Handling Ambivalence

Run Your Life Show With Andy Vasily

In this new Run Your Life Podcast we get Stephen Rollnick explaining Motivational Interviewing as “a way of handling ambivalence or uncertainty in someone” and once again highlighting the ordinariness of getting out of the way of others as they say why and how they might change.

For the umpteenth time this year, I find myself championing a Stephen Rollnick media appearance around Motivational Interviewing. The themes are familiar, but might prompt us to revisit a question which strikes me as more pressing on each occasion:

How might we get more stories of ordinary, everyday encounters where empathetic listening is evident?

Throughout the podcast, Stephen and his host, Andy Vasily, are refreshingly open about the “ordinariness” of the empathetic listening and other techniques being discussed. Stephen talks of how Motivational Interviewing (MI) was born out of frustration.

The emergence of MI was a conscious reaction to an unpleasant trend, and to practitioners finding themselves in situations which might seem disturbingly familiar for those of us whose experiences have been more within sports-coaching. The trend Stephen and his colleagues reacted to was towards practitioners (commonly with roles defined in ways which suggested responsibility) feeling pressure, from assorted sources, to position themselves as “experts” and to tell other what was good for them.

In this podcast, and in the book, Stephen Rollnick makes himself available to support practitioners who have felt themselves under pressure to manage change FOR people. By stressing the “ordinariness” of what’s involved, Stephen also gets us away from the notion that we need to find “exceptional” (highly talented) individuals to take on these roles. 

My challenge: that we also ask two, closely-related questions:

  1. How do we reduce the pressures on coaches to be an expert who manages change FOR people?
  2. How might we get more stories of daily encounters of non-specialists where empathetic listening is evident as a habit and disposition?

The last question is key. It’s focusing on the ordinary, everyday linkages and behaviour which all are encountering day in, day out. A few coaches being great at Motivational Interviewing would be fine and dandy, but culture informed by the insights behind Motivational Interviewing would be way, WAY more powerful! 


Stephen Rollnick is an Honorary Distinguished Professor in the School of Medicine in Cardiff University, Wales and is a co-founder of Motivational Interviewing (MI): an tried and tested approach to supporting others which sports coaches are coming to find helping athletes to thrive active participants in their own change processes.

In Coaching Athletes to Be Their Best, leading authorities in the field provide effective strategies “to fire up motivation, promote ownership of personal goals, address problem behavior on and off the field, enhance performance and improve teamwork.”

@stephenrollnick see his website. See also: Book Review by Dr Roy Sugarman of Peak Performance Neuroscience

Run Your Life Podcast Source: Run Your Life Show With Andy Vasily

Host Andy Vasily interviews leading experts in the field of education and beyond to discuss what matters most in their pursuit of both personal and professional excellence.

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Quotes from the Podcast

So They Say Why & How They Might Change Rather Than You Do

15:15 – It’s a way of speaking to people about change in which you rely on their own motivation and good reasons to change. And you create the environment, the conversational environment for them to do that, and thereby flourish. And I could put it in fancier language and talk about some of the intricacies there are. But what I observed in, in treatment environments in South Africa and the United Kingdom […] were conversations that didn’t create that environment of safety, and involved the practitioner telling the client, what was good for them. And so the conversations weren’t pleasant to be part of, which I was, […] and motivational interviewing if you like, is the polar opposite of that. So it’s a way of speaking to people so that they say why and how they might change rather than you do.

The Common Human Predicament: Someone Struggling To Change

17:45 – it’s widespread. And it sounds to me like it’s part of the human condition where somebody with good intentions is trying to help someone else who is stuck. And I can imagine that without difficulty in my home, with my children, with elderly parents, with friends, and in, in more professional circumstances, with sports coaches, teachers, and in mental health. So it’s something that you and I can agree on that it’s a very common human predicament that someone’s struggling to change. And what we uncovered, I don’t think we discovered it, but what we uncovered was hesitancy, or what we call ambivalence. This was in a clinical context. Okay. So what is very common is that someone’s feeling stuck and uncertain about change. Okay, and we use the term at the psych, the psychological term ambivalence, although it’s a widely used word, which really, which means I guess, someone feeling two ways about something, okay?

The Art of Not Trying to Resolve Problems FOR People

19:45 – But motivational interviewing is not something that you do to on someone to unlock something in them. It’s something you do on their behalf with them, where they unlock something in themselves.
And so, the art (because it’s not just a technique), the art is to effectively get up create the right conditions in a conversation of safety for them. And the art involves getting out of the way, while they unlock it for themselves.
And if people don’t feel safe, when they’re feeling uncertain or ambivalent, you can mess it up, You can mess up the conversation, you can mess up their emotional well being and outcomes – by trying to resolve the problem for them.

Supporting Change Talk

30:35 – […] that idea of rolling with resistance came from, I suppose, this, in a way, paradox, which is the worst thing to do when there’s a problem is attack it. The best thing to do is to roll with it, and come alongside someone and show them that you understand how they feel. Then there’s less resistance.

The Ordinariness of Motivational Interviewing

31:10 – I’ve seen the most brilliant teachers and sports coaches doing this naturally. Okay, without ever having heard of motivational interviewing. So most of what’s involved in motivational interviewing, it sits there in a good teacher, a good parent, a good sports coach. What we’ve done is simply give words to what this powerful way of speaking to people is, and add a few extra things on top of that, which we’ve noticed from a clinical context, make a hell of a difference.

Links with Guiding

34:00 – what I’ve realised over the years is that it’s really just a refined form of guiding. Most of the motivational interviewing sits in the values and behaviour of a good guide. A good guide will come alongside the person, not talk down of them and patronise them. A good guide will clarify what somebody wants to do and why. And a good guide will offer not impose information and advice.

On Richard Ryan’s ideas around Self Determination Theory

39:39 – Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And, and that, that Self Determination Theory and the work of of Rich Ryan, I found really useful and inspiring. And in one sense, motivational interviewing is a way of having a conversation so that you meet those three basic needs. Okay. And if you say well “How do you do that?” What is it in that conversation? Look, if I if I ask an athlete who is struggling, “How do you think you best to resolve this challenge you’re faced with?” Their answer, what we call change-talk in motivational interviewing, is an expression of their motivation to change. And that motivation is coming from inside them.

Okay, so in simple language, that’s intrinsic motivation that they are expressing rather than you, right? And motivational interviewing provides the tools for you highlighting, noticing that. Highlighting it with them. Affirming it. Asking them to explore it more, because that is, like you pouring water on a young and growing plant, or if you like, blowing into a fire that you want to get warmer by. You know, in this sense, what we’re talking about is very simple. I mean, we can drop into all sorts of complex theories and stuff. But if you ask someone, “How would you like to improve?” It’s so simple. It’s not complicated. And if you use empathic listening in response, and then you have to kind of sit on the side and listen to that conversation, you will say, but that’s a very normal conversation. And it is, it is, it’s a very normal and natural conversation.

The fact that something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. That, that I would say. So. This skill involves humility on your part, to reflect about what’s helpful, to reflect about your own emotional state and skill development, and to practice getting better and better and better at using these core skills like open questions, and particularly the empathic listening. Because that that form of listening is not just there, in order to help someone feel understood, it’s there in order to blow into the flames of change. Because just what you’re talking about is change. How you then respond using empathic listening can allow that fire to grow or knock it out. You’ve got an enormous freedom there, to encourage someone to flourish and work out a solution for themselves, or to block the process.

Is There a Different Way of Going About This?

50:10 – you’re not going to find teachers saying, really, that they went into the profession in order to manage behaviour and get good grades and students that, you know, they usually say, I went into teaching because I wanted to be part of observing and helping children thrive and grow. That’s process. And if you ask a sports coach, they’ll say something similar. I wanted to be an environment where people are having fun, and really expressing themselves and being creative and being brilliant of the sport, then talk about outcomes.

So the outcome driven aspect of our culture, in education, sport, and now in health care, and mental health care, everything is driven by outcomes is grossly dysfunctional, creates toxic as a toxic impact on both practitioners and the recipients. And it’s probably the reason why there’s so much interest in motivational interviewing, because people are wondering, hang on, is there a different way of going about this? and motivational interviewing is simply a way of getting the process of the conversation right. So that the outcomes take care of themselves