Motivational Interviewing or NLP?

I have often been asked which approach a professional should take in order to build motivation with their clients.  The person asking may be wanting to help their clients or learners to be more proactive with career planning, get back into job search after a period of unemployment, maintain a new habit, make progress with a qualification or develop a daily practice.  The barrier they are encountering is a seeming lack of motivation.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing was first developed by Miller and Rollnick (who have written the definitive book on the subject) to work with drug addicts, smokers and alcoholics, but it is now used a whole range of settings, including health and career development.

Mindfulness teachers, for example, might use this approach to motivate a learner to do the daily mindfulness practice required for a learning programme , whilst Careers Advisers might use the approach with unemployed clients, to motivate them to look for work or proactively explore their options.

To get your head around this approach, you need to start by thinking about ambivalence.  If you find it hard to motivate yourself to do something, it is usually because you are in some way ambivalent – in some ways you want to do it, in other ways you don’t.  For example, in some ways you might want a promotion (more money, more challenge, more high-profile) but in other ways you might not (fear of failure, more stress, not sure you if have the skills).  The scales can tip from side to side, and MI works with the client to help them uncover what is on each side of the scales, and then tip the balance towards the desired action (if there is one).

There are two components to motivation – believing that something is important, and feeling confident that if you took action, you would succeed.  If either of these beliefs is weak, motivation will be weak as well, so the interviewer works to increase these two beliefs.

One of the common traps in trying to motivate someone is giving advice – telling them what you think they should do.  Often when people tell you what to do, they articulate what is on one side of the scales (all the reasons to act), and you respond by articulating the other side of the scales (all the reasons not to act), which has the effect of weakening your motivation to act.  For example, if my mindfulness teacher tells me all the reasons a daily practice is important to get the benefits from the programme, I will respond by explaining all the reasons I can’t do it (not enough time, children too young, being too bored, forgetting etc.).

So in MI, you start in the opposite place – you explore with the person why they don’t want to act, and by really listening and understanding their responses, you free them up to articulate the other side of the scales – why they should act.  Articulating the reasons why you should act strengthens motivation.

So a Careers Adviser, for example, might explore with a client all the reasons why she finds it difficult to identify vacancies she could apply for – not enough time, not knowing where to look, not seeing anything local, forgetting, lacking confidence, not seeing anything that matches her skills – and then only after this has been explored well, would the Careers Adviser use questions to elicit more positive statements from the client about the benefits of finding some vacancies.  The point is very much that the reasons for sticking to the exercises must come from the client, not the practitioner.

There are many specific questions and techniques that are used in MI, but the basics are fairly simple:

  • Open Questions
  • Affirmation
  • Reflective listening
  • Summaries

These are all basic counselling skills, used in many professions.  As with client-centred counselling, you need a lot of respect and empathy for the individual you are working with, and you need to believe that they have the potential to change.  The key thing that is different from client-centred couneslling is that the interviewer uses techniques to help the client build motivation to act in a certain direction – to manage their career, to give up smoking, to exercise regularly, to meditate, to engage with a  training programme.

There is a lot of academic research supporting the efficacy of this approach, and it seems to be most effective when the interviewer genuinely does have empathy and respect for the client/patient/learner.

My experience of MI is that it is really effective in working with reluctant or disengaged clients.  It is a great approach to working with clients who have been “sent” for an interview, and don’t want to be there.  It works really well with anyone who seems ambivalent; they say they want something but they don’t take much action to achieve it.  I’ve also used techniques from motivational interviewing on friends and family, with some success!

It’s also useful in a management situation, when you are perhaps hoping to motivate someone to make the best of their potential – perhaps do some extra training, take on a new project or role,  take control of changes in the workplace, or develop new skills.  It doesn’t fit so well, however, with managing performance in the workplace.  If you are in the position of having to set targets and ensure they are met, you are providing an external “stick” and you can’t then be neutral enough to do motivational interviewing in it’s true form.

So What About NLP?

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is widely used in business and management, life coaching, sports coaching and communication skills training.  The jury is still out on how effective it is – some people swear by it and others think it is a bit of a con.  There are loads of books, trainers and websites on NLP, explaining how to use NLP techniques to get the most out of life, set and achieve goals, improve your relationships and anything else you care to mention!  NLP consultants often come into organisations to improve communication skills, increase sales or improve motivation.

NLP was developed by Bandler and Grinder, and is a set of practical techniques to improve your skills in managing your thought patterns, communications and behaviour.  Where Motivational Interviewing delves around in the negative, NLP relentlessly concentrates on the positive.

So the mindfulness teacher above might work with her learner and ask her to visualise how her life would be in five years if she had maintained a daily mindfulness practice.  The learner might imagine herself as calmer and more able to deal with difficult emotions, feeling more positive in work and enjoying her family.  She would be asked to make this vision as clear as possible – what can she see, what do others say about her, how is she dressed, what colours are in the picture?  She could perhaps add some music to this mental picture.  Then she would be asked to keep this picture in her mind every day, so that subconsciously she makes choices which lead her towards it.

A Careers Adviser might work with a client to identify negative thought patterns (e.g. There’s no point in looking for a job because I’ll never get one) and replace them with more positive “self-talk” – If I keep applying for suitable jobs, I will be getting more interview practice and in the end I will find something.  

NLP is often used in Career Guidance to improve confidence in managing new situations, job interviews, presentations.  It can also be used to help clients set ambitious goals and think into the long-term about how they want their life to be.  There are techniques than can be used to help clients control negative emotions – anger, anxiety, shyness – and to improve relationship and communication skills.  

NLP techniques are great to use with clients/patients/colleagues who want to take part in the activities.  They can be adapted well to group sessions as well.  They are also good for mentoring relationships – perhaps in the workplace or in education.  I’m not completely convinced about the whole NLP package, but there are definitely tools in there that are very useful, and I’ve made small changes in my life as a result of doing NLP activities, so some of it at least has worked for me!

So which to invest in?

If you want to spend a bit of time developing your skills in one of these areas, which should you explore?

If by nature, you are an empathic listener with a more facilitative approach, MI will probably come easily to you.  If you see yourself as more a magician with a tool box of tricks, NLP is likely to be more attractive. MI will suit you better if your preference is to explore what is here right now in the present, whilst NLP may suit you better if you are future-orientated and like to have goals. Choosing approaches on this basis will build on your natural strengths.  However, there might also be something to be said for working with the approach that comes less naturally to you!

If the people you are working with are reluctant to engage at all, then motivational interviewing will be a better starting point for engaging them.  If on the other hand, the people you work with are already committed to working with you and making changes, you may find that there are plenty of techniques in NLP that will work well for you (although MI will still be useful when you hit brick walls and no progress is being made).

If you like approaches that have been rigorously tested, the MI wins on that score. If, however, you are more persuaded by what seems to work well in practice for you, then there are plenty of people who swear by NLP and you may be one of them.

Of course, you may just find that both approaches are worth learning more about and using as appropriate.

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Author: Careerpassionyogi

I've been a Careers Development professional for about twenty years,working with all sorts of clients - young people, adults, students, people facing redundancy and workforce development. These days I spend more time training other Careers Advisers. I qualified and then did an MA in Careers at University of East London, and I'm a member of the Institute of Career Guidance. I'm particularly interested in using Motivational Interviewing, Emotional Intelligence, NLP, Narrative Approaches and Planned Happenstance,mindfulness and yoga to make career guidance more exciting and powerful!

4 thoughts on “Motivational Interviewing or NLP?”

  1. I used MI yesterday with a client with powerful results. It was important to contract beforehand that i was going to try to increase the motivation to change, and that to do so we were going to make the status quo uncomfortable. I also prepared the ground for her having angry reactions, that it was perfectly ok. When i used amplified reflection to explore her desire not to change, she told me that she wanted to tell me to piss off, that she was going to leave her job. As she said it out loud her face changed to astonishment. “I have decided. I am going to do it. “I am going to leave”. No pros and cons would get this result as our ambivalence isn’t rational but felt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An artist at work! Amplified reflection it such a neat skill, it can work so well. I remember you sent me a lovely email comparing me to a contented frog on a lillypad catching flies, and that was my reaction too! Although I didn’t actually leave my job, it made me realise that I needed to do something differently and I proactively found a secondment. Contracting is very important of course, but sometimes MI can be used as part of the contracting process, e.g. exploring why someone doesn’t want to be there and genuinely listening to the answer and acknowledging it.

      Like

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