40 Questions to ask Clients in Motivational Interviewing

A reality of being a counselor is knowing that you will meet with clients who are coming to see you because of others. Partners, children, parents, other family members, work, and legal entities can all create external motivation.  External motivations can bring a person into our office; however, this form of motivation is not usually an effective catalyst for change. When we meet with a client who is ambivalent about meeting with us or making changes to their lifestyle, motivational interviewing can be used to engage them in the session and promote exploration of their thoughts, concerns, and experiences.

Motivational interviewing, also known as MI, is a commonly used therapeutic approach that combines humanistic values with the principles of person-centered counseling. Motivational interviewing allows clients to lead counseling sessions and feel as though they are in control.

View all of our Motivational Interviewing Therapy Worksheets

Counselors who use MI believe that their clients are the experts of their own life and that they are allies that can help them reach their goals. Counselors do not use persuasion, and may not talk about mental health diagnoses.

An important component of MI is the spirit of motivational interviewing. The spirit of MI includes collaboration, evocation, compassion, and acceptance. These traits can be found in each individual session as they work to set the tone for sessions. Clients often feel safe and welcome to explore any ambivalence and concerns they may have.

MI was initially developed to work with clients who were struggling with substance use disorders. Since then, MI has been an effective approach for clients who are living with an eating disorder and those who have a dual diagnosis. MI can be used with individuals, couples, and adolescents. 

Getting Ready for Your First Motivational Interviewing Session with a New Client

To prepare for your first session with a new client, it is often beneficial to review any documents that your client has completed prior to their session. Depending on the clinical setting that you work in, you may have access to self-assessments, open-ended questions, and documents from referral sources. These documents can provide you with better insight into what has led to your client coming in to meet with you and help you formulate a plan of how you can best use your time together.

The clinical setting that you work in may have paperwork that you are expected to complete after your first session. This can include various consents of release, informed consent, and a biopsychosocial assessment. Taking time to review the paperwork that is needed can help you feel prepared and organized during your first session with a new client.

Additionally, it is important that you take time to check in with yourself and ensure that you are in a good place before sitting down with a new client. Working as a counselor can be a selfless and rewarding career. Listening to and supporting others through their challenges can take a toll on us as well. It can be a lot to carry, so it is important that we are checking in with ourselves in between clients, and engaging in regular self-care practices.  Ideas that you can use during your workday include taking deep breaths, engaging in a short meditation, taking a walk, and listening to some enjoyable music in between sessions.

Once you have a better idea of what led to your new client coming to see you, you can use your time in the session to try and determine which level of the stages of change they may fall into. This can help guide you on what motivational interviewing questions would be relevant to ask during your session. The stages of change include:

  • Precontemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Acceptance
  • Maintenance

Motivational Interviewing recognizes three characteristics among individuals who are ready for change. This includes:

  1. Having a willingness to change
  2. Having the ability to make the desired change in their life
  3. Being ready to take action to make the change that they have identified 

Having these two pieces of information can provide you with better insight into your client’s readiness to change and what would be helpful for them to cover in sessions. 

Common Motivational Interviewing Questions to Ask Clients in Therapy Sessions

Motivational interviewing questions tend to be open-ended and encourage participation from our clients. Questions to ask in motivational interviewing can help us explore our client’s concerns, experiences, and goals.

Worksheets, such as this MI Desire Question Worksheet, can be used to guide sessions and provide you with questions that would be beneficial to ask in your session.

When we effectively use motivational interviewing questions, clients may feel:

  • Understood
  • Safe
  • Accepted
  • Respected
  • Hopeful
  • Comfortable
  • Open to change
  • Willing to come for another session

Examples of questions to ask in motivational interviewing sessions include:

  1. What healthy behaviors can help you reach your goals?
  2. What are two of the best reasons you have for making this change in your life?
  3. What are three benefits that you could experience if you make this change in your life?
  4. Who do you have in your life that can support you as you work to make this change?
  5. What is the next step that you could take to work towards your goal or change?
  6. What are some of the reasons that have led to you wanting to make this change?
  7. Can you share why this change is important to you?
  8. What strengths do you have that can support you while you work towards this goal?
  9. May I sit here with you for a while? (This would be appropriate for clients who may not want to talk at that moment but appear to be in distress)
  10. What would be the most helpful thing for us to talk about today?
  11. How do you see our counseling sessions helping you work towards your goal?
  12. What coping skills can help you when you find yourself having a hard time?
  13. How can we best use our time together today?
  14. How can I support you with this today?
  15. What would you like me to know about your experience?
  16. What would you like for me to know about you?
  17. Tell me about a time when you felt as though you were doing well?
  18. What are some concerns you have about making this change in your life?
  19. Do you have any concerns at this moment?
  20. Can you tell me about any hesitations you have about making this change?
  21. What has kept you from making this change in the past?
  22. If you were to make this change in your life, what do you think some of the reasons for it would be?
  23. How do you see this change impacting your day-to-day life?
  24. How do you see this change impacting the important relationships in your life?
  25. Can you help me understand your experience with this?
  26. What are the good things about making this change, and the maybe not-so-good things about making this change?
  27. Is there anything you worry you may lose if you make this change?
  28. Have you tried to make this change before?
  29. What was your experience in the past when you tried to make this change?
  30. What do you see yourself doing next?
  31. Is there anyone you would like to know more about the change you are thinking about making?
  32. How would you describe your overall quality of life?
  33. Did I miss anything? (This would be appropriate after the use of a summary)
  34. Is there anything you would like to change or clarify? (This would be appropriate after the use of a summary)
  35. Is there anything else that you feel is relevant that you would like to share?
  36. Can you tell me more about what your motivation is for this change?
  37. Do you feel as though this motivation is self-driven, or influenced by outside forces?
  38. Can you share with me a time when you were able to do something that you thought was hard, or maybe intimidating, to do?
  39. Tell me more about what the outcome of this change would be for you.
  40. Would you like to continue working together towards your goal?

Final Thoughts On Asking the Right Questions in Motivational Interviewing

Thank you for taking the time to read this article about motivational interviewing questions. We know that motivational interviewing questions are a vital component of MI treatment. The way we phrase our questions can elicit responses and participation from clients who may not be motivated to change, ready to commit to change and those who are not interested in counseling at this time.

While motivational questions are important, there are other skills that are necessary to use. This includes affirmations, reflective listening skills, and summarizing.  OARS is an acronym used in MI to remind us of the skills that can be used. Each of these skills can help us develop and strengthen the therapeutic relationship by showing our clients that we are listening to what they are sharing with us and that we are invested.  

TherapyByPro is an online mental health directory that connects mental health pros with clients in need. If you’re a mental health professional, you can Join our community and add your practice listing here. We have assessments, practice forms, and worksheet templates mental health professionals can use to streamline their practice. View all of our mental health worksheets here.

View all of our Motivational Interviewing Therapy Worksheets

If you are interested in learning more about motivational interviewing and you can apply it to your clinical work, we encourage you to look for available training and continuing education opportunities near you. Once you have the needed knowledge and skill set, you can utilize motivational interviewing skills and strategies in your clinical work.

Kayla Loibl, MA, LMHC
Author: Kayla Loibl, MA, LMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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