What Is the Primary Goal of Motivational Interviewing?

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One of the main goals of rehab is to help people make a positive change in their lives. Often, that change begins when someone starts to alter their ways of thinking. Not everyone is open to getting help. Some may resist the process or the therapies or lack the belief that change is possible. Thankfully, there are treatment techniques that can help shift someone’s mindset and bolster their confidence in recovery. Motivational interviewing is one such therapy with wide-ranging application across addiction and mental health treatment. The primary goal of motivational interviewing is to instill confidence, alter negative thought patterns, and foster someone’s openness to changing their lifestyle.

South Coast Behavioral Health provides motivational interviewing at our treatment centers across Orange County, CA. Our skilled clinicians have helped countless others with their mental health and substance abuse issues, and we can help you or your loved one do the same. We operate treatment centers in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, and Irvine, California, so Orange County residents are never far from getting the help they need.

Read on to learn more about how motivational interviewing can help elicit positive change.

What Is Motivational Interviewing (MO)?

Motivational Interviewing (MI) stands out as a unique counseling approach, distinct from others, and was developed by psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. It’s a client-centered style that sets out to elicit behavior change by guiding clients to explore and resolve their ambivalence. The key distinction of MI is its focus on facilitating a client’s internal motivation to change, a feature that sets it apart from other methods. There is almost a role reversal during motivational interviewing. The therapist, who is the expert, encourages freedom of exploration and choice for their client, spending much of the session listening actively.

It is a method that facilitates and engages the client’s intrinsic motivation to change behavior. It is also practical, empathetic, and short-term, taking into consideration how difficult it is to make life changes.

MI finds its applications in a wide range of settings, demonstrating its versatility and effectiveness. For instance, it is used in addiction treatment, public health initiatives, management of chronic diseases, mental health counseling, and other areas where behavior change is a desired outcome. Its effectiveness is particularly notable when working with individuals who are ambivalent or resistant to change, as it helps them align their actions with their motivations for making significant life adjustments.

The goals of MI are multifaceted, aiming to:

  • Engage clients through empathetic and active listening.
  • Focus on the client’s motivation and reasons for change.
  • Elicit and strengthen the client’s arguments for change.
  • Empower the client, highlighting their ability and autonomy to bring about changes.


MI is collaborative rather than prescriptive or authoritarian. It respects the client’s autonomy and capacity for self-directed change while acknowledging the therapist’s expertise in facilitating the change process.

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What Is the Primary Goal of Motivational Interviewing?

The primary goal of motivational interviewing is to elicit and strengthen an individual’s motivation for change. It aims to help individuals overcome their ambivalence about changing harmful behaviors by finding and mobilizing their internal values and goals. This approach seeks to increase the individual’s motivation so that change arises internally rather than imposed externally, leading to more lasting and self-directed change.

Motivational interviewing operates under the assumption that people with mental health and substance abuse issues are not resistant to change but rather. When advised by a doctor or therapist, someone ambivalent about change could resist listening and challenging their thoughts. This creates disagreement between counselor and client that is not effective for change. Using empathy, a therapist will strengthen the client’s motivation for turning their life around, leading to positive change.

How Is Motivational Interviewing Different from Other Therapies?

Compared to other forms of evidence-based psychotherapy, motivational interviewing involves much more speaking time on behalf of the client, usually more than 50% of the session. When someone suffers from a mental health disorder like anxiety, treatment may involve things like exposure to anxiety-inducing stimuli. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one such anxiety treatment that uses exposure therapy. Some clients push back at the idea of exposing themselves to what makes them anxious. Engaging in motivational interviewing and CBT during recovery can help chip away at that resistance and instill a more confident mindset during other treatments.

What Mental Health Disorders Does Motivational Interviewing Treat?

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a versatile therapeutic approach that has been applied to a wide range of addiction and mental health disorders. Its flexibility and focus on eliciting internal motivation make it particularly effective for conditions where ambivalence towards change is a significant barrier.

Below is a list of some mental health disorders and areas where MI is beneficial:

  • Substance use disorders
  • Behavioral addictions
  • Depression
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Dual diagnosis


MI works across these disorders by focusing not directly on the disorder but on the individual’s attitudes toward change and ambivalence. It’s a complementary approach that enhances the effectiveness of other treatments by motivating individuals to engage more fully in the change process, whether that involves attending therapy sessions, taking medications as prescribed, or making behavioral changes.

How Does Motivational Interviewing Treat Substance Use Disorders

MI is widely used in treating substance abuse and addictions, including alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. It helps individuals explore their ambivalence towards substance use and supports them in making decisions to reduce or quit their use. It’s common for those with addiction issues to think that they won’t ever be able to stop using. That lack of confidence is exactly what motivational interviewing in Orange County, CA can treat. If your goal is to stop using drugs and alcohol, but you don’t feel you have the confidence, motivational interviewing may be for you.

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Motivational Interviewing Practices for Behavioral Addictions

Beyond substance abuse, MI has been applied to treat behavioral addictions, such as gambling, internet addiction, or compulsive shopping, by helping individuals recognize the negative impact of these behaviors and find internal motivations to change. A study by the American Psychological Association found that motivational interviewing effectively reduced the urge to gamble following treatment.

Treating Depression With Motivational Interviewing

MI can be used to motivate individuals with depression to engage in activities they previously enjoyed, adhere to treatment plans, and take steps toward positive life changes. It’s beneficial for those ambivalent about treatment or making lifestyle adjustments. Those with depression may not see themselves or their situation in a positive light. This can cause a lack of confidence in getting better. Motivational interviewing seeks to change that.

Motivational Interviewing Tactics for Anxiety

For those with anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, MI can help motivate individuals to confront situations or thoughts that they find anxiety-provoking as part of their treatment plan.

Motivational Interviewing in Dual Diagnosis Treatment

MI is effective for individuals with dual diagnoses, such as those who have a mental health disorder along with substance abuse issues. It addresses the complexities of treating both conditions by helping individuals find personal motivations to change behaviors related to both their mental health and substance use.

What Happens During Motivational Interviewing Therapy?

Motivational interviewing therapy is a client-centered, directive method for enhancing intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence. The process is collaborative, and the therapist and client work together to explore the client’s motivations, values, and reasons for change.

The initial phase involves building a trusting relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist listens actively to understand the client’s perspective, experiences, and feelings without judgment. The therapist helps the client identify and focus on the main issues that need change. This could involve behaviors, thought patterns, or situations the client wants to change.

Empathy is a focal point of motivational interviewing. Therapists practice listening and questioning in a nonjudgmental way. The goal is to better understand the client and their situation, motivation, and experiences. However, they don’t offer sympathy, which won’t help the client grow their confidence. Instead, the goal is to help them develop their own path to change.

Speaking and Listening

Through open-ended questions, reflective listening, and affirmation, the therapist encourages the client to talk about their desire, ability, reasons, and need for change. This phase aims to increase the client’s awareness of the potential benefits of change. The therapist helps the client explore the pros and cons of change versus staying the same. This process helps resolve ambivalence and increases the client’s motivation to change.

Once the client is ready to make changes, the therapist assists in developing a concrete plan of action. This includes setting goals, identifying potential obstacles, and strategies for overcoming them.

Motivational Interviewing Questions

Sessions can vary in length depending on the setting and the client’s specific needs. An individual session might last 60 minutes. The number of sessions required can also vary, with some clients experiencing significant progress in as few as one to three sessions. In contrast, others may benefit from ongoing support over several months.

Examples of Motivational Interviewing Questions

  • Open-ended questions: “What makes you think you need to change this behavior?”
  • Exploring Pros and Cons: “What do you like about your current situation? What are you less fond of?”
  • Looking Forward: “If you decided to make this change, what would it look like?”
  • Querying Extremes: “What are the best things that might happen if you change? What are the worst things if you don’t?”
  • Using Scaling: “On a scale from 0 to 10, how important is it for you to make this change? Why are you at a [client’s answer] and not a lower number?”


The effectiveness of MI lies in its client-centered approach. In this approach, the therapist acts more as a guide, helping clients uncover their motivations for change rather than dictating what those changes should be. This empowers clients, making the process of change more personal and meaningful. 

Motivational Interviewing at South Coast Behavioral Health

When you trust South Coast Behavioral Health with your recovery, you’re putting yourself in a position to succeed. Our team of therapists, clinicians, and recovery specialists craft individualized treatment plans suited to your needs. We are proud to offer a full continuum of care, from detox to aftercare, for both substance abuse and mental health issues.

Motivational interviewing and other evidence-based and holistic therapies can help anyone alter their thought patterns to be more positive and confident. When you have confidence in yourself, it makes challenges like recovery from mental health issues or drug and alcohol addiction seem less daunting. From there, you can take the necessary steps to turn things around and move on to a happy and healthy life. We accept most major insurance providers and plans, so don’t let the cost of treatment deter you from getting treatment.

Motivational interviewing is just one of the many therapies and treatments offered by the South Coast Behavioral Health team. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, contact our admissions team today at (866) 881-1184 and see how we can improve your life.

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