Motivational interviewing: bringing empathy to school

A school whose staff and students know how to listen and speak to each other – showing empathy and understanding – is likely to be a happy place, Andy Williams says. He explains how the technique of motivational interviewing can be used as a positive way to encourage people to make changes
15th November 2019, 12:05am
Do You Want A Culture Of Openness?
Andy Williams


Motivational interviewing: bringing empathy to school

Simon is struggling, finding it tough to control the behaviour in his classroom. His line manager, Laura, suggests that they have a chat after school.

At the meeting, Laura's approach is a positive one, in the style of a curious guide. She is careful not to slip into the role of rescuer, sympathiser, expert adviser or interrogator. She simply listens for feelings and needs, and shows understanding and empathy. Using open questions, affirmation, reflection and summary, she allows the conversation to unfold.

Eventually, after a bit of careful and skilled reflection from Laura, Simon says: "Yes, that's exactly how I feel. You've got me."

As school leaders, we need to take a close, honest look at our institutions' capacity for healthy relationships. Do staff and students know how to listen and speak to each other? Do the school's values bring people together or keep them apart? Is the leadership creating the conditions necessary for trust and safety?

Taking a motivational interviewing (MI) approach, like Laura in the above situation, can help. MI is a set of skills used in conversations about change, and it is founded on the belief that people can change and have the skills to do it.

MI emerged in the 1980s in the addiction therapy field, moving the process away from the culture of trying to effect change through confrontation and persuasion. The clinical psychologists who developed the approach, Stephen Rollnick and William Miller, realised that this challenge wasn't unique to addiction; MI was then adopted in fields including healthcare, social care, criminal justice, sport and education.

In practice, MI works around four processes, which are like steps in a conversation: engaging, focusing, evoking and planning.

  • Engaging: this is the process of actively establishing a connection and a helpful working relationship.
  • Focusing: the step in which the participants in the conversation decide what change to talk about and which direction the discussion should go in.
  • Evoking: the process of drawing out ideas about why and how to change.
  • Planning: the final process of helping the person to decide how to make the change, what to do and when.

How can you put this into action? Let's go back to Laura and Simon.

The focusing process happens in stages here, provided each time by Laura but with Simon's agreement. She asks questions such as: "How would you like things to improve?"

For Simon, it's like there's a committee meeting of competing voices inside his head; he has ideas of how he would like to change but many reasons why he can't.

The calm, non-judgemental atmosphere means Simon is able to air these conflicting feelings. And because Laura is accepting of those feelings and is communicating a genuine, empathetic response, the conversation is able to make progress (otherwise he might use defensive language that is protective of his self-esteem).

Laura is listening carefully for change talk (reasons for change) and sustain talk (reasons not to change), and uses reflection to guide Simon towards further motivation for change. She avoids jumping to the planning stage, as this could unwittingly disempower Simon and elicit further uncertainty and backtracking.

Instead, Laura uses carefully worded open questions, such as: "What would change feel like?" and looks for opportunities to affirm. She lets his responses guide her. She summarises his responses to move the conversation on from focusing and evoking to planning for change.

Again, Laura uses open questions, this time things such as: "What one or two things are going to work best for you?" and "How exactly might you go about that?" She offers choices and asks permission before sharing suggestions (because advice is better received when it has been asked for).

Then she summarises once more. To summarise well means listening and noticing the key points, showing the speaker that they've really been heard and understood. It highlights the positive points about change and moves the conversation in a direction that supports and encourages it.

And so, Simon leaves the room feeling positive and empowered to make changes.

MI is not a panacea or a trick; it's not something that is done to people but done with them on their behalf. It can be a school-wide initiative or used to improve other efforts that are congruent with the spirit of MI (I'm now working with five pilot clusters to train staff and develop MI-based relationships policies in their schools).

When thinking about integrating an MI approach into a school, it's helpful to remember the old adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast. For conversations to be effective, leaders need to review the systems that support relationships across the school. Is performance management set up in a way that allows for these conversations? Are rewards and sanctions systems in line with these ideas?

Culture change is not easy. But if a school can promote and encourage emotional and cognitive literacy in students and staff, creating a community of people able to express their thoughts, feelings and needs without fear of punishment or expectation of reward, then it is far more likely to be home to secure, happy learners and leaders.

Andy Williams worked as a teacher for 28 years, winning the prestigious Teacher of the Year Award in 2000. Until July 2018, he was deputy headteacher at Monmouth Comprehensive in Wales. He will be leading a workshop on motivational interviewing on 25 November in Cardiff. For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline "Want a culture of openness and honesty? You can do it MI way"

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