Giving advice can get a bad rap in MI. We attend to the righting reflex so much, it can almost feel illegal to offer a thought in an MI conversation.

Even more daunting, it can seem like the aim is to get to some kind of zen-like calm where we notice our opinions floating past like clouds as we stay serenely present and tuned into the person in front of us.

The reality is often far more like trying to restrain a flock of hyperactive sheep from escaping a pen with a dodgy gate. Just we think we’ve managed to keep one from getting loose, another takes the opportunity to wriggle free and make a run for it.

Where does information and advice fit in?

From an MI point of view, change is more likely when a person has a deep connection to what they want and why, and feels confident enough that the steps to get there are possible. The more the client can make these connections for themselves, the better.

At the same time, we will have thoughts, opinions, information and suggestions that we want to share. Sometimes they might even be useful to the client.

The question is more what we do with these ideas that fits within a client-centred approach instead of feeling like we’re lurching between MI and a more expert-driven practice like a bad gear change.

Finding a place for information and advice is more important than trying to eliminate them entirely. We’re not trying to kill the sheep, we just want to find a more comfortable and secure home for them where they feel less urge to escape so often.

So what can help maintain a better balance?

1.    Be kind to your sheep.

Develop a friendly relationship with the righting reflex. It just means you care and have a natural urge to help. It’s more that we know that giving in to the urge is not always the most effective way to be helpful.

2.    Stand at the gate.

Expect that you will have opinions and the urge to share them. Learn to tune into the urge, be curious about it, get to know it. Notice when the urge gets stronger. You might need to increase your efforts to evoke the client’s wisdom rather than offer your own.

3.    Find out what the other person thinks about sheep.

Ask the client what they want from you and how they think you can help. Some people have a clear idea what they want from us, and that may include information or strategies. Others will need to work that out as they go. Either way, few people want to be run over by a whole bunch of sheep.

4.    Slow the sheep down.

The aim is not to withhold all suggestions. We just want them to be a last resort, not a first resort. Try holding back the idea until later in the conversation. You can always seek permission to offer it if it still feels relevant.

5.    Give the sheep something else to do.

It’s easier to hold back ideas when you give them another role, rather than just ignore them. Our ideas can inform good open questions and reflections, for example:

Idea: Go with a friend.
Closed question: Could you go with a friend?
Open question: What might make getting more exercise more enjoyable? 

Idea: I think you’re falling into the trap of black and white thinking. There’s other way to think about this situation.
Reflection: It sounds like it was tempting to see this in black and white terms.

6.    Check if the person is ready to meet one of your sheep.

Timing makes a big difference. The idea itself might be good, but even the best advice too soon is not helpful. The person may be focused on another priority or following their own train of thought. Ideally we want people to have worked through their own thoughts to the point they are now curious for new input.

As we’ve been talking another couple of thoughts have occurred to me. Is it is OK if I share them with you?

7.    Own your sheep.

If you do offer information or advice, be clear this is your idea and you do not assume the other person will relate to it or like it. It’s just a thought you are sharing and you can now be curious what they make of it.

8.    If one sheep gets out, try not to let any more escape.

If you do give an opinion or advice, don’t sweat it, it will happen. Just try not to follow it up with more. Take a step back and try to evoke their ideas and thinking. Give yourself at least a five minute time-out before considering offering any more suggestions.

9.    If more sheep do get out, watch for traffic.

When we fill the space, the other person may feel less heard or disempowered. We risk them pushing back or withdrawing if our ideas don’t sit well with them. Return to engaging, being curious about where the person is at and what they are thinking.

10.    If the sheep keep getting out, try to find ways to strengthen your gate.

Be curious what helps you hold your ideas, and when you are more likely to let them out. We often find it harder to hold back when we are tired or under-resourced, when we are worried about risk, or when we feel optimistic about the person’s potential. Mindfulness practice can help. Taking time to focus on your intention can help. Self-care almost always helps.


"After all, when you seek advice from someone it's certainly not because you want them to give it. You want them to be there while you talk to yourself." Terry Pratchett