Motivational Interviewing: An Intervention for At-Risk College Students Seeking Career Services

By Mary-Catherine McClain

Research shows that motivation is positively correlated with college performance, academic discipline, and future occupational success. It is critical that practitioners and educators direct more attention toward implementing practices that focus specifically on increasing client motivation and behavior change—thus maximizing graduation rates and minimizing future educational, occupational, economic, and personal consequences (Miller & Rose, 2009; Willis 1994). Motivational Interviewing (MI) is one approach that is used to help clients engage in the career planning process.


What Is Motivational Interviewing?


While the significance of motivation in information-seeking behavior, such as choosing a college major, has been widely recognized by educators and researchers, motivating students to achieve is not an easy task (Weiler, 2004). MI represents a directive, client-centered therapeutic style that counselors utilize with clients exhibiting opposing behaviors and thoughts by exploring and resolving client ambivalence. Key principles and strategies included in this approach are outlined in the following sections (Ahronovich, Amrhein, Bisaga, Nunes, & Hasin. 2008).


Principles & Strategies


Motivational interviewing is characterized by four guiding principles:

  1. Expressing Empathy serves to enhance client acceptance for who he/she is and what he/she has done previously. Reflective listening is often utilized and ambivalence is accepted as a normal process rather than as a personal defect (Miller & Rollnick, 2002).

  2. Developing Discrepancy enables the client to hear himself/herself arguing for change rather than feeling forced or pressured to change by others (e.g., parents, counselors). Change is motivated by discrepancies between current behaviors/decisions and important goals, values, or personal beliefs.

  3. Rolling with Resistance emphasizes inviting new perspectives rather than opposing views, and avoids arguments with respect to change. Resistance serves as a sign that counselors should shift their approaches.

  4. Supporting Self-Efficacy permits clients to feel hopeful about the ability to change and also acknowledges personal responsibility in executing changes. Practitioners can express personal beliefs that the clients have the power to change.


In addition to these guiding principles, Miller and Rollnick (2002) devised four general strategies for clients in motivational interviewing contexts. For the purposes of building motivation early during the therapeutic relationship, the following methods were developed: Open-ended questions, Affirmation, Reflecting, and Summarizing (OARS). It is critical that clients are asked open-ended questions and that attempts to change are affirmed. Counselors play a significant role in identifying strengths and resources, as well as responding reflectively, restating, and recapping important information shared by the client. The following paragraphs will demonstrate how change talk can be elicited using these strategies within a career counseling context.


Why Use Motivational Interviewing in Career Counseling?


Clients seeking career services commonly report that a lack of motivation plays a significant role in preventing action and overall progress (Borgen & Maglio 2007). Previous research suggests that motivational interviewing can be used for a variety of clients seeking career counseling (e.g., choosing a major, searching for a job) as well as supports its use for low readiness clients who are currently unemployed (Muscat, 2005).


General Career Counseling Uses


Based on current research (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2009), motivational interviewing can be applied throughout a client’s career planning process. Clients can be helped to become more aware of the need to make a career decision, whether in relation to selecting a major, choosing a study abroad program, or finding a job. Additionally, principles can be incorporated to facilitate the identification of career alternatives or the implementation of an occupational choice. Alternatively, clients could be served by gaining self-knowledge or learning how to make tentative choices regarding employment or graduate school.


Low Readiness Clients


Internal and/or external factors likely contribute to clients presenting with low readiness, and it becomes critical to assess and acknowledge this lack of readiness to avoid misunderstanding or misreading client behaviors (e.g., resistance in the form of arguing). Some factors that contribute to this behavior and examples of client resistance in career counseling contexts are described in the following section.


Client Factors and Resistant Types


Resistance can be observed through both verbal and non-verbal behaviors; counselors may work with clients who are passive or dependent, while others must tackle tardiness or cope with argumentative clients (Patterson & Forgatch, 1985). Are these behavior patterns related to external factors such as interpersonal and organizational coercion, or are they caused by internal factors related to low readiness, lack of confidence, mistrust, narcissism, perfectionism, or dominance (Sampson, Peterson, Reardon, & Lenz, 2000)? Whether these factors are presented independently or interdependently, practitioners must minimize client resistance. Practitioners should “roll” with resistance in the counseling context by exploring the client’s perspectives and not challenging or arguing over specific causes. To identify and successfully resolve resistance, one must be aware of specific types or forms of client resistance. Based on existing literature, the following depicts a model of the 4R’s in client resistance:



(Concerned with Unknown, Sees Disadvantages of Changing)


(Low Energy for Change, Overwhelmed, Hopeless)


(Has All the Answers, Arguing, Minimizes Problems)


(Invested Energy NOT to Change, Inattention, Coercion)


Based on these types of resistance, how should the career counselor respond? Using principles found in motivational interviewing, some suggestions are:

  • Reluctance: Use simple reflections for the purpose of repeating statements in a neutral way

  • Resignation: Shift the focus from barriers to strengths; reframe the client’s words with a different perspective

  • Rationalization: Restate what the client has said, pointing out discrepancies or contradictions based on past thoughts (e.g., double-sided reflection)

  • Rebellion: Repeat the client’s statement in an amplified or exaggerated manner; emphasize that it is the client who is in control of changing behaviors


Whether clients are mandated to participate in career counseling by advisors or parents, or they experience fear or vulnerability from the unfamiliar, or have been exposed to previous negative experiences within counseling settings, practitioners may observe client behaviors in the form of arguing, challenging, interrupting, passivity, inattention, silence, denial, or excuse-making. One solution for decreasing this dissonance and resistance is incorporating motivational interviewing principles into practice. For example, counselors should avoid persuading the client to change as well as assuming the expert role. Furthermore, it is important to eliminate blaming, criticizing, and lecturing. Upon adoption of motivational principles (e.g., expressing empathy), it is likely that a client’s intrinsic motivation for change will improve.  Click here for specific examples demonstrating the applicability of motivational interviewing within a career counseling context


While information seeking is a highly subjective process and selecting a major or occupation can be challenging, several strategies can be used to assist clients. Non-resistant and low readiness clients (including resistant clients) seeking career counseling can be guided using motivational interviewing. Future research should focus on how this directive, client-centered approach can be applied across career counseling concerns, and evaluate which skills and techniques are most important in helping clients become ready, willing, and able to make career-related decisions.



References and Additional Resources


Ahronovich, E., Amrhein, P., Bisaga, Nunes, & Hasin. (2008). Cognition, commitment language, and behavioral change among cocaine-dependent patients. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22, 557-562. doi: 10.1037/a0012971.


Arkowitz, H., Westra, H., Miller, W., & Rollnick, S. (2008). Motivational interviewing in the treatment of psychological problems. New York: Guilford Press.


Borgen, W., & Maglio, A. (2007). Putting action back into action planning: Experiences of career clients. Journal of Employment Counseling, 44, 173-184.


Engle, D., & Arkowitz, H. (2006). Ambivalence in psychotherapy: Facilitating readiness to change. New York: Guilford Press.


Miller, W., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational Interviewing (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.


Miller, W. & Rose, G.(2009). Toward a theory of Motivational Interviewing. American Psychologist, 64(6), 527-537. doi: 10.1037/a0016830.


Muscat, A. (2005). Read, set, go: The transtheoretical model of change and motivational interviewing for “fringe” clients. Journal of Employment Counseling, 42, 179-191.


Niles, S., & Harris-Bowlsbey, J. (2009). Career development interventions in the 21st century (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


Numerous Motivational Interviewing resources: http://www.motivationalinterview.org/


Patterson, G. R., & Forgatch, M. S. (1985). Therapist behavior as a determinant for client noncompliance: A paradox for the behavior modifier. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53(6), 846-851.


Sampson, J., Peterson, G., Reardon, R., & Lenz, J. (2000). Using readiness assessment to improve career services: A cognitive information processing approach. The Career Development Quarterly, 49, 146-174.


The Values Card Sort found at http://motivationalinterview.org/library/valuescardsort.pdf


Weiler, A. (2004). Information-seeking behavior in generation Y students: Motivation, critical thinking, and learning theory. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31, 46-53. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2004.09.009.


Willis, B. (1994). Distance education strategies and tools. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs.



Mary-Catherine McClainMary-Catherine McClain, Ed.S, M.S., is a career advisor in the Career Center at Florida State University and a current doctoral student in the combined Counseling Psychology and School Psychology program. The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful contributions of Dr. Sampson, Dr. Carr and Dr. Lenz to this work. She may be reached at the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, College of Education, Florida State University, 3210 Stone Building, Tallahassee, FL 32306. Phone: 864-934-2322; Email: mcmmcclain@gmail.com; Fax: 850-644-3273.

Printer-Friendly Version


MAS MAS   on Thursday 12/02/2010 at 12:03 AM

Short, sweet, and full of useful info.

Mary Ghilani   on Friday 12/03/2010 at 01:58 PM

Excellent article! Thanks for the helpful tips.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.