Motivational interviewing (MI) is a collaborative, person-centered approach to counseling and behavioral change. Often used in the context of addiction treatment, it can be applied to a wide range of behaviors and situations. 

The goal of MI is to help individuals move from a state of indecision and resistance to one of readiness and commitment to change. In this article, we will discuss the principles and techniques of motivational interviewing, its applications, and its advantages and disadvantages.

Principles of Motivational Interviewing

The core principles of motivational interviewing include empathy, acceptance, evocation, and collaboration. Each principle plays a key role in the effectiveness of Motivational Interviewing.


Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the client’s perspective. Practitioners of MI must show empathy to help patients feel heard and understood, which can help build rapport and trust. 

Empathy can be demonstrated through active listening, reflection, and validation of the client’s feelings and experiences.


Acceptance is the unconditional positive regard that practitioners show to their patients. It involves accepting patients for who they are, without judgment or criticism. 

Acceptance can help patients feel safe and secure in the therapeutic relationship, which can encourage openness and honesty.


Evocation is the process of drawing out the client’s own reasons for change. MI practitioners use open-ended questions, reflective listening, and other techniques to help patients explore their own motivations and goals. 

Evocation helps patients identify and strengthen their own reasons for change, which can lead to greater commitment and self-efficacy.


Collaboration is the partnership between the practitioner and the client. MI practitioners work with patients to develop a plan for change that is based on the client’s own goals and motivations. 

Collaboration can help patients feel invested in the change process and can increase their sense of control and autonomy.

A facilitator and patient engaged in a motivational interviewing session.

Techniques of Motivational Interviewing

MI practitioners use a variety of techniques to help patients explore their own motivations and goals. 

Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They are designed to encourage patients to explore their own thoughts and feelings. 

Examples of open-ended questions include “What are your thoughts on making this change?” and “What benefits do you think you would experience if you made this change?”

Reflective listening

Reflective listening is the process of paraphrasing and summarizing what the client has said. It expresses empathy and understanding. 

Reflective listening can also help patients clarify their thoughts and feelings.


Summarizing is the process of summarizing what the client has said. It is used to demonstrate that the practitioner has been listening and to help the client see the bigger picture. 

Summarizing can also help patients identify patterns and themes in their thoughts and behaviors.

Eliciting change talk

Eliciting change talk is the process of encouraging patients to talk about their own reasons for change. Change talk can be identified through phrases such as the following: “I want to”, “I need to”, and “I should”. 

Applications of Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing is used in a variety of settings, including substance abuse treatment, mental illness, criminal justice, and primary care. MI has been found to be an effective approach for addressing a variety of health behaviors. These include substance abuse, smoking, physical activity, and healthy eating habits.

  • Addiction treatment: Used to help patients move from a state of ambivalence and resistance to one of readiness and commitment to change. 
  • Mental health: Used to help individuals with a variety of conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. MI has been shown to be effective in improving treatment outcomes in individuals with mental illness.
  • Criminal justice: Used to help individuals who are involved in the justice system to change their behavior and avoid reoffending. 
  • Primary care: Used to help individuals to improve their health behaviors, such as physical activity, healthy eating habits, and treatment adherence. 

Motivational Interviewing and SMART Recovery

Motivational Interviewing is a core component of the Self-Management and Recovery Training Recovery (SMART) program. A non-profit organization, SMART Recovery offers support groups and educational resources for individuals who want to achieve and maintain sobriety from addictive behaviors, including substance use, gambling, and compulsive eating.

There are several ways that SMART Recovery utilizes the techniques found in Motivational Interviewing for the program. 

Identify and explore motivations

First, MI is used to help individuals identify and explore their own motivations for change. SMART Recovery facilitators use open-ended questions, reflective listening, and other MI techniques to help individuals clarify their reasons for wanting to change their addictive behaviors. 

This collaborative and person-centered approach helps individuals feel heard and understood, which can increase their motivation to change.

Develop a plan for change

Second, MI is used to help individuals develop a plan for change that is based on their own goals and values. SMART Recovery facilitators work with individuals to identify the specific behaviors that they want to change, as well as the steps they can take to achieve their goals. This process is based on the principles of collaboration and autonomy, which are central to MI.

Implement the plan

Third, MI is used to support individuals as they implement their plan for change. SMART facilitators use MI techniques to elicit change talk and to address any barriers or ambivalence that may arise during the change process. 

This approach helps individuals stay motivated and engaged in the change process, even when faced with obstacles.


Overall, Motivational Interviewing is a key component of the SMART Recovery program. By utilizing MI techniques, SMART facilitators help individuals identify their own motivations for change, develop a plan for change that is based on their own goals and values, and stay motivated and engaged in the change process. 

This person-centered and collaborative approach is a powerful tool for achieving and maintaining sobriety from addictive behaviors.

Mountain view in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Advantages and things to keep in mind

Motivational Interviewing has several advantages as an approach to counseling and behavior change. MI is a collaborative and person-centered approach that helps patients to explore their own motivations and future goals. 

MI is non-judgmental and non-confrontational, which can help patients feel safe and secure in the therapeutic relationship. It has been shown to be effective in a variety of settings and for a variety of behaviors.

However, Motivational Interviewing also has some limitations and potential disadvantages. MI requires a skilled practitioner who can effectively use the principles and techniques. The process can be time-consuming and may require multiple sessions to achieve meaningful change. 

Perhaps most importantly, for those in denial or unwilling to adjust their behaviors, Motivational Interviewing may not provide the desired results. In order to be most effective, a person has to want to change.


SMART Recovery and Motivational Interviewing offer a powerful combination for individuals seeking to overcome addiction and achieve long-term recovery. These evidence-based approaches provide patients with the skills, tools, and support they need to build a healthy, fulfilling life free from addiction.

At Retreat at Sky Ridge, we understand that every client’s journey to recovery is unique. That’s why we offer personalized treatment plans tailored to each individual’s needs and goals. Our experienced and compassionate team of professionals is dedicated to providing the highest quality care and support to help patients achieve lasting recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, it’s important to know that help is available. Contact us to learn more about our SMART Recovery and Motivational Interviewing programs and take the first step towards a brighter, healthier future.

For more information on addiction treatment services, please give us a call at (877) 693-6010 or complete or short inquiry form at the bottom of this page.

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