Openness: Motivational interviewing in mediation

Abridged version in English of the original


Motivational Interviewing, started more than 30 years ago, with over 25,000 articles published on the subject and more than 200 randomized clinical trials conducted that have shown their efficiency (Miller & Rollnick, 2013), provides us with a tool based on the respect and trust in the people to facilitate and increase motivation to change. When in a mediation process, people in a conflict are overwhelmed by their emotions of self-absorption, confrontation, anguish and closeness, and they need a professional to overcome these emotional states and be out of the conflict they are immersed in. Motivational Interviewing, as shown in this article, offers concrete strategies to act and help those in a mediation to overcome stagnations and find a way out of the entrenchment and confrontation position to collaboration, and resolve their conflict together using their abilities to the fullest.


Keywords: Motivational Interviewing, change talk, sustain talk, engaging, focusing, evoking.

1. Origin and evolution of motivational interviewing

Motivational Interviewing –hereinafter MI– started in the 80’s, although its generalisation and dissemination both in the original field of addictions and in the field of psychological issues and even in other disciplines like social work, nursing, counselling and education occurred from the 90’s on mainly as a result of the boom caused by the first edition of Miller and Rollnick’s “Motivational Interviewing” in 1991. Its further evolution can be followed thanks to two the editions of 2008 and 2013.

MI was originally linked to the transtheoretical model of change by Prochaska and DiClemente, although they are two different approaches. Following up on this model, MI states that motivation is not a personality feature but a status and, therefore, practice should adapt to the moment motivation is in.

On the other hand, MI focuses on what an aid therapeutic relationship can and must be, partially assuming some of the stances of Rogers’ client-oriented therapy, finding its place between the traditional cognitive-behavioural directiveness and Rogers’s non-directiveness. MI encourages practitioners to be able to achieve more efficient changes if based on a committed respectful relation with the client, from whom motivations for change can be obtained and reinforced. Professionals do not provide solutions to the client but get from them their own motivations thanks to a more balanced and equal relationship.

From a technical point of view, the relevant role that active listening, empathy, unconditional acceptance and reflection play shows this influence.

2. What is motivational interviewing and what are its contributions to mediation

MI is not a persuasion method aimed at clients doing something against their wish but a way to relate to people by establishing a professional aid relationship to facilitate that the exposure of their potentiality for change, based on full confidence on their abilities, which makes it similar to the goals pursued by the transformative mediation model. It proposes to return responsibility to people so that they make decisions, helping them to explore, find out and understand their motivations, leading their attention to the changes that might be useful to come out of the conflict and obtaining from “the mediatees” their own solutions to achieve this.

It is not the task of the interviewer –hereinafter mediator– to motivate the clients–the “mediatees”–, nor is it to tell them what they have to do, or solve their problems, or provide them with solutions that might seem valid for the practitioner. Indeed, this directive attitude is questioned and criticised by this model, which offers professionals the self-task to limit and control the so-called righting reflex that includes the trend to tell the client what to do. This principle is shared by mediation.

MI considers four main principles that reinforce an open, honest and close relationship between the mediator and the “mediatee”, which is reflected by the RULE acronym:

  • R – Resist the righting reflex
  • U – Understand your client’s motivation
  • L – Listen to your client
  • E – Empower to your client

To resolve a conflict, the “mediatees” and the mediator joint efforts and knowledge to meet a common goal.

However, MI is not presented as a new mediation model or school but as a way to intervene and to relate to the “mediatees”, which can be added to the already existing models.

3. Self-motivational statements: the power of change of listening to oneself

MI is based on rich foundations provided by other authors concerning the professional approach (as already mentioned, the Rogers’s influence) and the intervention strategies (active listening, empathy, avoiding discrepancies, encouraging self-efficiency), but it contributes with a clearly distinctive element: self-motivational statements, a concept that was replaced in later editions by the concepts of <em”>change talk and sustain talk. Listening to us saying what we feel, what we want to achieve and what we want to do has a high motivational value. These important verbalisations go often unnoticed in fast dialogues. The task of the mediator is, thus, to help to make them obvious and give them the relevance they deserve.

What are self-motivational statements in mediation?

  • All those expressions (either verbal or not) that are in line with stepping out of your position and having a positional attitude (Harvard).
  • All those expressions that indicate that the “mediatee” has stepped out of his/her closed narratives to play a more active and responsible role both concerning the conflict and its solution (Circular-narrative).
  • All those expressions of ability, wish to change, or showing empathy, acknowledgement and availability to cooperate that are included in the concepts of empowerment and recognition (Transformative).

4. Self-affirmation, motivation and stages of change

The task of a mediator is:

  • Helping the “mediatees” through their own verbalisations (self-motivational statements) to be aware of:
    • Their distress situation because they are in a conflict,
    • Their wish to change,
    • Their responsibility for beginning and/or maintaining the conflict,
    • The importance of a change of attitude by them to resolve the conflict,
    • The possibilities for the change to occur,
    • The availability of the other to change as well,
    • Their abilities to make changes and step out of the conflict,
    • And, lastly, to plan how to step out with their contributions and the other’s contributions and revert the current situation.
  • Showing and encouraging the motivation to change the people in the conflict really feel.
  • Making them progress in the change process from denial, entrenchment and confrontation to collaboration and a dignifying step out of the conflict.

In the following table, based on stages and sub-stages, we show the challenges a mediator has to take up with regard to the “mediatee”, what is the goal to be met to overcome this challenge, what sustain talk we might find in the “mediatee”, and what change talk we will need to seek to meet this goal. These stages and sub-stages are not compartmentalised. The “mediatees” will go back to previous stages in different moments and for different reasons, and the mediator should go back with them and not consider this it as a setback but as a normal part of the evolution towards change, in order to start progressing again and reinforce the steps forward.

5. Change talk and sustain talk: the ambivalence and the need of change

Therefore, the task of mediators is to facilitate that verbalisations and non-verbalisations (gestures, looks, nodding, body openness, etc.) can emerge in the “mediatees” and reinforce them once they appear, if they are not committed to change (change talk); and to avoid that the “mediatees” focus on listening to themselves, holding to their positions (sustain talk) and not to reinforce closeness and entrenchment.

People face change in an ambivalent state, between wanting to change and not wanting to do it. This ambivalence between “yes” and “not” is the working space of mediators.

6. The 4 processes of motivational interviewing

6.1 Engaging

Engaging is “the process of establishing and maintaining a useful helping relationship based on mutual trust and respect”. It is the first goal of MI and the most important one for the rest of goals to be met. It is a two-way relationship, from the mediator to the “mediatee” and vice versa.

It requires a great deal of deep active listening, giving oneself up honestly to understand the experience of each person in the mediation, and expressing empathy, which does not mean loss of impartiality and neutrality; these are only barriers that make the “mediatees” to grow apart from the mediators and from the possibility to self-questioning, which is necessary for the process to progress.

Engaging implies supporting, encouraging, stimulating, not false flattering or praising. It implies avoiding to judge, blame, command, advise, argue, moralise, try to convince and other attitudes that might generate among those in mediation a feeling of inability, weakness or mistrust. And above all, it implies trust in the “mediatees” and in their strengths and abilities to positively face conflicts.

6. 2. Focusing: Directiveness vs. Passivity in a Mediator

According to MI, focusing is the ongoing process of seeking and maintaining a direction, challenging and helping the “mediatees” to value what they want to do. The task of a mediator is to put a compass on the table in order to refocus attention on the movement to change, although the destination is set by the “mediatees”.

6.3. Evoking. Generating a wish to change

The “mediatees”, and not the mediators, need to give reasons to change. A mediator acts to obtain these reasons from them. Evoking consists in generating a wish to change. There is no imposition in the mediator’s intervention. A mediator does not say what the “mediatees” have to do, nor does he/she judge, assert this is the solution, rebuke or push towards a concrete destination. Mediators always suggest and create possibilities, look for motivations and explore them as they might have an evoking nature to change, open the focus of attention and allow the “mediatees” to see a different context either by acting in a different way or by anticipating potential problems if a specific behaviour is maintained.

6.4. Planning. Preparation of settlements

Planning is the moment to propose solutions and to organise how they will be implemented in the present and in a near future. It can be brainstorming, debate on solutions, or carry out final negotiations to agree upon what and how to do this.

7. Motivational dance in mediation

The change process does not occur in a stable way, i.e., once a motivational stage is passed, it is accepted and you never go back to it. On the contrary, people, who are influenced by the situation and their own life experience, can swing between these motivational stages. The task of mediators is to accompany them going back when need be to reinforce the step forward. The actions a mediator perform swing, as if they would dance, between urging and promoting change –a step forward– and accepting –step back– normal resistances. Wanting to go fast is enticing but we need to be aware of all the verbal and non-verbal signals that indicate that one or the two “mediatees” start to feel bad about moving forward. The steps they make should be often reinforced.

8. Techniques and strategies. The 4 basic skills or micro-abilities of motivational interviewing

MI has been characterised by a great number of techniques, most of which are shared by mediation as it is the case of the four basic main skills reflected by the acronym OARS. These are: Open questions, Affirmations, Reflections and Summaries. However, the use of self-motivational statements and the work to increase the desirability of goal-behaviours (change talk) and to decrease that of problem-behaviours (sustained talk or positional attitudes in mediation) are the most interesting strategies to be incorporated to mediation.

9. Conclusions

Motivational Interviewing is not only perfectly well assumable in the field of mediation but also a desirable and now real combination in the practice of many professionals.

It provides a structured way to intervene with 4 general sequential and inclusive processes that help to guide the mediators’ actions. Mainly, the work on changing the focus to take care of and generate a change talk versus a sustain talk that reinforces entrenchment and confrontation means a remarkable incorporation to the mediating activity.

It is not presented as an alternative model to the existing models but as a form of intervention that can be incorporated to the mediation practice.


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