Motivational Interviewing – the journey of Community Corrections

Nyree Lewis
Principal Practice Adviser (Acting)
Case Management and Probation Practice Team, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Nyree joined the Department of Corrections in 2010 as a probation officer. Since then she has been a practice leader, senior adviser and is currently acting as Principal Practice Adviser. Nyree has a passion for probation practice and uses her experience in the field to help continuous improvement in this area.


Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication which pays particular attention to the language of “change”. It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for, and commitment to, a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the interviewee’s own reasons for change, within an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement.  The founders of MI – Dr William R. Miller and Dr Stephen Rollnick – have defined MI as: “A collaborative, person-centred form of guiding to elicit and strengthen motivation for change” (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

Motivational interventions enhance our engagement with people in our care and their whānau, and fit well with the Working with Whānau Engagement Model. This is because MI techniques can be used to move people through the stages of the model, to maximise engagement and increase the likelihood of change. It is important to remember that engagement in MI is a continuous effort throughout the people-management process. It is done with someone, rather than to someone.

MI has a relational component and a technical component. The relational component is referred to as the spirit of MI and details the core qualities of the relationship of interviewer/interviewee. These are partnership, acceptance, compassion and evocation. The spirit of MI is the cornerstone.  If the interviewer is not working in the spirit of MI, any other qualities they have will be redundant.  The technical components of MI relate to the practitioner’s differential response to a person’s speech – that is, how well they are able to strengthen a person’s “change talk” (verbal intention to make changes) and minimise their “sustain talk” (verbal intention to remain the same) therefore resolving the ambivalence a person has towards changing a certain behaviour.

MI is now widely used in a variety of Corrections settings – by case managers in prisons, by programme facilitators working in the community and in prisons, and by probation officers in the community. We use it because there’s evidence that MI can contribute to reducing re-offending by helping people to enhance their internal motivation to change and live better lives.

This article will primarily focus on what has been happening in the probation space and plans for the future of MI for probation staff.

The journey so far

Motivational Interviewing for probation staff began in 2012, with two days of training delivered by Learning and Development staff and practice leaders. This training increased understanding of MI among staff, however, it was not delivered on an ongoing basis and new staff were not receiving the training. The role of practice leaders was a relatively new one and reflective practice support had not evolved to where it is today.

In 2015, the Department was approached by Hall McMaster and Associates (HMA) with a newly established online MI learning package. This was trialled by a number of practice leaders with staff they were supporting. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and “MI Online” became a part of the probation officer curriculum (POC). Probation staff recognised the value of MI in their work and research on the longer term benefits of MI for change supported that.

In 2017 an intermediate-level package called Motivational Interviewing Next Developments (MIND) was developed to build on the skills of probation staff and to introduce a culturally responsive approach to MI for people who identify as Māori. This is important as more than half of the people we work with in the community identify as Māori. The two-day training is being rolled out on a rotational basis and at the time of writing around 80% of probation staff had completed it.

To continue the journey, development is underway of an MI advanced package.  This will be available to probation staff later in 2019.

Takitaki Mai

MIND helps practitioners to understand the therapeutic value of integrating MI with other cultural practices through the use of a resource Takitaki Mai, which was created as a collaborative effort between the University of Canterbury and kaupapa Māori agencies Matua Raki and He Waka Tapu, to strengthen motivational interviewing (MI) training for Māori.

Takitaki Mai comes from “ka takitaki mai te ata”, a phrase about the harbingers of morning. The name highlights that the job of the motivational practitioner is to pick up and enhance the glimmers of new dawns.

Takitaki Mai uses the pōwhiri process as a backdrop to all engagement and relationship building with the person serving the sentence and their whānau. This involves a series of transactions with the intention of creating a safe physical, emotional and spiritual space that allows a transition from tapu to noa (sacred to ordinary), and also space in which kōrero (conversation) can take place.

How are we measuring ourselves?

Corrections is committed to using approaches that work.  So how are we ensuring that probation staff are using MI effectively?

MIND introduced a way for practitioners to receive structured, formal feedback about improving their MI practice by using the established Motivational Interviewing Treatment Integrity (MITI) Version 4.2.1 behavioural coding system. The system is easy to use and looks for adherence to the relational and technical components of MI practice. It can be done by practitioners recording their own interviews with people and playing them back at a later stage.  Alternatively, practice leaders or other staff can observe a practitioner and provide feedback after the interview.

Coding helps practitioners to foster independence and take responsibility for their own MI progression. To be signed off as having completed MIND, practitioners needed to provide a sample of their MI practice (a recorded interview) or be observed by a practice leader or service manager.

How well are we doing?

Research was conducted in 2018 which involved a researcher listening to 50 audio recordings of sessions with probation officers and people on sentences from across New Zealand. One of the things listened for was adherence to MI. The findings demonstrated that in terms of their motivational interviewing skills, probation officers were very adherent to the spirit of MI (Fagan, 2018):-

“Probation officers tended to ask open-ended questions well and endeavoured to reflect the offender’s feelings. They were positive in their approach and often provided praise and positive feedback about the offender’s efforts and abilities. Probation officers often tried to elicit change talk from the offender and tried to get them to come up with their own ideas for achieving personal change. Overall, this demonstrates that probation officers have good skills in motivational interviewing, reflecting the training that has been implemented over the past few years” (Fagan, 2018).

Scope for improvement was identified in terms of the technical components of MI practice:

“…summarising throughout sessions (particularly at the end of a session) could be used more. Summarising is important for consolidating what has been discussed and ensuring that the probation officer has understood what the offender has been saying. Furthermore, when offenders engaged in sustain talk (i.e. expressing that they are unable to change or want/need to keep things as they are) probation officers could engage more, thus taking advantage of valuable opportunities to make positive change. Overall, however, motivational interviewing was present” (Fagan, 2018).

What is next?

The development of the MI advanced package is underway.  The aim with the new learning is to extend probation officers’ skills and confidence with the technical aspects of motivational interviewing while continuing to concentrate on engagement and the therapeutic relationship.  Importance will continue to be placed on practitioners taking responsibility for their own practice while being supported by managers and practice leaders.


Fagan, D. (2018). Inside probation officer contacts: A summary of an analysis of recorded probation contact sessions. Practice: the New Zealand Corrections Journal Vol 6, Issue 2, 66 – 69, Department of Corrections, New Zealand

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Applications of motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd edition). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press