Harness Ambivalence to Make a Change

Harness Ambivalence to Make a Change

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Resolving Ambivalence is the Key

Caught in the ambivalence trap of making a tough personal change? Do the contradictory feelings of: I want to… I don’t want to… sound familiar? Don’t feel bad-you’re not alone. Feeling 100% about something important is the exception, not the norm.

Sometimes the ambivalence is never resolved, but when it is, the results are magic. Like flipping a switch, what seemed nearly impossible just falls into place. The pounds start dropping off, the cravings for nicotine seem manageable, the recovery program for alcohol and drug addiction starts to make sense.

Is it possible to resolve ambivalence in just one interview? William R. Miller, Ph.D. says it is. Motivational Interviewing is the process he developed to prepare people for making challenging behavior changes. Used extensively with alcoholics and drug addicts, the results are dramatic: People who have had one Motivational Interview at their intake of treatment were rated by staff as more motivated. Not only that, they also have double the abstinence rate of those who did not have a Motivational Interview. “Two interviews are even better than one,” Miller concedes.

“It’s astonishing–I would not have believed it, had I not seen it in my own data–that you could talk to someone who had a self destructive behavior pattern going on for a decade or more, and in the course of a conversation, see the person turn a corner.” These outcomes defy the belief system of psychology, his own profession–that more therapy is almost always better.

Teeter-Totter of Change

Struggling with ambivalence is like being on a teeter-totter. One minute one argument makes sense and the next minute the opposite argument tips the balance. People argue with themselves because there are costs and benefits to both sides. Alcoholics and drug addicts typically recognize that there are valid reasons for changing their behavior, but there are also reasons not to. In Motivational Interviewing, this conflict is embraced, not challenged. Instead of trying to convince the alcoholic or drug addict of the benefits of a particular course of action, social workers using Motivational Interviewing techniques help them to weigh the plusses against the minuses.

Margo Hendrickson, LCSW, encounters ambivalence all the time in her work as the Manager of Clinical Services at the University of Pennsylvania Treatment Research Center. Using Motivational Interviewing, she helps drug addicts and alcoholics weigh it out: “Gee, it seems that you really, really like what alcohol does for you. You like the feeling that it gives you. I wonder if we could get this down on paper? Then I would like to have you weigh it out for yourself, here today, what you want to do. What are the good things about continuing to drink and what are the not so good things?”

In her experience, an alcoholic may have two or three things on his list that he likes about drinking, such as: I like the high; I like being with my friends; I am more social. There usually is a longer list of more serious reasons to give it up, such as: My wife is always mad at me; I have a DUI hanging over my head; My kids don’t respect me anymore; My boss is on my case. Hendrickson claims, “It is that simple.”

Activating Motivation

Miller explains that once the person has weighed out the costs and benefits of making the change, the Motivational Interviewer then asks him or her to make the argument for change. It doesn’t matter what stage of change he is in. In fact, Motivational Interviewing is particularly effective for people in the early stages of change, when they tend to be sensitive to being lectured and resent feeling forced to make a change.

A typical way to have them make their argument for change using Motivational Interviewing is to pose the question: On a scale of 0 to 10, how important is it for you to change your drinking behavior? In response to the answer–say it is a 5-a follow-up question is asked: Why are you at a 5 and not 0? The answer to that question is their reasons for change.

Miller cautions not to ask the obvious question: Why are you at a 5 and not a 10? The answer to that question is the reasons against change. “Fundamentally, I want the arguments for change coming in the client’s voice and not from me. The natural expected outcome of my making the argument for change is for the client to argue against change. Not because they are so sick and pathological, but because that is human nature. If you are ambivalent about something and someone takes up one side of the argument, you take up the other side. That might be OK, except we tend to believe ourselves. You hear yourself talk and you get committed to what you hear yourself saying. And so, if you cause people to argue against the need for change, you are actually moving them away from change. Confrontational approaches are counter therapeutic. They move people in the wrong direction.”

G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington has seen this work effectively in the program he developed for students who are binge drinkers. After two Motivational Interviews students in his program not only alter their binge drinking behavior, but four years later they still behave significantly differently from students who did not receive Motivational Interviews.

Debunking Denial

The treatment of substance abuse is fraught with beliefs about denial. Miller says that when he first started studying treatment approaches for alcoholics, he read that alcoholics are liars, in denial, pathologically defensive and impossible to work with. But that view didn’t square with his experience. Trained in the client-centered approach of Carl Rogers, Miller did his best to listen and understand what the alcoholics he was working with were telling him. He asked how they had gotten where they were, where they saw themselves going in the future, and what they thought about their situations. “By virtue of ignorance, I fell into reflective listening as a way of understanding the stories of these people with alcoholism.

“And it dawned on me eventually that the way you treat people had a large effect on the way they behaved.” Denial, Miller believes, is a reflection of the person they are talking to. “It takes two to deny. Nobody stands on the beach alone and denies. If you approach someone by saying, ‘You’re an alcoholic and you had better stop drinking,’ the natural human response is to deny. If you come to them in a respectful manner that assumes that they make choices about their lives and it is in their hands, that they’re smart people who have reasons for what they are doing and also have within them the motivation for change, you get a very different response.”

Dance of Discrepancy

Miller describes how change is motivated by the discrepancy between where you are and where you want to be. A bigger discrepancy leads to stronger motivation for change. Hendrickson finds herself reflecting back discrepancies to her clients all the time. “They come in and tell me how drugs are ruining their life and then in the next breath they are telling me that they don’t think that they can quit. I reflect that back to them: I am not sure that you are going to do this. What do you think?” In Motivational Interviewing that is described as “rolling with resistance.” Hendrickson says that when discrepancies are reflected back to them, people turn around. A typical response is: “What are you talking about? That is why I am here!”

Miller explains that there is an interdependency between discrepancy and ambivalence. Without some discrepancy there is no ambivalence. For some people, the first step toward change is to become ambivalent. Ambivalence may look like an obstacle, but actually it is ambivalence that makes change possible. “Motivational interviewing is like dancing. Rather than struggle against each other, the partners move together smoothly. The fact that one of them is leading is subtle and is not necessarily apparent to the other. Good leading is gentle, responsive, and imaginative.”

We’re in This Together

Michael Chenkin, MSW, LCSW, LCADC is a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed clinical drug and alcohol counselor in private practice in New Jersey. He was among the first group of people trained as a trainer for Motivational Interviewing in 1993 by Miller and his colleague and coauthor Stephen Rollnick. Since that time Chenkin has been using Motivational Interviewing in private practice and in psychiatric facilities with people with co-occurring disorders. Sold on the value of the Motivational Interviewing approach, he says, “What surprised me was how simple, how elegant it was.”

“When I use the methods of Motivational Interviewing people respond as if they have never been listened to before. People say, ‘I really appreciate this. You are really hearing what it is that I have to say.’ For many people that experience is rare or maybe not existent in their lifetime. It also stands in contrast to how substance abuse treatment tends to be done, which is: ‘You don’t know anything; listen to me.’ Or in another words, ‘Do as I say or you are going to fail.’ It seems so common sense, but very often that is not the treatment experience of clients-to be listened to and treated the way that you would want to be treated.”

Usually we think of motivation as an internal process. If someone doesn’t follow through in making a change, we tend to think that it is the result of a personal failing. Miller sees it differently. He believes that motivation is an interpersonal process-something that arises from the interaction of two people.

Hendrickson says that a metaphor that has helped her understand this distinction is to think of sitting next to a client, pulling your chair along side them and looking at an imaginary album of their life, rather than sitting across from a client. You explore their album. As you page through it together, you are collaborating with them on what the client wants to do next in their life.

“I think that our clients feel more respected. They will say to me, that I am not trying to get them to do something. It is all about really listening to the client and then helping them to make the change that they want to make, not that I want to make. I don’t put forward my agenda-it has to be their agenda. We meet the client where they are at and move from there.”

Marlatt echoes Hendrickson’s view: “The students like it and they recommend it to their friends, and if they are mandated into it, at the end they say, ‘You know, this was helpful, I liked it.’ It is not what they expected, which was for someone to say, ‘That’s it!”

The key from Miller’s perspective is to be genuinely interested in and curious about the person’s own motivations for change. Questions that are likely to be asked in a Motivational Interview include: What do you want in your life? Where would you like to be 5 years from now? Why would you want to change your drinking? If you decide to stop drinking or stop using cocaine, how would you do it? What reasons do you have?

“Rather than telling the person how to make a change, I’m curious to know what they would do. And you know what? People are pretty smart about these things. Often they have a good sense about what would be the most successful way for them if they decide to do it.”

Resonance with Social Work

When Chenkin started using Motivational Interviewing with his clients he was struck by how consistent it is with social work. “I said to myself, ‘Boy, if this isn’t social work, I don’t know what is!” The client-centered approach that is the hallmark of social work is reflected in Motivational Interviewing, as are the social work values of starting where the client is and the right to self-determination. “It is right out of our book,” comments Hendrickson. Marlatt sees Motivational Interviewing as compatible with social work because it is not a top-down, authoritarian approach.

Motivational Interviewing seems to integrate well with other treatment interventions. It has been particularly useful in managed care settings, where treatment sessions are limited and with clients where early dropout rates tend to be high. Motivational Interviewing increases the likelihood that a person will return for additional treatment.

Miller says that Motivational Interviewing has proved to be useful in thorny social work problems, including child protective services cases. “The more adversarial the situation, the bigger the advantage. With court mandated clients, for example, we find that this is so much better than trying to make anyone do something. It is not a way of tricking people. It is a way of engaging their own interest and motivation in what they want in life and putting that side by side with their current situation and saying, ‘What do you want to do?”

“I want to change…I am not sure I want to.” It all starts there and a creative listener can tip the balance.

Author:   Dr. Lynn K. Jones

Certified Personal and Executive Coach

Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach based in Santa Barbara, California and a sought after coach and consultant for organizations and individuals across the US.   Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values using a process of Appreciative Inquiry.  She coaches individual on achieving their reflected best selves.  An MSW@USC faculty member, Dr. Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment.