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Motivational Interviewing Techniques to Help Indecisive People

Updated on April 15, 2013

Motivational Interviewing

At some point in my life I have experienced ambivalence about a particular decision or choice I had to make. In fact, at any given point I probably have several decisions or choices that I’m ambivalent about and it can become frustrating. It’s even more frustrating when my wife, another family member or friend has to make a decision that also affects me and seems unsure of what to do. This is where Motivational Interviewing (MI) can be used. This is a way to help others move out of purgatory and into making a decision.
No one likes to be told what to do and unfortunately many counselors and even therapist feel like telling clients how to make the right choices will help them lead more productive lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Research tells us that people are more readily able and willing to commit to a solution that they create. It’s not my job as a change agent to move a client through the stages of change model but it is my obligation to help them find their own solutions using open ended questions, reflections, affirmations and summaries. No where in that list is advice giving, preaching or telling. Advice giving has its place and can be useful if the person giving receives permission.


Stages of Change Model

When discussing change, I generally refer to the stages of change model which outlines five areas people fall into while thinking about modifying behavior. We either fall into the pre-contemplative, contemplative, preparation, action, or maintenance phases. Typically when we are undecided about making a decision it’s because we are stuck between the contemplation and preparation or action stages. MI is designed to help move us from one stage to the next even if that means going backwards or not making a decision at all.

MI is very simple to use and incorporate into conversations and it’s backed by 20 years of research validating it as an effective method for eliciting change. Research shows that brief interventions with this technique work the best and that is between 3-5 minute sessions. That means the conversation itself may last an hour but the MI component should only last between 3-5 minutes. This intervention is great to use for any relationship or conversation where a person is having some difficulty making a decision.

Using OARS in Conversation

Two components make up the proper MI conversation. There is the Spirit of MI and the actual technique of reflections, open and closed ended questions, affirmations and summaries. The spirit consists of empathy, compassion, active listening and being “there” in the conversation. The majority of MI is the spirit and a small portion is actual technique. So, if you’re compassionate and empathetic towards others, then you’ve got the majority of this method and you just have to learn the actual technique.

The acronym OARS is used in MI and stands for Open ended questions (O), Affirmations (A), Reflections (R), and Summaries (S). That’s all there is to it. This style can also be measured using the Motivational Interviewing Treatment Integrity (MITI). A coder can listen to your conversation and let you know if you’re following the proper method. There’s even a portion that can measure your spirit determined by affirmations and empathetic statements used. Here’s a sample conversation between two friends and one is using MI.

Frank: Hey Joe, how’s it going today? (O)

Joe: Not too bad, trying to decide what kind of car I should buy.

Frank: Really, what happened with yours? (O)

Joe: I found out the engine has a crack in it. It’s pretty much useless now.

Frank: Wow, that really sucks. So, what are you going to do? (O)

Joe: Well, I’m trying to decide if I want another SUV or a sedan. I liked my SUV but it was awful for gas mileage. If I but a sedan, I want it to be sporty and not feel like an old man driving.

Frank: That’s a tough call. You liked your SUV but the gas mileage sucked and you like sedans but only the sporty ones. (R)

Joe: Yeah, and I think the SUV will be a better fit for the family versus an SUV.

Frank: You’re family would appreciate the SUV more than a sedan. (R)

Joe: That’s right, but I really want a sporty car.

Frank: You’d rather have a sports car right now. (R) It would be more fun to own (R)

Joe: For sure. But, I know Cindy would kill me. So I think I’ll just stick with the SUV. Besides they have some great deals down the road I want to check out.

Frank: I admire your respect and love for your family. Most guys would say “screw it” and buy the sports car. (A)

Joe: Thanks. I want something we can all enjoy.

That’s all there is to the technique. Notice that Frank didn’t offer Joe any type of advice or opinion. He simply listened, reflected back what he heard, asked open ended questions and let Joe figure out what he needs to do. The likelihood Joe follows through with this decision is much higher than if Frank had made the suggestion. Frank demonstrated active listening, empathy and was able to help his friend move from indecision to making a decision. This style is very powerful and can be used for good or bad so please use it wisely. I will write another article on advanced MI as there are certain traps to avoid which could cause disruption in the process, but you have enough information to begin practicing this technique with friends, co-workers, supervisors, employees, clients, children and just about anyone else you interact with that is experiencing ambivalence. Not all people will make a decision and certainly choosing not to make a decision is a decision as well and the person should be confronted with that fact. Sometimes it will help them move towards making a better decision.



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  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Very useful tips. Especially the description of OARS is very interesting, will be useful for many. Thanks for sharing.