ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Goal-Getter: Intrinsic Coaching vs Motivational Interviewing

Goal-Getter: Intrinsic Coaching vs Motivational Interviewing

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-04-07T00:00:00-04:00


People hire a personal trainer or health coach because they want to change. They just need help doing it. They want a thinner body, bigger muscles, or better health. They’ve tried to achieve these goals on their own but what they’ve tried hasn’t worked. At least not long term.

One way a coach or trainer helps is by teaching these clients effective behavior change methods. Two tried and true approaches are intrinsic coaching and motivational interviewing. Learn what each one is, how they are different, and ways to use them together for a better change outcome.

What Is Intrinsic Coaching?

When people set health goals, many set an extrinsic reward for motivation. Extrinsic means external. An example is buying a new wardrobe once they drop all of their excess weight. Or taking a weekend getaway if they exercise for 10 weeks in a row.

The problem with extrinsic motivation is that it doesn’t last. Sure, the motivation for change is strong at first. They’re compelled to stick to their diet or exercise plan because they want that reward. But all too soon, their motivation starts to wane. Before they know it, they’re right back where they started. Or worse.

Intrinsic coaching is different in that it is focused on internal motivators. An intrinsic coach helps clients look deeper within their self. They work with clients to identify the true purpose behind their goal. This provides a greater connection to that goal, as well as the behavior change needed to reach it. It becomes an internal drive that is more powerful than any outside force.

Maybe a client comes to you and says that they want to lose weight. Through your health coaching, you learn that their primary motivation is that they want to be able to climb the stairs without getting out of breath. This is an intrinsic motivator. It is something within their self that they want versus being an extrinsic reward.

Questions an intrinsic coach may ask include:

  • Why is your goal so important to you?

  • How will reaching your goal make your life better?

  • What does your life look like once your goal is achieved?

  • What would it mean to you to make the change you desire?

What Is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational interviewing is also designed to promote positive behavior change. It works, in part, by helping clients recognize their ambivalence about change. It explores the reasons why their actions don’t match their words.

It’s one thing to say that you want to get into better shape. It’s another to show up at the gym every day. Motivational interviewing helps uncover the benefits their unhealthy behaviors offer. This information can then be used to create a healthier response. This type of response makes it easier to change their desired behavior.

Motivational interviewing begins with establishing a trust relationship with the client. This can be achieved by reflective listening. The motivational interviewer restates in their own words what the client has said. This ensures that they heard the client correctly. It also gives the client the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.

Affirming is also important to establishing trust during motivational interviewing. The more validated a client feels, the more willing they are to open up. They don’t feel like such an outcast for their thoughts or emotions. Affirming the client’s strengths helps bolster their confidence. It reinforces that they have what it takes to achieve lasting change.

The next step is to help clients see where ambivalence may exist. This occurs without judgment. Instead, the interviewer helps the client see that the mismatch between words and actions is normal. The goal is to simply explore the reason for the mismatch. Then, the coach and client work together to find ways to resolve it.

Resolution often involves change talk. Change talk is when the client speaks in a way that supports positive change. “Losing some weight will be good for me,” is an example of change talk. “I know I can do this,” is another.

Questions that might be asked during a motivational interview could include:

  • What do you value most in your life?

  • How are you living consistently with these values?

  • Where are your behaviors different than these values?

  • Do you feel ready to make the necessary changes? Why or why not?

  • Are you confident that you can change? Why or why not?

Difference Between Intrinsic Coaching and Motivational Interviewing

Both intrinsic coaching and motivational interviewing are designed to lead a client into the change process. And both also have a greater focus on intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. That is, they concentrate on the self versus external forces. This provides a more autonomous motivation. Yet, there are a few distinct differences.

Intrinsic coaching helps clients recognize the internal drives behind their goal. It helps them look beyond the extrinsic or external rewards to see what their true self wants. But this is where it stops.

Because motivational interviewing involves revealing ambivalence, it urges clients to consider how their current behaviors may be satisfying a particular need. This can create a realization of why change has been so difficult. It also provides the opportunity to create a healthier or more desirable response.

Additionally, the main purpose of using intrinsic coaching is to help clients identify their “why.” It is to connect them with the true reason they want to make changes. This provides intrinsic motivation. The purpose behind motivational interviewing is to assess a client’s readiness for change, as well as to help them through the change process.

Put another way, intrinsic coaching helps clients better understand what is important to them. It gets them to reflect on their values and their purpose. Motivational interviewing uncovers where ambivalence exists. It also reveals whether they are ready and able to commit to the change process.

How to Use Both Together for Positive Behavioral Change

Both intrinsic coaching and motivational interviewing can help elicit behavior change. When used together, they become even stronger and more effective.

Imagine that a coaching client comes to you and says that they want to change their nutrition habits. Specifically, they want to quit late night snacking because they’ve gained a few pounds. Using intrinsic coaching, you learn that this goal is important to them because they want to be a better role model for their kids.

Whenever your client’s motivation starts to wane, you can remind them how they’re modeling healthier behaviors for their children. It helps them remember why the change is so important. This makes them a more willing participant in the process. It urges them to continue working toward the desired behavior even when they want to give up.

Using motivational interviewing, you also learn that, despite their desires, the client doesn’t feel able to change. The whole family snacks at night, making the urge to snack with them too strong. Or they’ve tried changing the behavior before with no luck. They fear that they’ll get the same negative results every time.

This provides an opportunity to address their ambivalences. Together, you work to explore where the disconnect lies between wanting the change and making the change. Maybe the client fears that not snacking as a family will lessen their bond. Providing other ways to bond with their loved ones can help reduce this concern while also enabling the client to reach their goals.

Research indicates that when coaching is combined with motivational interviewing, it can enhance their results. One such study was conducted with dental hygiene students. It found that combining both methods can result in better patient self care through greater intrinsic motivation.

In the health care field, this core skill can improve medication adherence. When used by a counselor or other mental health clinician, it can prompt a patient to combat their anxiety or depression. In fitness, coaching via these two methods can increase client motivation. And it does it in a way that results in lasting change.

Support Positive Change from Day One

Incorporate intrinsic coaching and motivational interviewing into your intake process. This helps promote positive behavior change from their very first training session.

Achieving lasting change begins with educating your clients. Help them understand the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Talk to them about the benefits a behavior or change provides.

Next, work through their ambivalence with compassion and care so their words start to match their actions. Explore how to replace their current behavior with a healthier behavior. Also discuss whether they are ready and able to make their desired change. If not, find ways to help them overcome these challenges.

Taking these simple actions can help clients boost their motivation. And it will do it in a way that keeps that motivation stoked long term.

Learn more ways to promote positive change with the ISSA’s Transformation Specialist certification. This course covers how to set intrinsic rewards, motivational interviewing techniques, and other skills needed for successful wellness coaching.

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