Motivational interviewing: An evidence-based strategy for talking to teens

You may have heard the term ‘motivational interviewing’, or MI, circulating recently. Motivational interviewing is a new technique gaining popularity as an effective communication strategy, particularly when tackling challenging topics such as discussing alcohol or other drug use with teens.

Kognito’s Co-Founder, Dr. Glenn Albright, has recently been featured in several news segments to discuss motivational interviewing. Many of our interactive learning experiences teach the fundamentals of motivational interviewing, and then provide an opportunity for learners to practice using motivational interviewing through role-play conversations with virtual humans.

Keep reading for an overview of motivational interviewing — what it is, how it’s done, and why it’s an important skill for parents, caregivers, teachers, or anyone who wants to have more meaningful conversations that ignite behavior change.

What is motivational interviewing?

Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based way of communicating with people that allows them to feel comfortable and safe to open up in a conversation. There are some core components involved in this strategy, which we’ll dive into next.

Hear from Dr. Glenn Albright about motivational interviewing in a recent segment featured on NBC Tampa.


What are the core components of motivational interviewing?

Before you begin using motivational interviewing, it’s important to set up a safe environment. Dr. Albright stresses the importance of parents and caregivers setting boundaries and expectations. Trust must be established before engaging in conversation too. Motivational interviewing can be a powerful way to get children and teens to open up, but first they must feel that it’s safe to do so.

Once a safe environment has been established, there are three key components of motivational interviewing to employ:

1. Open-ended Questions

Motivational interviewing involves asking open-ended questions, questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Asking open-ended questions allows the person you’re conversing with to expand upon their answer in their own words.

Here are some examples of open-ended questions that could be used when talking to a teen about alcohol or other drugs:

  • I hear there might be alcohol at the party. What would you do if someone offered you a drink?
  • Why do you think people use drugs?
  • Do you think that occasionally using drugs is a problem?
  • How do you think alcohol and other drugs might affect your goals?

Questions like these invoke more meaningful responses than a simple “yes” or “no” and can allow the person to open up with their own thoughts and feelings.

2. Reflection

Another component of motivational interviewing is reflection, or what is often called reflective listening. By reflecting back what the other person said, or repeating in your own words what you heard, you can help the other person feel understood; not judged. This makes them more likely to open up and reveal what’s actually going on.

Here’s an example of reflecting:

  • Teen: I don’t want to drink, but I worry that if I don’t people won’t invite me to parties.
  • Parent: On one hand, you know drinking isn’t a good decision, but you also don’t want to miss out on any fun with your friends.

In the example above, the parent is showing their teen that they hear what they’re saying and that they understand their point of view. Using reflection is a great way to demonstrate empathy, interest, and understanding.

3. Affirmations

The third main component of motivational interviewing is affirmations. Affirmations are statements of appreciation and understanding. They are supportive, and help the other person feel more confident in their ability to change their behavior.

Here are some examples of affirmations:

  • Thank you for being honest with me.
  • I know these conversations can be hard, and I appreciate you opening up.
  • You are a strong person, and handled that situation very well.

One study found that when therapists used affirmations, it both increased change talk (the client moving toward change) and reduced sustain talk (the client maintaining the status quo).

Is motivational interviewing effective?

Motivational interviewing is an effective technique that’s used by mental health professionals, social workers, healthcare professionals, teachers, parents, and more.

A meta-analysis of 21 independent studies representing nearly 5,500 participants found that motivational interviewing is an effective intervention for adolescent substance use behavior change.

Another meta-analysis that reviewed studies surrounding motivational interviewing applied to health behaviors other than substance use (sexual risk behavior, physical activity, diet) also found the method to be an effective means to elicit behavior change.

There are numerous studies that prove the efficacy of motivational interviewing in a variety of scenarios. This technique is gaining traction in many different fields for a reason!

The value of practice

As Dr. Albright said in his interview with ABC Portland, “Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based communication strategy that’s very simple to follow, but you have to practice using it.”

Our role-play simulations allow learners to practice applying communication strategies like motivational interviewing in a safe environment through the use of virtual humans.

For example, our Substance Use for Parents & Caregivers simulation helps parents and caregivers initiate conversations about healthy choices and substance use, which in turn has a strong positive influence on adolescent decision-making. Playing the role of a parent or parental figure, learners practice talking with a teenager about drinking, healthy choices, and decision-making.

Learn more about our engaging role-play simulations at Or better yet, walk through a product demo to experience the power of simulation.

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