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When we learn the ‘what’ of MI, we also start wondering about the ‘when’.

When should we move from building the “why” of change to exploring the “how”? When might we shift the attention from possibilities to planning? When do we offer information or suggestions?

We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the perfect host in the change conversation, knowing just the right time to clear the plates, serve the next course, offer tea. “Change talk, anyone?”

The nice thing about conversations is that we’re never alone. We’re not just there to help the client, the client can also help us.

Noticing cues

One of the first things I learnt from MI was that “yes, but…” was a sign I was probably moving too fast or becoming too directive. I was giving them something to ‘but’ against.

Equally, if the conversation started feeling stuck or bogged down, it was often a sign that I needed to try offering a little more structure or focus in the conversation.

In so many ways, clients give us verbal and nonverbal feedback on how we are going and what might be helpful for them.

Asking for guidance

When in doubt, we can also just ask. A useful skill is to offer a summary of what we have been talking about, then check in with where the client is ready to go next. We can also tailor our question to where we are in the four processes. For example, we could ask:

•    Where are you at with this now? (Engage)
•    So, what might be helpful for us to talk about in the rest of the time we have together today? (Focus)
•    What do you feel ready for us to work on? (Evoke)
•    What might be a next step for you? (Plan)

If the client isn’t sure, we haven’t wasted our time. Just asking communicates respect and demonstrates that we value their perspective and priorities.

And even if the answer is an outright “I don’t know”, we have learned something about where the client is at. We can go back to exploring their ambivalence. We can be curious about what the experience of uncertainty is like for them. We can explore whether this is the right time to talk about this or shift to another area of concern that feels more certain or more of a priority.

“When in doubt, ask”is a useful rule of thumb. The challenge is remembering to do it when we are already busy asking ourselves so many questions.

“What you seek is seeking you.” Rumi