In my last post, I discussed some techniques from group therapy that are relevant when facilitating research seminars and similar group processes. In this post, I’d like to continue to share some techniques from the psychology world, specifically the framework of Motivational Interviewing (Miller and Rollnick 2013). Motivational interviewing (MI) is an interpersonal style that was originally intended for mental health professionals who were working with substance users, particularly individuals in court-mandated treatment or who were otherwise unenthusiastic about treatment. This style was created almost as a precursor to full treatment in order to increase engagement and motivation for treatment in general before jumping into additional techniques. I imagine you are wondering why I think this is relevant for facilitating research group work! Despite its beginnings, MI is now widely used across contexts as a basic communication style that facilitates rapport and engagement in ways that are helpful in any social situation. I’d like to share some of the fundamental principles and strategies that have been useful for me in the hopes of helping you facilitate your own collaborative research.  

The primary strength of the MI model is its general style of relating to other people and leading conversations. On the whole, the MI style encourages moving the conversation forward with reflections rather than questions, which is quite different than our typical conversational style. MI suggests that to motivate progress towards any kind of behavioral outcome (including writing a paper on a SoTL topic!), you should first focus on relationship building, followed by focusing on the specific outcomes you desire, and then finally evoking motivation and forward motion to move into a specific plan of action. Many of us, as academics, tend to jump right to the planning stage, but taking time to relate and build motivation is a key step we can add into our repertoires to improve our group work.  

Additionally, in order to build relationships and increase motivation, MI recommends using the OARS communication style, inclusive of open-ended questions, affirming, reflection, and summarizing. Questions can be open, meaning they allow for a variety of answers, or closed, meaning they pull for a yes/no answer. If you have a particularly chatty colleague, you may wish to pull for a shorter response 😃. Typically, though, we want to draw out more ideas and comments by asking open-ended questions, such as, “How can I help you with…?” and “What are your ideas for…?” Many folks in research and teaching tend to think this way anyway, so this approach is a good starting point.  

The second element of OARS, affirming, refers to providing positive reinforcement and encouragement, no matter how small the progress. Particularly in situations where work has stalled or interpersonal dynamics are challenging, focusing on growth and the positives you can find are important facilitators of progress. I like to think of affirming as a strengths-based approach. What are the resources, be they material or interpersonal, that we have on hand to get through our challenges in research? How can we build on and leverage our strengths to better address our weaknesses? I find that it is easy to become problem-focused, but starting with strengths can change the conversation in an impactful way.   

Reflection refers both to listening style and response style. MI heavily emphasizes reflection over other ways of responding, and it is a game changer with regard to how we interact with others. Typically, when we are participating in conversation, we listen to respond, rather than listening to reflect. We then respond with a question or some idea of our own, rather than staying with that person in that moment. When we listen intently and respond with reflection, we are allowing the speaker to hear their thoughts in a different way that can offer them new perspective and also ensure the listeners’ understanding. To reflect, one can simply repeat back what was said, or they can paraphrase and give a restated version. You can also go deeper by reflecting the speaker’s unstated meaning or by supposing the speaker’s feelings. For example, if you are in a tense situation, instead of commenting on the content of what was said, which might put you in the middle of a debate, you might say, “It seems like this is really important to you,” or “It sounds like you’re having a lot of strong feelings about this.” By paraphrasing their ideas and/or going beyond what they have said, you are first and foremost letting them know that they are being heard and seen, and additionally giving them the opportunity to refine their thoughts without pushing or directing them. Using reflective listening and responding is a great tool to help groups find common ground, hear each other, and move forward effectively. 

Finally, summarizing is an extension of reflection that allows you to pivot, advance, or close the conversation. MI recommends that you start summarizing by alerting the speaker that you are trying to make sure you’ve heard everything. Then, you focus on statements the speaker made that move the conversation forward in the desired direction, addressing any ambivalence, but also homing in on statements that drive progress. Here, you can also include any information that you wish to bring in from your own expertise or background, and then close by sending it back to the person or group to allow them to add to or edit what you’ve said. This action encapsulates what has been discussed and helps the person or group take stock and move more efficiently towards their goals. It can also highlight any remaining areas of concern or difference that need to be addressed.  

As my marching band director used to say, this is “simple but not easy.” The OARS technique is very straightforward, but it takes practice to overcome our typical conversational style and our pull to jump right into problem-solving. I encourage you to give it a try in your next group meeting! 

Works Cited 

Miller, William and Stephen Rollnick. 2013. Motivational Interviewing, Third Edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.  

CJ Eubanks Fleming is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University, where she serves as the Faculty Fellow for Internships in the College of Arts and Sciences. In this role she evaluates department- and university-level data regarding internship outcomes, shares internship best practices with faculty, and serves as a liaison between faculty/students and the university’s career center. She also serves as a seminar leader for the 2022-2024 research seminar on Work-Integrated Learning.

How to Cite this Post

Fleming, CJ. 2023. “Rowing through Collaborative Research: Listening and Responding Differently Using Strategies from Motivational Interviewing.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 26, 2023.