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Improve Program Engagement Immediately: The Role of Motivational Interviewing

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

"You never give up on kids, and you never gave up on me." – Adolescent on probation.

As I sat in the school's conference room across from an 18-year-old who had been involved in the juvenile justice system since he was nine, I wondered how we got here.

We had spent three months together, and his progress toward goals, such as getting a job and reducing his drinking, had been sporadic at best. He talked of quitting our program and would blame others for his lack of progress. Yet, here we were, sitting at school, discussing his perspectives and establishing a plan to improve attendance. Various questions kept running through my mind...

Why is he still willing to meet with me?

Why hasn't he given up?

Why haven't I?

Client engagement is a crucial aspect of any successful program aimed at helping others and inspiring change. Even though it is easier if you have a big budget, fancy handouts, and zero vacancies, data suggests that programs with the best engagement understand that clients are more likely to progress toward their goals through active involvement, empathetic listening, and collaborative communication.

I can attest that whether I was a manager, supervisor, leader, or front line worker, the most powerful approach to do this is by using Motivational Interviewing (MI).

MI Workshop in Pinellas County, FL

MI is an evidence-based technique created by psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick that focuses on evoking and strengthening a person's internal motivations for change and inspiring them to consider ways to achieve it. By employing MI, team members can effectively support and empower their clients throughout their change journey.

Most importantly, MI seeks to uncover and explore the person's ambivalence towards change, understanding that motivation is complex and our ability to rationalize decisions, even when they hurt us, is quite impressive.

Take a moment to finish the following statements below. Say them out loud or write your answers down.

I want to exercise more but….

I should make more effort to save money but….

I need to practice better work/life balance, but….

How did you do?

Ambivalence is most common when someone struggles with the realization that there is value in working towards a goal but also believes there are justifiable reasons why they shouldn't put 100% effort towards achieving it.

Further, it is normal during the early stages of ambivalence for people to have more justifications to stay the same than change. For instance, when you finished the sentences above, did you list more reasons to work towards the goal or more that justify why you should continue your current behaviors?

The most significant benefit of MI is that it enhances client engagement as they work through their ambivalence. This is a crucial point because when a person has conflicting thoughts, it can create significant internal discomfort. However, when staff members take a guiding and supportive role, instead of falling into the "expert trap," the client feels heard and understood.

By emphasizing active listening and reflecting on the person's thoughts and feelings, they increase trust and rapport, which opens the door to safely exploring justifications. Rapport may be the most underestimated component of program engagement due to the vulnerability required to maintain strong relationships with people. Still, once program participants feel psychologically safe to talk through their change; it will encourage them to explore the discrepancies between their current behaviors and their goals or values.

This process allows them to gain insight into their motivations, making them more willing to change. By focusing on the client's intrinsic motivations, staff can help them develop a sense of personal ownership and responsibility for their actions. Specifically, MI implements a technique called OARS to facilitate client interactions.

Consider the difference between the two interactions.

Scenario #1

Client: I need to start managing my anger better. Getting into fights every weekend is getting out of hand.

Staff: What did you do this time? It would be best to start doing something different when you get mad.

Client: I know. I only cursed this time, however. I was going to punch the wall but didn't. Plus, it wasn't even really my fault. Some people are just out to get you.

Staff: Yeah, but that's still not a good reaction. You should start attending counseling. I can send you some information that my other clients use.

Client: Ok, thanks.

Staff: No problem. It would be best if you also tried yoga or meditation. Imagine how happy you would be if you had better control of your emotions.

Client: True.

Scenario #2

Client: I need to start managing my anger better. Getting into fights every weekend is getting out of hand.

Staff: I appreciate your transparency. It sounds like you have been thinking about making a change.

Client: I have. It's not always my fault when fights happen, but there are times I could have avoided it.

Staff: Life can be unpredictable, but you are focused on controlling what you can control.

Client: Exactly. I need to work on myself instead of worrying about what others might do.

Staff: It takes much honest self-reflection to assess areas we need to improve accurately. It requires courage to act as well. What's motivated you to consider taking steps to better respond to your anger?

(Learn more about the OARS technique by downloading the cheat sheet at the end of this article)

By incorporating OARS and the principles of MI, team members can maximize client engagement and optimize outcomes. The MI approach is highly compatible and situational, allowing the tools and techniques to integrate into any program setting seamlessly regardless of the population you serve, program outcomes, or timelines.

MI Workshop in Atlanta, Georgia.

In conclusion, client engagement is critical to the success of any program designed to help others embrace new goals, services, or change. MI offers staff a powerful approach to enhance client engagement by focusing on intrinsic motivation and addressing ambivalence towards change.

By employing the principles of active listening, empathy, and collaboration, staff can effectively support and empower their clients on their path toward transforming thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.

To learn more about bringing MI to your program, visit or email

I also encourage you to download the free cheat sheet, which outlines one of the most common communication methods in MI, OARS.

OARS Quick Reference - Speak4MC - 2023 (1)
Download PDF • 791KB


*Statements on this blog reflect the author's personal opinions and do not represent any other person, company, or organization. The purpose of this blog is general knowledge and to bring awareness to tools, techniques, people, and organizations that bring about positive change. The reader is strongly encouraged to perform independent research about the topics discussed.

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