as directive and client-centered and elicits change by helping clients explore and resolve ambivalence (Miller & Rollnick, 2002). Motivational interviewing places the counselor in the role of collaborator with the client and seeks to avoid power struggles that could lead to resistance.

Confrontation and trying to force out feelings are discouraged (Brooks & McHenry, 2009; Rollnick & Miller, 1995; Rollnick, Miller, & Butler, 2008). In a school setting, motivational interviewing is intended to help counselors work with students who fluctuate between incongruent thoughts and behaviors (Biles & Eakin, 2010).

A school counselor using MI works to evoke the student’s motivation based on the student’s confidence and desire to make changes (Biles & Eakin, 2010). Although the desire may be there to make a change, there is also ambivalence in changing one’s behavior or making a decision. MI nor- moralizes ambivalence about changing and works through it as a natural part of the process of change (Rosengran, 2009).


There are four basic principles in the motivational interviewing approach: expressing empathy, developing a discrepancy, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy.

Expressing Empathy: 

  • Using the concept of genuineness first described by Rogers (Gladding, 2012), students who feel completely understood are less likely to experience resistance and may be more open to the counseling process.
  • Developing a Discrepancy: By helping students to see the disconnect between their goals and their behaviors, change and growth may occur.
  • Rolling with Resistance: Avoiding power struggles and arguments with students decreases resistance. Counselors working respectfully with students keep the door open for new possibilities while honoring their feelings and giving them the assurance that they are being heard. Support Self-Efficacy:
  • Accentuating the positive and remaining hopeful when working with students during the change process can let students know that you believe in them and respect their choices.

More recently, Rollnick et al. (2008) described the principles using the acronym RULE: 

  1. Resist the righting reflex; 
  2. Understand your student’s motivation; 
  3. Listen to your student; and 
  4. Empower your student. As school counselors, using RULE in your work with your students means resisting our tendency to want to fix the problems in students’ lives; 
  5. Tapping into students’ strengths and being fascinated with where their strengths and motivation come from; listening to students (with no hidden agendas or personal world- view); and 
  6. Empowering students to recognize their own self-efficacy and ability to be self-changers.

Theory into Practice

Motivational interviewing has practical applications for school counselors. Often students are in the school counselor’s office at the request of a teacher, an administrator, or a parent, not voluntarily. This instantly sets up a natural resistance on the part of the student. By joining effectively with the student, counselors can break down the resistance and help to initiate the change pro- cess. 

Students may also feel the intrinsic power differential that exists between them and a member of the school staff. Creating a climate of collaboration with the student can be a refreshing change and help them to see that the change they are potentially making is based on their own wants and needs and not on something that someone else is making them do. Therefore, their personal investment in the change process and its benefits is increased.

Practical Application

Kiley is a 16-year-old junior who was referred by her parents after having been caught experimenting with marijuana. She insists that she can stop any time she wants and doesn’t understand what the problem is. During a career exploration exercise in sophomore year, Kiley expressed an interest in a career in law enforcement and perhaps some time in the U.S. Coast Guard. Kiley was always a solid student but is now failing two classes this quarter. Kiley no longer plays softball and has been seen with a new group of friends.


Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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