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Using Motivational Interviewing To Help A Loved One

They designed motivational interviewing to evoke change and self-motivation talk. Thus, a while back, I took motivational interviewing methods and created a self-help version of it, which you find here. Now I thought I’d create a simplified version of motivational interviewing to help you talk to someone in need. You could pair this with my mental health first aid tips for helping someone with suicidal thoughts, which you can find here.


There’s no reason motivational interviewing can’t be adapted for interpersonal relationships. Using motivational interviewing only in a therapeutic relationship would be a waste of this approach. I first learned about motivational interviewing while working as a recovery worker, which isn’t a counselling/therapist role. The reason is that it’s effective in helping people overcome substance dependency.


In short, using motivational interviewing is a respectful way to help people see the pros and cons of change while addressing their concerns (Forbes).



Using Motivational Interviewing Techniques


Listen and reflect

As part of my Ask Twice article for Time To Change’s campaign, I talked about how important it is to listen and reflect. In the context of the campaign, I talked about using simple reflections like, “I can see why you’re having a hard time”. What I didn’t say at the time was that this was a motivational interviewing technique. It’s used to convey empathy.


No one expects you to have all the answers, even professionals don’t have all the answers. Listening is enough. You’ll be surprised how big of an effect just listening can have.

Unwanted Life


One important thing to remember is when you’re listening to the people from your impersonal relationships, then you actually have to listen to what they’re saying. Also, avoid interrupting them as they talk to you and don’t lecture them or dismiss their concerns (National Lipid Association, n.d.).



Affirming is an important part of listening and reflecting. It can help show the other person that you understand their difficulties. So when you say something like, “I can see why you’re having a hard time” you’re validating the client and helping to build rapport (PositivePsychology.com). 


Avoid arguments

Another part of listening is to avoid getting into an argument because they’re resistant to change. Change is difficult. We’re hard-wired to go with the least difficult energy-saving option, which is the status quo. Remember, you’re not there to change them, you’re there to help them change themselves. Trying to prove a point and causing an argument will just bring up everyone’s defences and will undermine any motivation for beneficial change (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1999).


However, if the other person is the one trying to start an argument, then don’t get sucked into it. This is just their resistance to change rearing its ugly head. Although this might seem bad, it can be a good sign. Just remain calm and keep using your listening and reflecting to keep the conversation going, instead of opposing it directly (National Lipid Association, n.d.).




Resolving ambivalence

If you find yourself dealing with resistance to change and even arguing, then you can try to explore their reasons for this (National Lipid Association, n.d.). You can do this by trying to find out what their concerns are about changing so you can explore those concerns. Try to find what’s blocking them from pursuing the change goals they want.


Resolving discrepancy

Often, people’s goals and behaviours don’t line up. To help resolve this, you can use something known as a decisional balance. A decisional balance exercise is simple, just work out a cons/pros or cost/benefits analysis. It’s a simple method, but it’s very useful because you can create a simple list that can be referred. It will also highlight the reasons for changing and staying the same.


Thus, you could discuss and create a list of the pros and cons of staying the same and then do the same for changing. Basically, all you’re trying to do is show the person that their values/goals don’t align with their current behaviours (National Lipid Association, n.d.).


Open-ended questions

Using open-ended questions is the bread and butter of motivational interviewing. It’s a really effective way to gather more information while giving the person the space to talk while you listen. This approach to having a supportive conversation with people from your interpersonal relationship will also help build rapport and will allow you to show empathy.


Closed questions should only really be used if you need a definitive answer to something that might be too vague, you think you might have misheard, or because you think you misunderstood something. However, sometimes it’s hard t rephrase something as an open-ended question, so don’t worry about it if that happens to you. It happens to me a lot.



Another way to help with listening and reflecting as you talk to people from your interpersonal relationship is to use summaries. All you need to do is take what they’ve said to you and say it back as a statement in your own words. Doing this will show you’ve been listening, but it also gives the other person the opportunity to keep talking or clear up any misunderstandings.


Furthermore, summarising will allow the other person to hear back what they’ve been saying, which can help to resolve discrepancy and ambivalence (PositivePsychology.com). we’re all capable of having cognitive dissonance, whereby something we believe contradicts something else we believe or how we behave. For example, we could be pro-healthy living, while at the same time living an unhealthy lifestyle.




Using Motivational Interviewing To Help Others Change


The above section could be used to be a better friend or to help problem solve. However, you may be using motivational interviewing to increase motivation to change (PositivePsychology.com) in someone. Therefore, knowing what to do to invoke change talk or help it develop can be useful. As a result, I’ve created this section to deal with change talk specifically. I created this section with information taken from the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers, designing eleven things to remember if you want to help someone change.



Ask open-ended questions and get the chances of change answers flowing.



Explore the decisional balance by asking about the positives of staying the same and then the negatives of staying the same. Then do the same regarding making the change.



When the opportunity arrives for potential change talk, ask them to elaborate so you can get more details. For example, if someone says they want to become more healthy, ask them what they mean by that or just simply ask them to tell you more.



Another way to get a better understanding of the situation is to ask for examples. Say the person you’re talking to said they’ve tried getting healthy, but it never works. Then you could ask them when was the last time this happened or if they could give you an example of this.



If the person you’re talking to is talking about a recent difficulty, then you could get them to look back at the time before it emerged. By doing this, you can both see what factors might have caused the difficulty, which can lead to better problem-solving.


For example, if someone is reporting they’re having sleep problems, you can ask what was happening around the time the sleep problems started. Then, you can help the other person problem-solve the factors that might be in play based on their answer.


To take that example further, say they said they have become more stressed at work. You could ask what they could do to help manage or reduce this stress.


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Another way to help explore change talk would be to ask the person what would happen if they continued living the status quo. You could also add to this the miracle question: What would be different if you were 100% successful in making the change you want?



You can also ask query questions as open-ended questions. For example, if the person is talking about getting healthy but is unable to, then you could ask what would happen if they didn’t make the change. Alternatively, you could ask something like what would the best things be about becoming healthier.



Another simple question to ask that can help with change is to get them to rate stuff on a simple scale from zero to ten. An example of this could be: On a scale from zero to ten, where zero is not at all important, and ten is extremely important. How important is it to you that you get healthier?


There are several follow-up questions you can use after this. One follow-up question could be to ask them what made them pick a certain number over a higher number (or lower, depending on the context). Another follow-up question could be to ask what it would take to change that number to a better number.



To find out how ready someone is to change and opening up another line of discussion, you could ask questions like: how much you want to change, how confident you are you that you can make the change happen, or how committed are you to making the change happen.



It can be beneficial to explore values and goals. To do this, you could start by asking what their specific goals are. You could also ask them what they want from life or what their guiding values are. Then you could follow up by asking about how a certain behaviour could affect their goals or values they hold.


For example, my guiding values are to not be a dick and to help others. But let’s say I kept getting angry with my partner for always coming to me with their problems. Then you could question how my getting angry fits in with my values.



A good tip for tackling ambivalence is to play devil’s advocate. All you need to do is side with the negative side of their status quo, by making a statement about it. For example, if someone had a substance abuse problem and it left unchanged would mean their partner would leave them, then you could say: “perhaps the drugs are more important to you than your relationship, thus, you don’t want to give it up”.






Motivational interviewing lends itself really well to non-clinical uses. Hence writing this article. I use what I learnt from using motivational interviewing all the time when talking to people outside a therapy setting. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to treat such interactions as a therapy session, it’s just that this approach fits naturally more everyday conversations. It can also help avoid arguments that can develop otherwise.


If you want to use this method to help other people as someone who isn’t a therapist, then the above information will help you with that. Although I provided a section on helping to engage in change talk, you don’t have to do that if you don’t feel ready. The most important takeaway from this article is using motivational interviewing techniques that revolve around listening and reflecting.


Don’t do more than you’re ready for, because just being there and actively listening is also very helpful to people. We don’t get enough of that in society. Remember, it’s not your job to fix the person you’re talking to. Simply put, it’s impossible to fix another person. They can only fix themselves. Just be there for the people you want to support.


Do More…Do Less…
Acting as a guideAdvising
Information gatheringAssuming
Open-ended questioningClosed-ended questioning
Facilitating the person’s own problem-solvingTrying to solve the problem for the person
National Lipid Association (n.d.)


If you’re interested in using motivational interviewing for self-care, then I’ve got you covered. Just click here.


As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with using motivational interviewing and helping a loved one in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.


Lastly, if you’d like to support my blog, you can make a donation of any size below. Until next time, Unwanted Life readers.






National Lipid Association (n.d.). Motivational Interviewing to Promote Behavior Change: Advice from the National Lipid Association Clinician’s Lifestyle Modification Toolbox. Retrieved from https://www.lipid.org/sites/default/files/motivational_interviewing_to_promote_behavior_change.pdf.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1999). Enhancing Motivation For Change in Substance Abuse Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64967/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK64967.pdf.

35 thoughts on “Using Motivational Interviewing To Help A Loved One

  1. Such a wonderful post with great tips. I really appreciate each suggestion you made. Thank you so much for sharing this informative post. We each can help others in the interviews with motivation for sure. ☺️

    Pastor Natalie (ExamineThisMoment)

    • I think you might have misunderstood something, it’s not about helping motivate people to do well in interviews. Motivational interviewing is the name of the method. It’s a counselling approach that helps create rapport and engage in change talk.

      However, it can be used between people outside of a therapy session to help support the people we care about

  2. This is a really helpful blog post with so many informative tips on how you can help a family member. Thank you for sharing.

    Lauren x

    • The great thing about asking for examples is that from time to time, they may struggle to find one. Which could mean they’ve made a false conclusion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  3. This is such a interesting post! I’ve never heard of this before but it’s defiantly something I’m interested in so thank you for educating me and sharing such wonderful tips. I’ll defiantly be taking them onboard! Thank you so much for sharing Xo

    Elle – ellegracedeveson.com

  4. I love this post! Sometimes, I know, people are not ready for therapy so an approach like this would be an amazing way to help a person who is struggling alone. Honestly, this type of caring is helpful in all relationships, as it helps deepen bonds and interpersonal understandings, so I agree fully with what you say on many therapeutic approaches being wasted by their inability to leave the therapist’s atmosphere.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This approach is just so suited for use outside of therapy because the basics are so closely related to how we interact with people anyway. A few tweaks, and you’re already using Motivational Interviewing

  5. Listening is always the key to getting good results in an interviews . Great advice as always.

  6. UnwantedLife, you wrote an very good article. Motivational interviewing was introduced to me in one of my college counseling classes and during a workplace training session. At work and with friends and family, I practice motivational interviewing. It takes time and effort to master the art. We are hardwired to tell and solve other people’s problems. I like the idea of playing devil’s advocate; it’s like reverse psychology.

    • Thank you 😊 Indeed, we do tend to want to fix people when they come to us with their issues, but that often isn’t very helpful. People rarely take other people’s advice, so helping them to get there themselves is much more effective

  7. The skills you mention here are some of the things our current society lacks a lot of. Activilty listening to each other and working with one another to see if we can improve our own lives, as you share in your self-care post, and the people around us. You also well point out not to do more than you are comfortable with. Just reading this post was felt like a motivational interview and has me thinking of aspects of my own interaction with people I need to improve. Thanks!

  8. Love reading your posts, I learn something new every time and sometimes with totally new angle of the things I already kind of new. I have been mostly in the world of sales and marketing and its really eye opening how similar techniques are used in different fields and with almost opposite goals. Similar steps (listening, affirming, avoiding arguments, open questions) are one way for client management – but with goal to making client want to buy more and more.

    • That’s very interesting to know. It certainly makes sense to avoid arguing with a customer, because who’s going to buy from someone who’s made them angry. I can also see how listening, affirming, and open questions would help build rapport, making it easier to sell them something. Thanks for sharing your insights

  9. Not sure how I missed this one, but again timely and poignant in my life at the moment! Thank you for the direction to this article. It was very informative and gave me a lot to think about (and a few action steps to implement immediately). Thank you! ✌️

  10. This is a really helpful article. Many of these tips are the same as we use in the coaching space and they’re super helpful in interpersonal relationships as well. I think too often, we can have a tendency to want to give advice instead listening, validating, and asking open ended questions. These tips will be so useful for people to know how to talk to loved ones or friends. Great article, thanks for sharing!

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