Motivational Interviewing: 3 simple steps to lasting change

As an instructor, how many times have you found it difficult to convince your students to change their fitness routines or try something new? Most of us encourage change by pleading our case based upon the goals that we assume our students have. Sometimes this works, but more often it doesn’t. Why not?

All too often, we assume that as Spinning® program experts, we inherently know what motivates people without asking them. The problem with this mindset is that when we do all of the talking, we miss what is most important to our students and run the risk of pointing them in a direction that isn’t right for them. 

Motivational interviewing, a technique that is widely used in counseling, can help Spinning instructors facilitate success with even the most challenging students. Motivational interviewing is defined as a direct, client-centered counseling style that aims to elicit behavioral change by helping clients explore and resolve ambivalence. Developed in 1991 by Stephen Rollnick, Ph.D. and William R. Miller, Ph.D., the tactic’s original intention was to help problem drinkers.  Today motivational interviewing is widely used by psychologists, dietitians and other health professionals. By understanding three of motivational interviewing’s key components, you’ll facilitate more productive dialogue and goal setting with your students.

1. Employ Open-Ended Questions
Closed-ended, “yes or no” questions rarely lead to new and useful information and have the potential to direct individuals to answer in a certain way. Open-ended questions tend to yield information and insight that will better enable you to help your students.

2.  See Both Sides
Another key component of motivational interviewing involves exploring the pros and cons of a specific behavior change. For example, if beginning an exercise program was the change in question, ask your student to weigh the pros and cons of inactivity against the pros and cons of beginning an exercise program.

By completing this exercise you'll be better equipped to use motivation strategies specific to your student's set of values and beliefs. Additionally, this gives you an opportunity to dispel any myths or misconceptions. In many cases your student may become motivated through verbalizing and/or seeing their own list of pros and cons regarding a specific change.

3.  Prioritize
Once a list of pros and cons is determined, you can integrate importance and confidence scales.  For example, if you’re working with an inactive person you might ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it that you become active?” and then work to figure out why the student answered the way that they did. You’ll also want to determine what would need to happen for the importance to increase or decrease. Again these questions are open-ended, inviting your student to do most of the talking.

Your student’s confidence regarding his or her ability to achieve their goals can be assessed in a similar way.  For instance, you might ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you can achieve your goal?” This gives you the opportunity to delve into what factors would be needed to increase the student’s confidence level for success. 

Finding out more about our students is critical for their success—and yours as an instructor. Using open-ended questions, creating a student-produced list of pros and cons and employing importance and confidence scales can go a long way towards facilitating change. If nothing else, remember that the best chance for success comes from finding out more about the students we work with before attempting to help them. 

Jennifer Ward, RD, LDN, CLC has been a Spinning Master Instructor for 7 years and is the author of the Spinning 8-Week Weight Loss Program She resides in Pittsfield, MA with her husband and baby boy, Brendan. She can be contacted at

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