Motivational interviewing: What is it and how can it improve mentoring?

By Jean Rhodes

In a recent review, Hart, McQuillin, et al. (2023) explored how teaching motivational interviewing to school-based paraprofessionals can help bridge gaps in mental health services. This has direct relevance for mentoring programs and is becoming an increasingly popular strategy. But what exactly is motivational interviewing?

What is motivational interviewing?

We all know that change is difficult. Motivational interviewing (MI) involves asking questions in ways that help people explore and address their ambivalence toward positive change. Originally developed for addiction treatment, MI has since been adapted for use in a wide range of fields, including education, healthcare, and business. It can also be an extremely powerful tool for mentoring.

MI emphasizes empathy, reflective listening, and open-ended questioning. Rather than imposing solutions or advice, the helper using MI helps the mentee explore their own goals and values, identify potential barriers to change, and develop strategies to overcome those obstacles.

MI in mentoring

As McQuillin and colleagues have long argued, MI can be a powerful tool for fostering self-awareness, promoting personal growth, and encouraging accountability. By asking open-ended questions and actively listening to their mentees’ responses, the mentor using MI can help the mentee clarify their values, identify areas where they would like to grow or change, and develop a plan of action to achieve their goals.

For example, if a mentee is struggling with procrastinating and not getting homework done, the mentor using MI might ask questions like, “What are some of the benefits of managing your time more effectively?” or “How might your days be different if you were able to prioritize your homework and get it done?” Through these types of questions, the mentor can help the mentee explore the potential benefits of change, rather than simply suggesting that they do something differently.

One of the key tools used in MI is the OARS, an acronym that stands for Open-ended questions, Affirmations, Reflective listening, and Summarizing.

  • Open-ended questions are an important aspect of the OARS, as they encourage the person being counseled to explore their thoughts and feelings in more depth. These questions are designed to elicit more than a simple “yes” or “no” response and to encourage the person to think about their behavior in new and insightful ways.
  • Affirmations are another critical component of the OARS. These positive statements can help build the person’s confidence and self-esteem, highlighting their strengths and accomplishments, and promoting a positive attitude towards change.
  • Reflective listening is another powerful tool used in MI. In reflective listening, the counselor carefully listens to what the person is saying and then repeats back what they heard in their own words. This process allows the person to feel heard and understood while also helping them clarify their own thoughts and feelings.
  • Summarizing is a crucial step in the MI process. By summarizing what has been discussed, the counselor can help the person gain a clearer understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and can help them develop a plan for change.

By approaching mentorship with this sort of open, collaborative mindset, mentors can help their mentees overcome challenges and achieve their full potential. Here’s an example of how a mentor might use motivational interviewing to encourage a child to stop fighting with her sibling:

Mentor: I noticed that you and your sister have been fighting a lot lately, and that’s been bothering you. Can you tell me more about what’s been going on?

Child: Yeah, we just can’t seem to get along. She’s always doing things that bother me, and I get really angry.

Mentor: I can understand why that would be frustrating. What are some of the reasons you would like to have a better relationship with your sibling?

Child: Well, I guess it would be nice to have someone to play with sometimes. Plus, my parents always seem really upset when we fight.

Mentor: It sounds like you have some good reasons for wanting to make a change. What are some things you’ve tried to do to improve your relationship with your sibling?

Child: I’ve tried to talk to her about how I’m feeling, but she just gets mad and we end up fighting even more.

Mentor: That can be tough. What do you think might be getting in the way of having a productive conversation with your sister?

Child: I don’t know. Maybe she just doesn’t understand how I feel.

Mentor: I can see how that misunderstanding might upset you. What are some ways you could help your sibling understand your point of view without getting upset?

Through this conversation, the mentor is using the principles of motivational interviewing to help her mentee explore her feelings about her relationship with her sibling, identify potential barriers to communication, and develop strategies for improving their interactions. By focusing on the mentees’ own reasons for wanting to make a change and empowering her to come up with her own solutions, the mentor is helping the child take ownership of the situation and build skills for resolving conflicts in a positive way.

Want to learn more about motivational interviewing?  Check out Professor Sam McQuillin’s excellent work and/or this website.