Incorporating Motivational Interviewing into Career Counseling

By Liz Lierman

Motivational Interviewing (MI) was originally developed by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick, and has been used with a variety of client populations. It is an approach designed to overcome ambivalence and motivate clients for change. By using MI principles and techniques, a career counselor can work effectively with clients who demonstrate a range of motivation levels for career goals.


A practitioner using MI embraces three main assumptions:


  1. That counseling involves collaboration between the client and the practitioner.

  2. That the client has the motivation and resources needed for change, and one of the central tasks of counseling is evocation of these elements.

  3. That the client has autonomy, and should be encouraged to make his or her own decisions.


MI is client-centered, but has the specific goal of preparing people for change. The counselor actively works to increase the client’s motivation for change in four ways:


  1. Expressing Empathy: Using reflective, respectful listening with an attitude of acceptance.

  2. Developing Discrepancy: Eliciting and strengthening the client’s own arguments for change, and the client’s recognition that he or she will have to do something differently to achieve a goal.

  3. Rolling with Resistance: Turning or reframing a client’s opposition, rather than arguing with the client on behalf of change.

  4. Supporting Self-Efficacy: Believing that the client is capable of change, and as a result, helping to enhance the client’s confidence.


Using MI as a Career Counseling Framework


For ambivalent clients, MI can be a helpful approach to use during multiple sessions. Other clients already have substantial motivation for a specific career direction, and a high-speed version of MI may be more useful. With motivated clients, spend a few minutes exploring the reasons and goals for the session. Use reflective listening to develop rapport, and take a few more minutes to elicit and strengthen the client’s excitement about the prospect of change before moving into the rest of your session. Below are some techniques I have found helpful for incorporating MI into career counseling, including strategies to elicit and strengthen motivation for career change.


  1. Self-Awareness: During appointments with clients, ask yourself:

    • “Are the goals and motivations for change being offered by the client?” If not, formulate open-ended questions or reflective statements that help to draw out the client’s thoughts about change.

    • “Am I collaborating with my client?” If it feels like you’re doing most of the work, or if the client has come with a laundry list of questions, make time for moving out of the expert role and exploring the knowledge the client brings to the session.

    • “How am I feeling about this client?” If you’re having doubts about whether the client will actually complete the steps you are discussing, remind yourself of the client’s capacity to make effective decisions, and express confidence in the client’s ability to follow-through.

  2. Start with Barriers, Move Toward Change: When exploring both sides of a client’s ambivalence, start by exploring the barriers to change. This allows for the conversation to naturally move away from barriers toward the reasons for change. Some examples of questions that are useful in exploring both sides of ambivalence and eliciting arguments for change are:

    • “What do you find stressful about the job search?”

    • “On a scale of 0 to 10, how important is it to you to make this career change?” Follow the client’s response by asking “What would it take for you to go from that number to a higher number?”

    • “What do you imagine is the worst thing that could happen if you stay in your current job?” followed by, “Let’s say that six months from now, you tell me that you’ve started a job that is ideal for you. Describe what your life will be like.”

  3. Reframing Resistance: How many times have you had a discussion with a client who seems excited about the steps she can take to work toward her career goals, only to hear her say afterward, “I don’t know how I’ll be able to do all of this”? Next time this happens, don’t respond by automatically breaking down the steps into smaller, more manageable items, or by providing encouragement. Instead, bring the conversation back to the career objective by reflecting her concern and her goal. For example, “Looking for a job where you’ll be able to help others seems overwhelming, and it’s very important to you to move into this type of work so that you can feel more fulfilled.”

  4. Self-Efficacy Exercise: When a client expresses reluctance to apply for a job he says he would love because he doesn’t feel qualified, look at the description together, ask for examples of times he’s used the skills in the description, and reflect and affirm his statements of his skills. After several examples, ask what he thinks about his level of qualification. Often, his self-efficacy and motivation to pursue the job will have increased.

  5. End with a Question: Close your sessions by using an open-ended question to strengthen your client’s commitment to change. For example, “What do you think you’ll do next?” or, “What can you do this week to get closer to your goal?”



Miller, G. (2010). Using motivational interviewing in career counseling. Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association.

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.


Liz LiermanLiz Lierman is an Associate Director for the Office of Career Services at Oberlin College, where she provides career counseling, pre-law advising, and frequently presents on career development topics. Liz holds a BA in Psychology from Williams College, master’s degrees in Social Administration and Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University, and is a Licensed Social Worker. Liz can be reached at liz.lierman@gmail.com.


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Faith Sheaffer-Polen   on Wednesday 04/18/2012 at 10:36 AM

Liz - I have had a plethora of ambivalent career transition candidates over the last few months. Many mixed messages of: financially I need a job or I will lose my home and then being stuck in a pattern of discussing what they need to do, hammering out a plan, and then...nothing. Thank you for a few more tools to help me "unstick" them. I have researched this topic a bit and it was a great reminder to go back and review it again. Kind regards -

Liz Lierman   on Thursday 04/19/2012 at 12:47 PM

Faith - Thanks very much for your comment. As you mention, I have found MI techniques to be quite useful in working with clients whose ambivalence is apparent through behavior as well as words. I'm glad the article was helpful, and thanks again for your remarks. Best wishes - Liz

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