Motivational Interviewing: Opening the door to Effective Coaching

  1. Motivational Interviewing

If coaching is about change, Ignition’s evidence-based coaching rests on Motivational Interviewing (MI). This is an understanding of how to facilitate change that brings together a core, person centred, strengths-based stance, with aspects of cognitive-behavioural work, such as Solution Focussed Therapy. MI was first developed to address seemingly intractable issues of change, such as substance misuse, where very judgemental ‘problem-solving’ approaches had singularly failed to help people alter their problem behaviours.

In Mastery in Coaching, Jonathan Passmore describes MI as “…a highly effective and efficient approach to helping people….supported by substantial research evidence gathered from hundreds of studies….” In Ignition’s integrative coaching, this clarity and effectiveness is applied to professional change and development.

The person-centred counselling approach was developed by psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1960s and takes the view that the best outcomes are achieved when clients are treated as a resource, with skills and experience, able to generate solutions to their own situation, and not as something needing to be ‘fixed’ by an outside ‘expert’, i.e. the coach.

Instead the coach skillfully facilitates the individual in ‘solving themself’, and this links straight to strength-based working and to positive psychology more generally. The professional is personal: a key value of MI is that ‘acceptance [of the person] facilitates change [in the person and the work behaviour]’.

A Good Listening To

In this light, Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick, the clinical psychologists who developed MI, now say that they wish they had called it something else, as the ‘Interviewing’ part of the title gives a misleading impression: while MI does have great value in areas such as strength-based recruitment interviewing, in coaching generally we would be better to think of the approach as being about ‘collaborative conversations’, a ‘working with’ rather than a ‘doing to’.

Right at the front of MI-based coaching practice is the establishing of the relationship with the client, which is absolutely essential to positive outcomes in coaching, as it is in clinical areas of change. This relationship is established through rich reflective listening. Reflective listening gets a bad name because it is hardly ever seen being done well; instead, on TV, we tend to see something like:

Client: “My whole family has been killed in an aircrash!”
Counsellor: “Your family has been killed in an aircrash”
Client: “Yes! I don’t know what to do!”
Counsellor: “You don’t know what to do”.

This simple ‘repeating back of content’ is the most basic form of reflective listening, but soon leads to a strong desire on the part of the client to scream “Why are you repeating everything I say?!” and – paradoxically – makes people feel not listened to.

Instead, skilled use of rich reflection put into practice through the specific ‘micro-skills’ of MI, allows for a holistic exploration of the palette of thinking, feeling and behaviour, allowing the client to really develop what they mean by what they say.

This is central to helping a client to develop their internal, intrinsic motivation around coaching by clarifying what is in their motivational matrix: how important an issue is, but even more crucially, how confident they are about changing it. Imagine the coachee who is on the brink of a desired senior appointment but afraid they are inadequate to the role; importance of change is likely to be high but confidence low.

This latter dimension is also where Ignition’s experiential coaching skills really come to the fore in helping develop – and experience – practical behavioural responses, future rewards, and emotional restructuring which can massively boost confidence.

The importance of the rich reflective listening cannot be over-emphasised; MI is not a ‘question-led’ way of coaching, even though strategic questions play a role as stimulus. The ‘added value’ is in creating a reflective space where the client is enabled to hear themself.

Insight into Action

One of the potential issues with a pure person centred approach is that while it can help to generate insight – i.e. a sense of what needs to change – it can struggle to translate that insight into action – i.e. how do we change things?

This is why MI integrates aspects of cognitive-behavioural and ‘solution-focussed’ work – so that once motivation for change is established, there are concrete next steps and goals which can be established and facilitated.

Beyond Goals?

However, David Clutterbuck and others have suggested that the familiar focus on ‘establishing goals’ right at the beginning of a coaching process may actually be unhelpful. The much-used structure of GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, What) is really a very minimal and mechanical way to approach goals; MI allows a much more responsive and flexible way of coaching where goals can be emergent, and far more open to reiteration and redevelopment.

This means the coaching process is far more bespoke and attentive to the individual coachee, and in this there are some analogies to the SCRUM methodology of agile software development based on a Rugby match. In both non-linear processes, tasks and (sub)goals to reach an ultimate end are constantly reviewed, discarded or incorporated fluidly. Thus, MI fits well with the notion of ‘agenda mapping’, and Ignition’s creative use of experiential techniques literally to ‘make concrete’ these agenda items in a holistic way tapping thinking, feeling and behaviour.

Many Paths to the Top of the Mountain

MI is beautifully flexible: If the client is feeling coerced and really not open to the idea of coaching, we can roll with resistance to develop a sense of their being heard, thus opening the door to further work rather than closing the door by trying to persuade. If the client is feeling uncertain or ambivalent (feeling more than one way about their professional change issue, both wanting it and not wanting it, as above) then we can explore ambivalence and really help people to weigh up their situation and the arguments for and against making a change: the ‘why’ of change.

Alternatively, if a client arrives motivated to change and ready to go, then some brief consolidation of this motivation leads straight into outcomes-focussed work – the ‘how’ of change. Equally, MI offers clear strategies for addressing both maintenance of change – keeping it going – and lapse, where change has not ‘stuck’ for whatever reason.

Concrete Clarity

Motivational Interviewing as a basis for coaching offers a clear and concrete set of skills, concepts and strategies to actually do strengths-based working, and develop and maintain effective coaching outcomes. Ignition’s coaching is much the stronger for it.


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