“Motivational Interviewing is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language off change. It is designated to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.” (Miller & Rollick, Motivational Interviewing, 3rd ed, 2012, Guilford Press, p. 29)

Spirit of MI

Sometimes referred to as the heart and mindset required by providers for guiding the conversations with students. The Spirit of MI is as critical as all the skills and strategies which themselves are relatively simple, yet not easy to consistently use. The characteristics of the Spirit of MI are generally the ones attributes to ones favorite teacher.

In the Motivational Interviewing 3rd Edition, Miller and Rollnick explain that the Spirit of MI consists of four components: Partnership, Acceptance, Evocation and Compassion. Lets briefly explore what they describe is included with each of them:


Collaborating with the students makes them feel you are on their side. Metaphorically it is often referred to as a dance with the student rather than a wrestling match. This of course is the role of good advisors who make the student feel like their advocates.


Described with four aspects: a) absolute worth, b) autonomy, c) accurate empathy and d) affirmation. This involves an unconditional positive regard as advocated by Carl Rogers and the belief that they are trustworthy. Understanding the importance of giving students’ choice or autonomy is paramount as they make self-directed decisions. Rather than sharing our stories in conversations aimed at helping students make decisions to change, understanding their frame of reference, including their feelings tells them you really understand them. Coming to the conversation intentionally seeking to acknowledge the person’s strengths and efforts, can contribute to moving the conversation toward what is best. These aspects of acceptance makes them feel you are not judging them (nor condoning negative behavior) and instead opening up the possibility for them to decide to change.


The role is to draw out what is already present, since MI begins with the view that all people have strengths and wisdom and when in a good space will decide to move in the direction that is best for them. People who are undecided or ambivalent about change and as such hold ideas about both sides (staying the same or changing), and drawing out their thoughts as they sit on the fence can help them decide. Our task is simply to be curious, seeking to understand their perspective and help them talk and in so doing think about it.


Gives priority to what is best for the student (beyond co-suffering) and is expressed with kindness, empathy and action, which includes giving them your time to help them figure things out for themselves and when needed becoming their advocate. It involves genuinely caring about them and being deliberately commitment to promote their best interests and welfare.

Motivational Interviewing and Empathy Links

The four processes

The overview or big picture of the processes involved in MI conversations involve a sequence like climbing stairs (graph below) of engaging, focusing, evoking and planning. These processes often overlap and are recursive because the one does not end just because we’ve moved up. The conversation trajectory begins by engaging the person(s), which can take 20% of the time and seeks to create a collaborative partnership where the task is being curious about them. The next process is to figure out the focus or goal for change that they want to talk about. Then, and of course throughout the conversation is evoking, which is to elicit the student’s own motivation for change, which is really about helping the person talk themselves into changing, which Miller and Rollnick refer to as the heart of MI. When the conversation reaches a point where commitment to change is evident, formulating a plan of action is then generally necessary.

Core Skills

The conversation skills of MI spell the word OARS: Open questions; Affirmations, Reflections & Summaries and are used throughout the four processes. These skills are not used in equal proportions; as Dr. Rollnick suggests, if one would see the providers statements of these skills as a musical score of a short interaction, it might look like this: O, R, R, A, O, R, R, R, O, R, R, S, O. The commas are the student (person) talking, which ideally should consist of 2/3 of the time. Here is a brief review that can be more deeply studied with the Motivational Interviewing, 3rd Ed.

Open Questions

Have answers that require more than one word and have multiple purposes: gathering information by the provider to learn about the students’ perspective (not of course to later provide a verdict for remedying the issue) as well as to help them elaborate their thoughts and motivation to change. It is important to remember that for educators it is easy to “over ask” questions, forcing the student to continually change their train of thought.


Here the skill is to accentuating the positive by providing statements that acknowledge the students’ own personal strengths, efforts, values, or skills they’ve developed. These must be genuine and are made as statements of fact: “You really care about your future.” “Look at how well you have done in the classes you like.” “You’re the kind of person values making your own choice.” These are different than the more common “praises” that are commonly made to students by teachers, which puts the teacher in the role of being the judge rather than framing the statement as a fact about the person. These affirming statements are more likely to be then owned by the students as characteristics that describe them and do not require the presence of the provider, like these praises might do: “good job,” “your great,” or “I like your attitude.” Affirmations can strengthen the growth mindset students have about themselves and their academic abilities, believing that effort can result in growth or change. Instead of the fixed mindset, that believes that there is nothing they can do to improve or change, like they’ll never be able to understand math (Mindsets, Carol Dweck).

Reflective Listening

Is a skill that is not commonly practiced by most educators, yet it is the core skill that is used the most and requires effort to use instead of questions. It allows the students to hear the thoughts and feelings they have been expressing, either verbally or perceived non-verbally by the MI provider. Reflective statements can provide an opportunity for the provider to guess about the meaning of their conversation and can deepen the understanding and by so doing guide the conversation and their thought process. The tone and emotiveness of the reflective statements can make a difference and are used as part of the guiding process when students make sustain-talk and change-talk statements (the excitement tone about change should be theirs, not yours). There are various reflections referred to as complex ones that are valuable to use, like the double-sided reflections that juxtapose the two sides: “on the one hand you like cutting class to hang out with your friends and on the other, you really don’t want to have to go to summer school.”


The use of summaries, which are a collection of reflections based on what has been said, is done to let the student know you have been attentive and care and would like to hear more, to pull together thoughts, to link ideas, to transition to another task, to return all the “change-talk” statement at one time for them to ponder further, or to draw together their motivation or plans to change.

Motivational Interviewing in Schools