Using Motivational Interviewing in Career Counseling

by Geri Miller

Motivational Interviewing (MI) was developed in the 1970s and 1980s by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick – initially as a behavioral counseling model for use with problem drinkers. It has been used since with numerous populations.

MI is a directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients recognize, explore, and resolve their internal ambivalences. Compared with nondirective counseling, it is more focused and goal-directed. Examination and resolution of ambivalences is its central purpose, and the counselor is intentionally directive in pursuing this goal.

The four general principles of MI, and counselor actions required at each step include:

    1. Empathy: Use reflective listening while avoiding arguments, focusing on learning the client’s own perspective, and respecting the client.

    2. Discrepancy: Enhance the clients’ sense of existing discrepancies within themselves by comparing their actual actions with their desires and values, and by holding up their experienced “real self” in comparison to their “ideal self.” This assists clients to explore and resolve their normal ambivalence about change.

    3. Self-Efficacy: Help clients to believe that they can persist in pursuing healthy change, so they use internal and external resources maximally to effect self-chosen goals.

    4. Resistance: View the clients’ resulting resistance as a natural part of change, and join it by trying first to better understand the resistance, and then assist clients in recognizing it and understanding it themselves.

The MI Approach

Career counseling can also be enhanced by incorporating these principles into the counselor’s approach.

Each individual experiences a unique sense of safety, respect, and care, resulting from differences in age, developmental issues, personalities, culture, living experiences, etc. So although there is no pat formula for welcoming someone to counseling, trust is encouraged by extending a unique, genuine, caring invitation followed by an ongoing dialogue, both verbal and nonverbal, about how the particular client responds to the invitation to talk. The counselor works with the client in three main ways:

  • Collaboration (agreement with the client to effect change)
  • Evocation (drawing ideas and motivation to change from the client), and
  • Autonomy (encouraging the client’s own choices).

Simply stated, to succeed, career counselors need to look reflectively at how we might feel welcomed ourselves, and how we could professionally welcome others in ways that reflect our theoretical orientation and personal style.

A main struggle for many career clients, especially young adults and adolescents, is developing their identity and establishing a career path as a key part of that identity. By applying MI practices, the counselor can help the client to “catch” our belief in their goodness, in their capacity to explore their options, and if necessary, to make a change. Additionally, counselors need to compassionately recognize the realistic internal and external limitations to change that clients may experience, especially those who are younger.


There are five main strategies used in MI. These are the “OARS+” elements:

    1. “OPEN” - Asking open-ended questions.
    2. “AFFIRMING” the client’s attempts to change, internal strengths, use of resources, etc.
    3. “REFLECTING” - Listening and responding reflectively.
    4. “SUMMARIZING” – Recapping and restating what was discussed.
    5. “+” - Plus eliciting change talk in conversation with the client.

The first four change strategies remind us it is easier to change if the client starts from an experience of being truly heard and understood by another person. The fifth strategy points to how language is used to emphasize change. A counselor is deliberate in the words s/he uses with a client. Seven specific methods for doing this and eliciting change talk within the career counseling context are:

    1. ASKING EVOCATIVE QUESTIONS. Encourage the client to express career views/ concerns through questions. Example: What is it that worries you the most about choosing a college?

    2. USING THE IMPORTANCE RULER. Ask the client to rate the importance of a career view/ concern or their confidence in changing a career view/ concern on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (high). Then asking about discrepancies in these ratings. Example: On a scale of 0 to 10 how important is it to you to know what you want to do professionally?

    3. EXPLORING THE DECISIONAL BALANCE. Have the client weigh pros and cons of career views/ concerns and explore them. Example: What are the advantages and disadvantages of making that career choice?

    4. ELABORATING. Ask the client for clarification, description, elaboration or examples when a career view/ concern is stated. Example: You said you don’t care about the kind of work you would do. What would it take for you to care?

    5. QUERYING EXTREMES. Ask about extremes regarding the client’s or others’ career views/ concerns. Example: If you refuse to decide on schooling after high school, what would be the most extreme reaction you could imagine your parents having?

    6. LOOKING BACK. Help the client look back at a time when the career view/ concern did not exist and compare that time with the present. Example: There was a time when you didn’t feel pressured to make a career decision. What was that time like for you?

    7. LOOKING FORWARD. Have the client look into the future to see how the career change or a view/ concern might impact the future and what might happen if no change were made. Example: If you choose that career, how could you see your life turning out?

A counselor adapts these methods to specific client populations. For example, working with young children it would be inappropriate to use the technique of looking back. However, this might be a very useful technique to help adolescents and adults understand how they have grown into a new career choice.


Miller, G. (2005). Learning the language of addiction counseling. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Miller, W.R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

For additional resources go to: www.motivationalinterview.org created by the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Technology Transfer Center, in cooperation with the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT).

Geri Miller, Ph.D., Diplomate in Counseling Psychology, American Board of Professional Psychology, is a Professor at Appalachian State University (Boone, NC), a Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Clinical Addictions Specialist, and member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. She currently volunteers with the Watauga County Health Department. She can be called at (828) 262-6048, or reached by e-mail at millerga@appstate.edu .

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