Motivational Interviewing As a Change-Management Strategy


While I was a student at Grand Valley State University, I had the opportunity to start and manage an alternative newspaper/zine fully funded by the university. We were an outlet for some really creative ideas and a home for artists and writers that lead the way for counter-culture thinking at a relatively conservative college. It was a great experience. One of the biggest challenges I ran into was having to talk with writers about the difference between being angry about a current event and being clever. It’s easy to write an article condemning others, but it takes real craft and skill to write a piece that won’t offend your readers, but will instead invite them to think differently about a popular topic (which I think is the true genius of satire). Back then, I needed a way to help my friends see the value in writing relatively good-humored articles instead of reactive twenty-year-old punk angst-infused ramblings. I was at a loss. As much as I tried to point out that well-written articles would be more effective and reach a wider audience, I was often met with firm resistance.

Sound familiar? As hard as you may try, you can’t force anyone to change. You can give logical arguments using data and reason to back up your claim. You can layout all the negative consequences of their choice, but you will probably talk until you are blue in the face and walk away exhausted without any real change being affected.

What if it’s not a problem with understanding your message, but an issue of motivation? What if you’re asking for change in the wrong way? Since we know that telling someone to change a behavior is a less than satisfactory means for behavior modification, let’s scrap that idea and change the approach. The reason why most people don’t want to be told what to do is because they want to feel like they are in control of making their own choices. All you can do is influence someone’s willingness to make a change on their own. You can do this by asking questions to open up possibilities they will want to achieve on their own. This is called motivational interviewing, an evidence-based change-management approach that has recently been making its way into the business management world.

I first heard about motivational interviewing from a friend who uses the practice in the medical field, where the practice was invented and is still used today. In a clinical care setting, medical personnel will talk with a patient about a life change they need to make—for example: reducing or ceasing substance use, healthy dieting, regularly taking medication, or a new routine after a medical procedure. Instead of telling the patient they need to stop smoking and become more active, they will ask targeted questions that will help the patient discover the need to change within themselves and the motivation to follow through.

I think the idea of motivational interviewing spans a larger audience than just the health care field, and it can be applied to the business world as well.


How Motivational Interviewing Works In 5 Easy Steps

What do you do when a co-worker is hesitant to embrace a new idea?

  1. Ask your friend or co-worker to meet one-on-one in an open and familiar environment. 
    Using the example above, this would have been on campus in the dining hall, a coffeeshop, or happy hour.
  2. Start the conversation by asking open-ended questions or by asking your friend to reflect on the area you want to see changed. While you are listening, it is important to express empathy and build rapport. Your meeting shouldn’t follow an agenda, but you should have a goal or end-point where you want to the conversation lead to.
    I could have asked: how do you feel your piece was received in the last issue? How do you think things are going – are we doing what we set out to do? I want this to be the best program it can be, do you think there are any areas we need to focus on?
  3. Develop discrepancies between what you hear the person say their goals are and the behaviors they say they need to reach those goals. If your co-worker/friend/mentee’s goals do not match their behavior, repeat the discrepancy back to them in their own words. 
    I could have said: Based on what people have been saying, I don’t know if we are reaching as many people as we can. It sounds like some people didn’t understand your piece, which is a bummer because it is such a great idea.
  4. Resistance is part of the change process, and you should roll with it. You shouldn’t argue or be too pushy, instead, be curious and accepting.
    This is not an argument, so any resistance comes from their own personal discrepancy between goals and actions.
  5. Change is hard, however small it may be. Always be supportive of any willingness to try a new approach. Be sure to validate their skills and build up their confidence based on past projects and current attitudes.
    You can do this recapping their goals, repeating their desire to change, and encouraging them based on their past performance.

Motivational Interviewing helps refine an idea or problem by having the person clarify it. When they do this, they also define the steps, bring light to possible obstacles, and make change feel more obtainable. Motivational interviewing allows you to affect positive change by seeding ideas and allowing a person to grow and mature on their own. It is a process of affecting change that allows the individual you’re attempting to influence feel agency and ownership over their evolving ideas. Rather than telling, you are leading people to change instead of forcing it on them.



  •  Motivational Interviewing is best done one-on-one
  • Don’t be judgmental
  • Don’t argue
  • Ask open-ended questions, not “yes” or “no” questions
  • Use reflective listening by repeating in your own words what the person said to make sure you understand what they mean
  • Finally (and most importantly), you must be honest and genuine

Remember, it is their choice to change. As much as you may want the person to change, they will not change until they find the motivation on their own. This may eventually mean making an adjustment in your team or cutting ties with a friend.

Real change comes from the inside out. Motivational Interviewing is one tool you can use to help friends, co-workers, and mentees find the motivation to make the changes they know they need to make.


Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant
Apprenticeship Program