Using Motivational Interviewing Strategies to Help Unleash the Power of The Leadership Challenge®

Using Motivational Interviewing Strategies to Help Unleash the Power of The Leadership Challenge®

Tips and Techniques

Do you ever find yourself at a loss for words? As a trainer and teacher for the past two decades, I’ve found myself stumbling and fumbling for what to say next on more than one occasion. But in my practice of Motivational Interviewing, I’ve learned several strategies that have helped me get unglued from those sticky wickets.

The first is OARS, the foundation of all Motivational Interviewing-based conversations:

Open questions encourage the speaker to dig deeper and give more thoughtful responses.

Affirmations ask us to consider what strengths we can identify in the speaker, what we appreciate about their energy, and how those attributes may be helpful in future endeavors.

Reflections inform the speaker that they have been heard and understood.

Summaries that are brief and succinct inform others that we care enough to pay attention.

OARS become a conversational guide. They also are instrumental in creating relationships that, I believe, are at the heart of The Leadership Challenge® and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. When practiced and used mindfully, they become a navigational tool for any situation. In fact, in a previously authored article, Intentional Affirmations to Encourage the Heart, I laid out a technique for using this easy-to-institute communication skill to support the three essential behaviors associated with Encourage the Heart.

My trainer/coach tool box also includes this two-for-one strategy to help unearth a speaker’s motivation toward behavior change. DARN CATs, also known as change-talk, are elements of conversation that indicate potential change. Working within the framework of The Leadership Challenge, this approach is very helpful when coaching leaders in any of the LPI®’s 30 behaviors, The Five Practices, or the model’s corresponding 10 Commitments. As coaches and trainers, we can help leaders:

Desire…Identify the aspiration, “I want to…”, “I wish that I could…”, “I would like to…”

Ability…Recognize talents and skills, “I think I can…”, “I have in the past…”

Reason…Consider outcomes, “This would be helpful with…”, “I would be more effective if…”

Need…Acknowledge the importance or urgency of change, “I should do this because…”, “I must make this shift…”

Commitment...Vocalize the intention to make changes, “I will do this…”

Activation…Indicate a movement toward action, “I am ready willing and able…”, “I’m thinking about…”

Taking Steps… Detail specific actions already taken, “I have begun…” “I am already…”

When used with any coaching approach to behavior change, there are typically three goals we are trying to achieve:
  1. Evoke change-talk by asking guiding open questions, e.g.,:
    • “Why would you want to make this change?” (reveals desire) 
    • “How might you go about it in order to succeed?” (reveals ability) 
    • “What are three benefits that would result from this change?” (reveals reasons) 
    • “How would things be better if you made this change?” (reveals need) 
    • “What is the next step? On a scale of 0-10, how willing are you to take it?” (encourages commitment) 

  2. Recognize change-talk when it is uttered 

  3. Reflect it back once evoked 
Using either the OARS or DARN CATs strategies, I have often found that I can elicit more engagement and interest from participants in workshops and in coaching. But of course, there are still those times when a leader may express displeasure or disinterest. Fortunately, I have a tool for such opportunities—I name it! I might say, “This doesn’t feel like a good use of your time” or “You are not sure that you will benefit from this, and only you can determine that.” Often, just the act of naming it lowers the discordant energy and facilitates a meaningful dialogue that is framed with CAPE: 
    Compassion…actively promote the welfare of others, give priority to their needs 

    Acceptance…value the inherent worth and potential of everyone 

    Partnership…collaborate and explore, more than coerce 

    Evocation…draw from the speaker’s well of knowledge 
Research has shown that this medley of strategies can be effective in enhancing the potential for long-term behavior change in those we serve. Ultimately, they are tools specific to building relationships, which is at the heart of our work as coaches and trainers. 

Alan Lyme, LISW, is a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge® and Director of Training for the Phoenix Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol prevention and treatment facility in Greenville, South Carolina. A member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers, he can be reached at

You’ll find more information about these strategies in Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd ed., by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, or at



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