Resolving ambivalence to change: what we can learn from MI (Motivational Interviewing)

Image Credit: South Weald Country Park March 2016

Change is at the core of many coaching conversations: managing change, introducing change, leading change, supporting others to change. The change story we find ourselves listening to may be a desire for change, or change being enforced by others. It might be personal for our client, or organisational led with personal consequences for many. Our coaching conversations provide a safe place for our clients to explore the complexities within their situation and find the path through this period that is of their choosing, whether it be the well trodden path or the one less travelled.

Occasionally we may find ourselves working with someone who is ambivalent about change, often expressed as having mixed or contradictory feelings about something or someone.  Holding on to opposing ideas, or the experience of having both positive and negative feelings about the same thing or person, can provoke anxiety, uncertainty and internal struggle. Seltzer (2014), writing in Psychology Today, explains this as a “values war” being enacted internally, where the client has 2 different sets of values fighting to be heard, both with their own authenticity, both reflecting the client’s integrity.  Letting one set go will then, of course, raise some anxiety. 

There is another scenario that will be familiar to health coaches as well as performance coaches, where the client’s ambivalence to change has potentially serious consequences to themselves.  There appears to be a lack of care about the situation, but this often conceals very strong internal dilemmas being played out.  This was described to me by a health champion who is a smoking quitter.  Having given up smoking several times for several weeks and sometimes months at a time, he remembers having committed to quitting only to find himself later that day driving to a local shop to buy cigarettes, whilst a huge battle of ideas and identity waged in his mind. His struggle was heightend by his extensive knowlege of health and the associated risks.  Knowing the health risks wasn’t enough.  Even when his optometrist wrly commented that no amount of green juices was going to compensate for the damage smoking would inflict on his eyehealth, did he immediately overcome his ambivalence to change. But it all contributed to his becoming ready for change.  

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is an approach developed by Miller and Rollnick with a strong track record in the field of health coaching and can offer some useful insights for those of us providing coaching in other contexts.  Exploring and resolving ambivalence to change is at the heart of MI.  Here are some key learnings from MI to help your  coaching practice:

  1.  Be authentically empathic towards your client. This means taking the time to understand and respect the client’s perspective. 
  2. Encourage the client to explore the reasons for change.  Do not direct them or seek to influence.
  3. “Roll with resistance”.  Resistance comes with ambivalence.  Don’t fight it, instead roll with it and invite the client to exlore all the reasons not to change, and listen very attentively.
  4. Explore cognitive dissonance.  Gently reflect back to the client any inconsistencies they have expressed.  For example our smoking quitter above, enjoyed a very healthy diet which included green juices, and his health was a core value, and a reason to change.  Some gentle exploration of his values and how smoking was incongruent to his identity became the intrinsic motivator needed to quit . 



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