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Motivational interviewing is a counseling approach that uses specific techniques to help a client to identify and increase their inherent motivation to change. This therapeutic approach facilitates a process of self-actualization, allowing clients to determine their own fate.

How Motivational Interviewing Works

Motivational interviewing is a client-centered form of counseling, so the focus is on exploring what the client desires, not what the counselor believes is best for the client. Counselors must have high levels of empathy and reflective listening and bonding skills for motivational interviewing in addiction treatment to be effective.

The purpose of motivational interviewing is to resolve any ambivalence over whether the client really wants to quit or not.1 Although there are many reasons to stop using substances or to enter rehab, to the person struggling with drugs or alcohol there are also many reasons not to. Individuals can feel motivated to stop using after experiencing health, legal or relationship problems stemming from substance abuse, but then lose that motivation quickly.

Motivational interviewing works by exploring what the client perceives as the positives and negatives of sobriety. Once individuals internalize what they believe are the pros and cons of seeking sobriety—and not just what others tell them—their existing desire to change is strengthened.

Clients can then decide what that change should look like. They work with their therapist to formulate a plan for how they want to implement those changes. Once clients have gone through this cycle, motivational interviewing in addiction treatment can start having an impact in the client’s recovery.

Clients don’t feel like something they love is being taken away by force. Instead, they’re pursuing a life change that they themselves have chosen.

Motivational Interviewing Basics

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2009 about 23.5 million Americans needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem.2 Only 11 percent of those who needed help received any treatment.

Each client who participates in motivational interviewing is in some state of readiness to change, because they entered therapy. The therapist helps the client to overcome any remaining uncertainty or fear of change, which increases the client’s existing motivation.

  • Therapists using motivational interviewing focus on five treatment principles to increase client success:3
  • Practice reflective listening
  • Identify the difference between the client’s stated goals and their behavior
  • Avoid confrontation
  • Don’t directly oppose initial resistance to change
  • Encourage optimism

Benefits of Motivational Interviewing in Addiction Treatment

One of the benefits of motivational interviewing in addiction treatment is that it increases a person’s willingness to fully participate in therapy. Despite the medical, financial, relationship and legal consequences that addiction leads to, people often lose sight of their desire to live a life of sobriety. Lecturing clients about what they ought to do can alienate people seeking recovery, where motivational interviewing begins a discussion about the person’s own values and beliefs.

An additional benefit to motivational interviewing in addiction treatment is that it’s a simple process that can be conducted over a small number of sessions and still be effective.