As a fitness coach, we can’t motivate others to change since people motivate themselves, but we can, however, help them discover their own reasons to change. Motivational Interviewing (MI) helps us to do this. MI is a style of conversation that helps others talk themselves into change and discover their motivations surrounding change.
Often, when it comes to change, people feel ambivalent; they have mixed emotions regarding change, in other words. That’s normal. People will come to us with perfectly good reasons to change, and also with reasons for not changing. The language clients use can be referred to as sustain talk or change talk.
Sustain talk has to do with keeping things as they are—maintaining the status quo. It can sound like this:
“I’m never going to be able to lose this body fat.”
“I don’t have enough time to make it to the gym.”
Change talk on the other hand involves someone speaking about changing. It can sound like this:
“I have wanted this fat loss for a while and I think I can finally do it.”
“I have set aside some time in my schedule for the gym so I can definitely make it this week.”
To reiterate, having ambivalence is a normal part of the process, so as coaches we will hear lots of sustain and change talk; sometimes this happens in the same sentence. For example:
“I know I need to lose a few pounds (change talk), but I don’t want to give up my eating out on the weekends (sustain talk).”
In order to successfully navigate these conversations to best serve our clients, we can use the acronym O.A.R.S. to guide clients towards change. It stands for Open-Ended Questions, Affirmations, Reflections, and Summary. Let’s have a quick look at each.
Open-Ended Questions are questions that can’t be answered in a single phrase, or with a quick yes or no. They typically provide us with a thoughtful response from the client and allow us to better understand them. For example: “What do you feel is making it hard for you to start this habit?”
Affirmations are statements that acknowledge someone’s strengths and efforts. By highlighting things that a client does well, they will feel more confident with change. For example: “You are great at cooking and can prepare healthy meals.”
Reflections involve us listening to a client and paraphrasing what they said back to them—this is especially important when we hear change talk. By reflecting change talk back to a client, they have the opportunity to hear themselves talk about making a positive change. Also, it helps them feel understood. For example: “You are ready to start working on this sleep habit.”
Summaries are a recap of what has been said. This not only shows that we were listening to our client, and will make them feel understood, but if we did misunderstand something, then it’s a chance to get clarification. For example: “I want to make sure I understood you correctly. You feel confident about making this change because you have been successful with it in the past, and you are ready to start now by eating veggies with your lunch every day. Did I get that right?”
To help make sense of how O.A.R.S. is used and how MI can help us coaches, let me share a conversation I had last week with a BSP NOVA client.
A Conversation With Larry
I sat down with Larry last week to chat about his fat loss goal, and when I asked about his day to start the conversation, he jumped into talking about his nutrition. Larry explained how he had given up drinking for three weeks, but still, there was little progress. Larry realized he replaced some of those calories with food. He wasn’t happy with how things were going.
I began by asking an open-ended question: “Larry, was there a time when you were successful with fat loss in the past?” Immediately, he said, “Yes, I used to do keto and it worked really well for me. I went from around 280 pounds to 215 pounds.”
As I continued to listen to Larry, he went on to say that though he was successful back then, he had gained nearly all of it back. He said, “Keto is the only thing that has worked in the past. I have failed with everything else.” I paused to make sure he finished that thought and said, “From my perspective, I don’t see that as failing, I see it as being willing to try new things to make a positive change (affirmation).”
Larry then said, “I know now I need to make a lifestyle change so that the fat stays off (change talk), but I don’t know where to start. It’s hard (sustain talk).” This is an example of ambivalence. He expressed the motivation to make a lifestyle change but also expressed the desire to maintain status quo since change is hard.
To pause for a moment: often, when we hear ambivalence, it is best to reflect change talk so they hear it said back to them. I said, “It sounds like, though keto was successful for you Larry, you know that a lifestyle change is needed to keep the weight off (reflection).” I then asked, ”What are your thoughts on exploring some ideas for making fat loss a lifestyle change (open-ended question)?” He said he would.
He mentioned a few ideas and when asked which of those he wanted to focus on, he chose to start by focus on his snacking habit before lunch.
Before continuing further, I stopped to assess how ready, willing, and able he was to change. Sometimes clients say things that they feel sound nice, or think they should do, but aren’t in reality ready, willing, or able to do.
So I asked Larry three questions:
“On a scale of 1-10, how ready are you to do this task.”
“On a scale of 1-10, how willing are you to do this task.”
“On a scale of 1-10, how able are you to do this task.”
He said he was a 9/10 on ready and willing, but gave his rating for able as a 3/10. So I asked, “Larry, out of curiosity, how come you didn’t choose a higher number (open-ended question)?”
Larry said, “I’m concerned that I won’t be able to do it, since I have been unsuccessful in the past. But I know I just need more self-control.” I then asked, “May I offer some advice about that?” He said yes, so I replied, “Our clients often try to focus on self-control or motivation, but it’s not that reliable. Often, they have much more success when making things easier to start with. What are your thoughts on exploring ways to make snacking easier for you to succeed with?”
Larry seemed interested in this, so, together, we explored some options. He suggested not having snacks at hand helped, since he wouldn’t be able to eat them; if they were there, he said, then he’d eat them for sure. So, his first step was not having snacks around.
As the conversation wrapped up, I said to him, “I want to make sure I understand everything we talked about today. You said that, though you tried keto and were successful with it in the past, you know you need to make a lifestyle change. We brainstormed a few options and you are ready to start working on your snacking habit, by not having snacks easily available. Did I get that right (summary)?”
How We Use Motivational Interviewing
Now, after reading my conversation with Larry, you may be wondering, “When should I use MI.” Here’s the answer: you can use it all the time.
At BSP NOVA, Motivational Interviewing is used every day with our clients. On the floor, a client may express change talk about a new habit and we can affirm that statement. While chatting about their sleep, we may reflect something said to learn more about that. Or, we may start the conversation with an open-ended question to check in with them. Primarily though, they are used for our End of Phase and End of Block chats.
Three Things to Consider
First, Motivational Interviewing is a skill. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of time spent conversing with clients every week, every day, to get better using it.
Second, silence is powerful. Personally, learning to allow silence in conversation has been one of my biggest struggles and something I continue to work on; it’s crucial to having good conversations. If we try to fill space in conversation, regardless of the reason, we hurt the conversation.
If we ask a client an open-ended question for example, but jump in with more words to fill the space, then we didn’t give the client enough time to process our question and generate a response. So, be comfortable allowing silence in your conversations.
Finally, as a conversation is about to end, I find it helpful to ask, “What did you learn from our conversation today?” This allows the client to reflect on what was said and express something they found particularly helpful from your conversation.
For example, when I asked Larry this as our conversation was wrapping up, he expressed how much it helped having a sounding board. Being able to talk freely about stuff to someone else helped him process his thoughts better.
So remember: we can’t motivate clients to change, because people motivate themselves. But by using Motivational Interviewing we can give them a space to talk freely, feel understood, and discover their own reasons for change—to motivate themselves to change.
What to do Now
You have a good scope of Motivational Interviewing, some ideas on when to use it, and some things to consider. Now, you need some action steps.
First, practice noticing change vs. sustain talk. Don’t necessarily try to intervene, just practice noticing it. It’s the conscious awareness that’s going to help you form the dialogue.
Second, practice asking open-ended questions and affirming change talk. In the conversation I discussed above, you can see where I affirmed Larry’s change talk so that he could further motivate himself to change. You don’t necessarily have to do this with just your clients. You can do this with anyone…everyone likes to hear that they’re doing a good job and it could help your relationships away from the gym as well.
Third, practice reflections and summaries. These two skills aren’t being left for last because they aren’t valuable. It’s just that this follows a natural progression of working on the skills.