Sticking Your O.A.R.S. In

A gentle steering vs. a harsh kicking


Trenton Oldfield, the protestor who jumped into the River Thames disrupting the annual Oxford/Cambridge race in 2012, must have been extremely grateful for the skillful steering of the boat and the beady eye of the cox, that helped him to maintain his head, even though his brains had obviously sunk somewhere deep into the River Thames. 

This clever negotiation of obstacles appears in Motivational Interviewing, which is based on the skill of using O.A.R.S.,  that look slightly different to the ones that negotiated their way around Trenton’s head.  O.A.R.S. stand for:

Open Questions, Affirmative Responses, Reflective Listening and Summarising.

Motivational Interviewing (M.I.) is not so much a zip in a power boat but more a gentle steering to get someone to change their behaviour, or as, in Trenton’s case, keep his head.

There are times are times when a sharper kick may be called for as in a ship-building yard for an oil company: “Get your hard hat on!” is best delivered as a curt reminder than woven into a half-hour feedback session.

Getting a colleague to be more ‘team spirited’ may need a lighter hand. More recently, I was told to help a director in IT consultancy to be more available to his staff. Tricky business, commanding people when you have to keep rapport, so here are the fundamentals of M.I., a management skill that can help you gently transform behaviour.

Note that the elements that make up M.I. can be used in any order.

The Elements of Motivational Interviewing (M.I.)

Open Questions

Closed questions can be useful and open ones, which provoke answers fuller than one word responses, build momentum and help to explore change more fully.  For example, ‘Do you feel you deserve the promotion?’, will provoke a different level of answer than ‘What makes you feel that it’s time for a new role?’


  • Uncovers hidden agendas
  • Discloses blocks

Examples of Open Questions:

  1. What’s been happening since we last met?
  2. ‘What triggered this meeting today?
  3. How can you help yourself with…?

Affirming Responses

These are statements and gestures that recognize a person’s strengths and acknowledge the desired behaviours or moves towards those behaviours, no matter how big or small.  By emphasising the positive attributes, you build up the individual’s confidence to change.

Advantages of Affirming Responses:

  • Affirming Responses can help build trust. If you are trusted, you are more likely to get to the bottom of issues and tackle the oft-underlying issues that lurk between the surface and are the foundation for the ‘stated’ reasons.
  • Such responses can make are encouraging and show recognition of a person and their abilities and/or efforts. If you’re trying to change behaviour.
  • The use of ‘Affirming Responses’, will be more likely to create that transformation.

Examples of Affirming Responses are:

  1. You’ve clearly made a lot of effort.
  2. I appreciate you were willing to share that with us.
  3. If I were in your shoes, I don’t know if I could have managed nearly so well.
  4. You’ve tried very hard to make things happen.
  5. I’m really impressed by the way….

Reflective Listening

At its simplest, Reflective Listening simply means repeating key points or phrases.  You may think that parrotting back what’s just been said could sound a bit moronic but, unless you overuse this method, it will rarely seem so because it prompts the speaker to either reconsider what they’ve just said or elaborate on it.

Rephrasing, paraphrasing and reflecting back feeling, are also forms of Reflective Listening.

Advantages of Reflective Listening:

  • Builds up empathy in the conversation by showing understanding
  • Ensures you don’t react to something that you’ve misinterpreted but getting clarification
  • By demonstrating recognition of the current situation, you’ll be helping the other to commit to change.

Examples of Reflective Listening are:

  1. So you feel…
  2. It sounds like you…
  3. That must be…/What a….!

Summary Statements

You reinforce what has been said, and prepare the conversation to move on to another subject.

Advantages of Summary Statements:

  • Verify your facts or get agreement to action.

Examples of Summary Statements:

  1. This is what I’ve heard. Tell me if I’ve missed anything.
  2. So if we look back at what’s been happening so far, would it be fair to say…
  3. You mentioned…and how…have I got this right?

Sealing the Commitment to Change

The statements below are examples of ‘change talk’, where the person knows that a change is necesssary:

  • It can’t go on like this.
  • I wish things were different.
  • I really need to look at how we’re going to reach those targets.

If you hear this kind of talk you can use:

Methods for Evoking Change Talk:

* Asking evocative questions
“What worries you about your current situation?”

* Using the importance ruler (also use regarding client’s confidence to change)
“On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is unimportant and 10 extremely, how important would you say it is for you to_____?

* Exploring the decisional balance
“What do you like about your present pattern?” “What concerns you about it?”

* Elaborating
“What else?” Ask for clarification, an example, or to describe the last time this occurred.

* Questioning extremes
“What concerns you most about? What are the best results you could imagine if you made a

* Looking back
What were things like before?”

* Looking forward
How could you improve the way things are?

* Exploring goals and values
“What things are most important to you?”

Ultimately, instead of going in for the kill with advice, or threats (thinking of an ex-boss here!), the other person will have been directed to ‘own’ their solution. We’re more likely to change if see, feel and state that need rather than if someone tells us. Encouraging that dynamic, can be draining for managers: it sets up the interaction of disciplinary parent to their naughty child. Put the time in on your O.A.R.S. for the boat to gain it’s own momentum and allow you to get on with other things.


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