I was once asked this question at a post-seminar dinner at some relatively swanky Midtown NYC restaurant that I wasn’t interested in being at. Just prior to this I had given a coaching talk about Sport Psych and motivation and whatnot. I’m not going to name the “FitPro”, but it is clear that he read a book or two on the topic and decided to run out and advertise himself as a coach that “does” Motivational Interviewing (MI). At the time I let it slide, as I had just paid over $25 for a cheeseburger that was overcooked and smelled mildly like socks, so I had more important things to worry about.
Also, I think sweet potato fries are overrated unless they are accompanied with a nice pumpkin aioli.
Let me get back on track.
For those of you that are unaware, MI is counseling technique where the interviewer guides the client through an exploration of their ambivalent feelings. In this method, the therapeutic alliance allows the client work through the issue themselves, come to a conclusion as to what course they want to take to change their behavior, and eventually work with the counselor to come up with an effective plan to change their behavior. This is used a lot in addiction counseling, as it is quite good in that context.
MI is effective because it does a good job of bolstering a person’s intrinsic motivation towards behavior change. In the context of Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory, MI puts the client in the driver’s seat and gives them a great deal of autonomy. Coupled with a healthy therapeutic alliance (relatedness), this is a tour de force for change.
So, naturally, we end up with of people in the fitness and wellness industries deciding that they are going to read a book and a few articles about it and try to use it for everything under the sun, all while claiming they are experts in it.
Other industries also use it..think multi-level marketing or sales.
This is nothing new. We have seen random shit like this before, most notably when Neill Strauss and the rest of the “pick-up artists” took another psychological technique, in this case Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and applied it in a way that was, at best incorrect, and at worst dangerous. And while the subsequent crowd of undersexed man-children the resulted from this was entertaining, I also can’t help but wonder how many 4Chan, Pepe-loving Men’s Rights Activists and “Incels” this gave birth to, setting us back decades.
But it’s not just the pick-up artists. We also saw this in an entire generation of “corrective exercise” specialists that went to one seminar, learned some random anatomical fact to parrot (i.e. “Didja know the Pectoralis Major actually antagonizes itself?), and then went back to work and programmed nothing but deadbugs and bear crawls for the next 6 months while their clients made no progress. I STILL see this in gyms where trainers have their clients foam roll and fuck around for 60-minute sessions, never actually get to a single set of strength training and (in NYC) charge $125+.
Get outta here.
I’m not going to get into a full-blown discussion about the ethics behind using techniques such as anchoring and mirroring for nefarious purposes. Nor am I going to preach about scope of practice and that trainers, perhaps, should train people and leave the physical therapy to licensed practitioners. As part of my Taoist stance, I take an interesting view on right and wrong, but suffice it to say that things tend to work best when used by trained people for the purposes they were intended for.
I won’t ever claim to be an expert on MI, counseling, or even holding a coherent fucking conversation with others, but I do know that I did take Counseling Techniques classes and still don’t know shit. I also know that just because you read a book on the topic doesn’t mean you are qualified to practice it, let alone call yourself an expert. There is no such thing as “relative expertise”. Just because you know more about a topic than your client, it does not mean you are considered an expert. You are just a person that knows more.
Don’t believe me? I’ve seen more than one “intuitive” massage therapist that “doesn’t need a license” hurt someone from not knowing what they were doing, particularly someone who was already injured or had a pathology that a trained therapist would have identified in an intake and been mindful of.
The problem with MI, especially if you have a bit of formal training in it, is that you can recognize someone trying to use the technique, especially if they are doing a really shitty job of it. The closest analogy I can come to is if you were to buy a used car from a relatively unseasoned salesman. Yes, of course there are closing techniques and other areas of good salesmanship that need to be utilized, but you can totally tell if it’s forced: it’s slimy and manipulative and something just feels off.
Right out of the gate, this can DESTROY a therapeutic alliance.
Good luck getting decent outcomes after that. Assuming that the clietns doesn’t just fire you for lack of trust/confidence.
Untrained MI “practitioners” who lack experience come off as sleazy snake-oil salesman trying to actively manipulate you. As if they are reading off of a sales script to try to get you to change your behavior.
Worse yet: a tremendous amount of self-awareness and self-monitoring is required to ensure you aren’t trying to coerce the client to YOUR way of thinking. In other words, you need to have the presence of mind to understand if you are fully divorcing yourself from the outcomes of the client.
I’ve smashed trainers, coaches, fitpros and wellness practitioners for this before. What YOU want might not be what THEY want. If they are only doing what you want, well, autonomy is important.
If we examine the hallmarks of effective MI, we see that the interaction is without judgement or confrontation. The best outcomes result from a warm interaction where the other person is able to explore their ambivalent feelings and motivations and the interviewer is empathetic and listens well.
this sounds exactly like having A HEALTHY, NORMAL FUCKING CONVERSATION. Which is exactly what you SHOULD be doing if you aren’t licensed as a mental health professional in the first place.