Perceived versus Actual Practice in Motivational Interviewing (MI)

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“What I don’t know I don’t know” – That’s the most essential learning

 

In nearly every course or workshop I teach on Motivational Interviewing (MI), there are nearly always practitioners who express some variation of “I already do MI naturally”. In other words, why spend time “learning” about something that I already know how to do? A reasonable response, if accurate.

I say ‘if accurate’ because research on MI practice suggests a disconnect between what practitioners say they do versus the MI skills they can actually demonstrate. We’re talking video recordings of actual client sessions, coded by skilled clinicians trained in the use of a standardized instrument. So while there may be a small proportion of therapists who really are “MI naturals”, it’s likely that most practitioners, whether they know it or not, can not or do not demonstrate the skills of MI without training, coaching, practice, coaching, and practice.

 

Motivational interviewing is essentially a way of being with a client (Dr. William Miller, the originator of MI, calls this “MI Spirit”), comprised of partnership, acceptance, compassion and evocation. It seems intuitive, but the “Righting Reflex” is hard to resist. Additionally the processes of MI – engaging, focusing, evoking and planning – are accompanied by a range of skills and strategies. Integrating both spirit and skills demands artful practice, and integrating MI with other approaches (for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT) involves even greater therapeutic sophistication.

No practitioner ever reaches the apex of clinical perfection – it doesn’t exist! Just like the clients we serve, practitioners are engaged in an ongoing process of development. And it’s the basics (reflective listening is a good example) that can be the most challenging.

 

People come to a learning environment with four general categories capturing both pre-exisiting knowledge and knowledge deficits:

  1. What I know that I know: Everyone comes in with something of value
  2. What I know that I don’t know: Everyone has areas they can identify as avenues for further learning
  3. What I don’t know that I know: Everyone has knowledge and skills of which they aren’t aware
  4. What I don’t know that I don’t know: We all have a blind spot when it comes to what we still need to learn. When we can shine a light on it, that’s the “aha” moment! 

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