Personal trainers are always looking for new ways to motivate their clients and sometimes it can be a struggle. Motivational interviewing could offer a breakthrough.

Motivational interviewing (MI) is defined as “both a treatment philosophy and a set of strategies to help people increase their own internal drive to change” (Brehm, 2104). MI is particularly useful for building rapport and encouraging the ambivalent client who may seem “lost” or uncertain of why change is beneficial. It is an indirect and personal style of communication which fosters change through motivation, encouragement, support and assistance which evokes a client’s self-efficacy.

In other words, clients who are in the earliest stages of change respond well to MI as part of the training process. MI becomes unnecessary if a client has already adopted and is actively engaged in change.

Fitness professionals who develop even a moderate comfort level and competence with MI are more likely to coach their clients towards success than those who do not.

Why is Motivational Interviewing Important?

The value of MI has long been documented. What research in the behavior change and psychological arenas demonstrated is that MI is an effective approach to not only encourage the cessation of a negative habit but to cultivate the establishment of new and healthier habits.

Adopting MI as a communication style gives professionals a pathway to more deeply explore why someone is interested in change and what perceived barriers, fears, or misconceptions a client may have.

The “spirit” of MI

Miller and Rollnick (2013) describe what they call “the spirit of MI” which includes the components of:

  • collaboration
  • acceptance
  • compassion
  • evocation

The first characteristic, collaboration, reinforces the client-centered nature of behavior change and coaching. Acceptance is related to how the coach views and appreciates the client – with respect, empathy, and positive regard. The compassion component reflects the principle of doing what is in the best interest of the client.

The final characteristic, evocation, is the art of conversing with the client in such a way that he or she comes to realize personal needs rather than the coach simply telling a client “here’s what you need to do”. MI is, again, about coaching a client towards change by collaborating rather than directing. We are a partner and gentle guide in our clients’ individual journeys of change (ACE, 2014, Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

How to conduct MI – Core skills

While there are four key characteristics which define MI as a communication style, there are also four skill areas that make up an effective MI session. Miller & Rollnick (2013) describe the collective set of skills using the acronym OARS. The OARS acronym represents open-ended questioning, affirmation, reflective listening, and summarizing.

O – Open-ended Questioning

Open-ended questions require deliberate and detailed responses from clients. They are the opposite of “yes” or “no” questions. Compare and contrast the following sample dialogues.

Coach: Is your goal to lose weight?

Client: Yes.


Coach: Describe for me why you feel weight loss is important to you.

Client: My doctor indicated that I need to lose weight to decrease my risk of developing chronic diseases. Both of my parents had heart disease and type 2 diabetes. I also have young children and they are both active in sports. I’d like to be able to practice with them, keep up, and set a good example! I used to be extremely active and in sports myself – and I loved it and miss it, but adulthood “got in the way” and threw me off course.

By asking the yes/no question, the coach learned nothing more than the client wants to lose weight. In contrast to the open-ended question, the coach learned a bit about family history, that the client is partially motivated by outside pressures (her doctor and family history), and desires to be active with and for her children.

The coach also learned a few details about the client’s previous activity history. This is all valuable information the coach can use to guide and encourage the changes the client ultimately needs to make in order to achieve the surface goal of weight loss.

A – Affirmation

This skill involves using affirming statements that highlight a client’s efforts and strengths. This is key to building a client’s self-efficacy. Affirmation also helps drive the development of intrinsic motivation.

R – Reflective Listening

Being a reflective listener requires the ability to probe the client in thinking deeper about his or her words or something the client has shared with you. In other words, the coach reflects back to the client what he or she has heard in listening to the client describe X or Y. This gives the coach or trainer an opportunity to clarify or seek a deeper understanding.

S – Summarizing

Summarizing is just as it sounds; bringing the points of the conversation together and synthesizing the information shared. This skill is tremendously valuable in that it presents an opportunity for the client to overcome any initial ambivalence (ACE, 2014; Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

How MI Progresses Through the Coaching Experience

There are four “umbrellas” of MI. Engaging, Focusing, Evoking, and Planning (ACE, 2014). It’s important to note that not every MI session will include all four phases or proceed linearly. These four phases describe, in general, how the client-coaching relationship is formed.

Step 1: Engaging or the process of building rapport and taking initial steps to build a trust-based relationship with a client.

Step 2: Focusing or setting the agenda for the coaching experience. This involves identifying what the client wishes to achieve.

Step 3: Evoking or exploring the client’s motivation to make a change.

Step 4: Planning or the process of collaboratively putting a plan of action into place. This occurs once the client has decided to make a change.

Advantages of Motivational Interviewing

MI has been studied and used for over 40 years. Its success is well documented and validated in multiple areas of research.

MI is effective for encouraging and motivation change beyond what a client could or would accomplish alone. It is also a validated exploratory tool that provides a coach deeper insight into potential barriers or reasons for a client’s ambivalence (ACE 2014).

There is also clinical research validating the effectiveness of MI as a change tool. In general, health-care research results reflect that MI provides health care workers with valuable tools to assist their patients in making a meaningful change (Johnston & Stevens, 2013). Other research has examined patient experience. For example, in one study post-stroke victims experienced improved outlooks on life and higher survival rates after participating in motivational interviewing sessions (Archer, 2011).

Criticisms of Motivational Interviewing

There’s no perfect framework or design and MI isn’t an exception. As many other theories have experienced, MI has its limitations.

MI is a lengthy process and, therefore, takes time. MI is also a multi-phased approach that has a unique nuance, which ultimately means it takes commitment and devotion on the part of the professional to learn and to master.

Unrelated to the fitness industry but still valuable to note, there are questions of efficacy as MI applies to younger populations – specifically with substance use and abuse (, 2012; Sage, 2009).

Despite the criticisms, overwhelming evidence in many areas of human behavior suggest the MI is more beneficial than not, but the efficacy of the approach is dependent upon the professional developing – at a minimum – a basic competence in executing the approach.

Because MI is considered a cornerstone of coaching behavior change, learning more about it can help you encourage change with your clients so that the change becomes a sustainable and vital part of their lives. See the resources at the end of this article.

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American Council on Exercise. 2013. ACE Health Coach Manual. San Diego, CA: ACE

American Council on Exercise. 2014. Coaching Behavior Change, San Diego, CA: ACE

Archer, S. 2011. Motivational Interviewing Improves Post-Stroke Outlook and Survival. IDEA Fitness Journal, 8(11).

Brehm, B. 2014. Psychology of Health and Fitness. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company

Miller, W., & Rollnick, S. 2013. Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change. New York, NY: Guilford.

Johnston, C., & Stevens, B. 2013. Motivational Interviewing in the Health Care Setting. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 7(4), 246-249.


Health Behavior & Health Education: Theory, Research, & Practice, 5th Ed. (Glanz, Rimer, & Lewis)

Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd. Ed. (Miller & Rollnick).

The Psychology of Health and Fitness (Barbara Brehm).

Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT)