Motivational Interviewing Cheat Sheet

Click here to learn more about motivational interviewing and the cheat sheet for mental health professionals to utilize during their sessions.

By Chloe Smith on Jul 15, 2024.


Fact Checked by Ericka Pingol.

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Motivational Interviewing: The basics

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a great way to communicate and initiate positive patient contact. The overall goal of motivational interviewing is to close the therapeutic gap between the individual and the therapist to allow for success with personal goals and search for common ground between their willingness to cooperate and their responses towards change.

The core collection of MI principles is based on respect, change talk, being able to listen, express empathy, roll with resistance, and support self-efficacy.

MI listens to what the client has to say and how they can go ahead and make positive changes towards their goals. It's designed to enhance their willingness to change and confirm their motivation and resources for change.

During this guide, we'll explore the main facets of MI more. This is the OARS system. This system supports therapists in making significant progress with their patients and enhances their intrinsic motivation.

You can follow this link to learn about MI and its main principles.

Motivational Interviewing Cheat Sheet Template

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Motivational Interviewing Cheat Sheet Example

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What is OARS?

OARS is the acronym for the four basic tools that make motivational interviewing effective in therapy sessions. Let's go ahead and discuss them in further detail.

OARS: Open questions

Open questions are a standard therapy tool that mental health practitioners can utilize to make their conversations go further or gain a better understanding of the situation or process that is going on for the individual. Open-ended questions allow individuals to tell their stories (Motivational Interviewing: Open Questions, Affirmation, Reflective Listening, and Summary Reflections, n.d.).

Open-ended questions are the opposite of closed-ended questions. This means that individuals are inclined to answer more than a "yes" or "no" when asked. Open-ended questions that you may want to use can look a bit like this:

  • Can you help me understand ___?
  • How would you like things to be different?
  • What are the good things about ___?
  • What are the less good things about?
  • When would you be most likely to?
  • What have you tried before to make a change?
  • What do you want to do next?

As you can see, these questions allow individuals to reflect on their situation, decipher the relevant information, and slow down the emotions behind the conversation. These types of questions allow individuals to work through their situation with confidence.

OARS: Affirmations

Affirmations are statements that recognize the client's strengths and acknowledge their positive behaviors. It is a good idea to identify the behaviors that contribute positively to their healing journey. Affirmations can build confidence in their ability to make positive changes.

The most important thing about affirmations is that they must be genuine and congruent to be effective (Motivational Interviewing: Open Questions, Affirmation, Reflective Listening, and Summary Reflections, n.d.). This means they can't be pushed into a conversation without context. Those utilizing motivational interviewing need to know when it's appropriate to implement an affirmation and when it isn't.

Here are a few affirmations that Motivational Interviewing: Open Questions, Affirmation, Reflective Listening, and Summary Reflections (n.d.) note can be helpful:

  • I appreciate you are willing to meet with me today.
  • You are a very resourceful person.
  • You handled yourself well in that situation.
  • That’s a good suggestion.
  • I’ve enjoyed talking with you today.

Affirmations highlight the positive aspects of the individual. They can help build confidence and foster motivation.

OARS: Reflective listening

Reflective listening is a crucial process within therapy sessions. It's also a key aspect, specifically within the motivational interviewing sector. The overall goal of reflective listening is that it's there to close the loop in communication. This supports the conversation's strength and ensures that breakdowns within communication don't occur.

There are three levels of reflective listening that every therapist should already know. These are:

  • Repeating/rephrasing
  • Paraphrasing
  • Reflection of feeling

OARS: Summaries

Further, summaries are a specialized version of reflective listening. Often, at the end of a conversation between a therapist and a client, during motivational interviewing, the therapist can utilize this technique to guide towards the end of the conversation and use it as an excellent way to support the client into a final reflection for the session. Good ways to summarize include:

  • Let me see if I understand...
  • Here's what I've heard today...

Responding to these types of sentences can help individuals reflect on their situation. Using your own words as a therapist, you can also enhance rapport by rephrasing what words they have said to ensure they know you acknowledge the situation.

How to use this cheat sheet

Utilizing this cheat sheet in your clinical practice is simple. We've created a Motivational Interviewing Cheat Sheet for your reference when in sessions or for simple reflection.

Step one: Download the Motivational Interviewing Cheat Sheet

You can do this by navigating the Carepatron templates page or clicking the link below. You can download it to your device or browser for online use or access a printable version and have a physical copy.

Step two: Use the cheat sheet

It's that simple! You can refer to this cheat sheet whenever it suits you. Whether you would like to have it with you during sessions to remind you of good options for open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summaries.

Step three: Store the cheat sheet

Storing the cheat sheet has never been easier. You can save it securely on the Carepatron software or in your clinic.

When should motivational interviewing questions be used?

Motivational interviewing is a technique that can be utilized in various therapy sessions. It can also be used in healthcare settings that don't involve therapy. Here are a few environments where motivational interviewing can be used:

Healthcare settings

Motivational interviewing can be used in healthcare settings for individuals prioritizing healthcare goals. These goals are often quite significant and can sometimes require outside motivation. By using OARS skills, healthcare professionals can support those who are engaging in behaviors such as:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight
  • Eating healthier
  • Prioritizing chronic healthcare conditions (diabetes, hypertension, etc.)

Motivational interviewing can support individuals and explore their willingness to foster motivation and resources to create such change.

Mental health environments

Of course, motivational interviewing can be used in mental health situations. In therapy sessions that focus on motivational interviewing or even in sessions that don't, OARS skills can be utilized to create a safe and helpful session to increase a client's motivation and success in therapy. Here are some mental health situations that can benefit from motivational interviewing:

  • Behavioural change
  • Treatment adherence
  • Psychopathology
  • Grief and loss
  • Phobias

Individuals who are struggling with mental health conditions may benefit from motivational interviewing techniques to enhance their intrinsic motivation as well as self-efficacy.

Educational settings

Educational settings are also an excellent place for motivational interviewing questions and skills to be used for students. There are times when their workload or academic stress sets students back. Motivational interviewing questions can support their concerns, behaviors, and motivations to continue their educational journey. Here are some situations where motivational interviewing questions can be helpful for students:

  • Deciding on school or career choices
  • Behavioral issues
  • Academic pathways
  • Volunteering opportunities

Personal growth

Finally, motivational interviewing can be used by therapists and others to enhance aspects of personal growth. This interviewing style can facilitate essential elements of personal development such as change talk, future thinking, acknowledging big feelings, and finding suitable solutions to issues they may be facing. Motivational interviewing can be helpful for:

  • Clarifying goals and values
  • Overcoming and managing procrastination
  • Building confidence
  • Exploring skill development
  • Setting realistic goals
  • Enhancing self-reflection

The benefits of this cheat sheet

When you sign up for Carepatron, you can look forward to various other cheat sheets regarding the plethora of mental health resources you need access to. There are many benefits to using this motivational interviewing cheat sheet. Here are a few:

Quick reference

Having this cheat sheet as a quick reference guide can support mental health professionals in their ability to quickly access information as well as techniques without having to review extensive materials and recite them during sessions. For example, therapists can have a version on their device or a printed version for reference. You can quickly glance at the cheat sheet to search for another reflection point during sessions.

Enhanced confidence

Having this cheat sheet on hand can support new therapists and even experienced therapists using motivational interviewing as a connection strategy for clients. This guide can support individuals by reinforcing their understanding of key principles and examples.

Focused skill development

Therapists who wish to enhance and perform better at exploring with individuals within motivational interviewing can use this cheat sheet to understand their current position. When therapists use the sheet, it can support their interpretation of details from the client's story and their empathy skills.

Education tool

Individuals who utilize this sheet can look forward to using it as a teaching tool for training and supervision. This sheet can support new graduates in the psychological space and explore the depth in which they should be conversing with their clients.

Better conversation flow

Professionals who have this cheat sheet in front of them may be able to use it to enhance their conversation flow. This is because the document prompts open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and other motivational techniques. This minimizes pauses during the therapy session.

Research and evidence

Because healthcare facilities have a growing capacity to focus on patient-centered care, motivational interviewing has become a multifaceted way to engage with clients with all mental health needs.

Arbuckle et al. (2020) state that motivational interviewing is an essential aspect of assisting people in their motivation to change, but it's also crucial in engaging the staff with organizational change within workplaces. It can bring a sense of everyday routine normalcy to the ever-changing work dynamics, address any concerns, and help employees accept their workloads.

Motivational interviewing also helps individuals engage from their perspective without feeling like they are being told what to do. The subtle reflection guide from the therapist allows the individual to speak on their concerns and accept what they may not be able to change.

Arbuckle et al. (2020) also suggest that group settings must be researched more, although compelling details are being discussed. Examples will need to be better, although there could be the potential for the motivational interviewing principles to find a position in group settings.


Arbuckle, M. R., Foster, F. P., Talley, R. M., Covell, N. H., & Essock, S. M. (2020). Applying Motivational Interviewing Strategies to Enhance Organizational Readiness and Facilitate Implementation Efforts. Quality Management in Health Care, 29(1).

Motivational Interviewing: Open Questions, Affirmation, Reflective Listening, and Summary Reflections. (n.d.).

What are key motivational interviewing principles and skills?
What are key motivational interviewing principles and skills?

Commonly asked questions

What are key motivational interviewing principles and skills?

Motivational interviewing principles include empathy, developing discrepancy, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy. Practitioners use OARS (open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summarizing) to create a collaborative, non-judgmental environment.

Who can use this cheat sheet?

Anyone who is practicing motivational interviewing. This may be healthcare practitioners, mental health workers, organizational psychologists, and teachers.

Is this an interactive cheat sheet?

This cheat sheet is designed for quick reference. If you have any other questions you would like to include, you can utilize our template and create your cheat sheet!

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