How to Use Motivational Interviewing Tactics to Make People Realize They’re Wrong

Instead of being combative, you can coax someone onto the right side of history by asking questions and helping them connect the dots

The last thing I want to do right now is engage with old friends and family who minimize the murder of George Floyd — on camera, in broad daylight — as an unfortunate isolated incident and not another casualty of systemic racism. I have zero fucking patience for anyone sharing the “This Is a Protest” meme, who may as well be saying “All Lives Matter.” 

But my impulse to completely shut people out who are categorically wrong may not be the most productive approach to change. There is, in fact, a better way to coax people onto the right side of history that therapists have used to treat addiction since 1991: motivational interviewing, a counseling technique found to be significantly more effective than directly giving advice.

What makes motivational interviewing unique is that it operates on the assumption that people will be resistant to change unless they’re initiating it. Or put another way: We’re far more likely to listen if it’s to the sound of our own voice. 

As such, motivational interviewing essentially serves as a mirror to inspire a person to take an honest inventory of their core values and goals, along with their current behaviors. When those don’t match up — a good recent example is Amy Cooper, who may not perceive herself as “racist” but nevertheless calls the cops on innocent black men — a skilled motivational interviewer would gently point out this inconsistency, ask how Cooper feels about it and eventually explore what she might change to accomplish better alignment of her goals and behaviors. In other words, the objective is to get someone to recognize the gap between how they are versus how they want to be, which eventually motivates them to do better. 

“A big part of motivational interviewing is providing space for individuals to take the time to think about if their behaviors are in line with the things they say that they believe in,” explains psychologist Jameca Woody Cooper (no relation to Amy), who co-authored a paper calling for the support of psychology leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“The general public can learn to use aspects of motivational interviewing in all aspects of their lives — at work, in social situations and with friends, romantic relationships and family,” adds clinical psychologist Carla Manly.

Basically, by asking the right questions and not getting pissed off at the answers, it’s possible to get through to people using the five steps of motivational interviewing. Those steps…

Ask Questions and Express Empathy

Skilled motivational interviewers always start by asking calm, open-ended questions, and then engaging in “reflective listening” — i.e., the person asking questions repeats back the answer in different words, to reflect an understanding. 

As an example, you might ask someone who understands that the death of George Floyd was reprehensible but opposes protests how they felt when they saw the video of his murder at the hands of a Minneapolis cop. You might also address their personal experiences with the police by asking:

  • What was it like the last time you were pulled over? 
  • Have you ever had a disagreement with a police officer? 
  • Have you ever cried to get out of a ticket? 
  • Have you ever gotten a slap on the wrist when you objectively broke the law? 
  • Could you imagine your life being threatened in any of those scenarios? 
  • No? Well, how do you feel about that? 

If the answer is “uncomfortable,” “guilty,” “embarrassed,” “ashamed,” “sad” or another complicated but negative emotion, that’s where empathy starts.

At the same time, empathy isn’t about telling people what they want to hear, and psychologists caution against over-praising, humoring or changing the subject when people get uncomfortable, just as much as judging, arguing or threatening them. Overall, asking the right questions and reflecting back the responses is a delicate process that shouldn’t be rushed. 

“A non-clinician may feel, at first, that reflective listening is too cumbersome or inefficient,” Manly explains. “Yet, when used routinely, such skills are great time-savers as they increase understanding, cooperation and goal achievement.”  

Find a Discrepancy 

The process of asking open-ended questions helps to build empathy, but it also gathers information about who a person is and what they care about. Once you have this data, you can start to identify where a person’s opinions and actions don’t line up. Because acknowledging character inconsistencies without telling someone what to do or think can incentivize them to change. “If individuals can begin to examine the discrepancy between their stated goals and their behavior, it could be a step toward understanding individuals’ perspectives on the other side,” Cooper says. 

To continue with the Floyd example, for an individual who thinks his death was wrong but may not support the protests, Cooper notes that “you might simply say things like, ‘I can see that you have multiple reasons for not supporting the protesters, but I can also see that there are a few areas where you see protesting as necessary.’” 

Avoid Confrontation

As much as reflective listening is designed to diffuse defensiveness, people can become confrontational when called out on discrepancies — read: hypocrisies — between their values and behaviors. Which, of course, can quickly end the conversation. “Avoiding confrontation and neutralizing defensiveness is crucial because an individual will be so engaged in defending their behavior that they won’t be focused on changing that behavior,” Cooper explains. 

A good rule of thumb is that if you feel yourself starting to argue, pull back and start asking open-ended questions again until the urge to fight has dissipated. 

Accept Further Contradictions

Most therapists believe that people who come into their offices generally want to change, yet struggle to do so in a way that sticks. That’s why it’s crucial to create conditions where people are willing to keep trying. The same goes for the misguided and misinformed. There may be glimmers of them getting it, followed by a frustrating regression to their old ways, but that’s the rule. The exception is when they finally shift their perspective in a lasting way. 

Therapists originally referred to this as “rolling with the resistance,” but now prefer the term “ambivalence,” or mixed and contradictory feelings about growth. “Ambivalence is normal in many situations, but it tends to reduce positive action and change,” Manly tells me. Still, when it comes to difficult discussions about protests, riots and racism, she says that if you can tolerate a certain amount of flip-flopping, you can also eventually flip someone’s thinking completely (without any more of the flopping). 

Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt 

I know, I know, but both Manly and Cooper believe that if people are genuinely answering questions, then there’s hope. 

Therapists have to meet different people at different stages of personal growth all the time, yet realize that even under the best conditions, meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why most acknowledge their patients’ hard work at the end of sessions regardless of the outcome, and that’s the best way to conclude motivational interviewing IRL, too. Appreciate the efforts of whomever you’re disagreeing with, thank them for having the difficult conversation and then try again later. It’s not about the quick win — you’re playing the long game here.  

“Motivational interviewing helps the individual access their best self to create empowered change,” Manly concludes. “When this technique is used in a genuine, consistent manner, interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships tend to thrive.”