One Therapeutic Method That Can Help Transformation In Students

Tim Balow
July 31st, 2019

Conversations can be transformative. I learned this very early in my own interactions with youth workers and small group leaders that were influential in my own faith development. I’ve always wondered though, how can we learn better ways to do conversations and better model the type of engagement that Jesus modeled with the disciples. If people truly can grow, then we should always be able to expect for something new to come when we are open to the process of transformation.

Recently I was given the privilege to learn under some seasoned mental health professionals and was introduced to the concept of Motivational Interviewing (MI). It’s a therapeutic concept employed in a lot of contexts from one-to-one therapy, group therapy, and residential treatment for a variety of issues ranging from chemical dependency, mental illness, and trauma arising from a host of different trigger events. I was deeply intrigued by the idea as it looks to do more “direct work” versus a more in-direct approach towards attitudes, situations, and relationships.

I should also say that as a word of caution (as I feel it’s always necessary), there will always be issues where you are not the most credible or best person to facilitate healing. Feel free to check out a recent blog post on 5 Tips For Referring Students To Professionals)

The goal of MI is simple: To bring exploration and resolution to ambivalence with changing attitudes and behavior. In other words, discover and address roadblocks to change. Maybe you already practice some form of this. Many counselors have taken this more direct approach to helping people take more of a role in their own transformation.

Working with students in variety of contexts, from churches to missions agencies, from educational environments to residential treatment, one consistent journey I’ve experienced is helping a student navigate how to get from where they are to where they want to be. We encounter students at a variety of stages in their journeys, whether it be in the midst of changes associated with adolescence, to dealing with trauma associated with a divorce in the family, to perhaps trying to navigate healthy interpersonal relationships. The question is always, how do I help get a student from here, to there (there is, according to MI, a resolution to the inner conflict that is preventing them from getting to “there”)? The ultimate goal is to find the inner drive (as Christians, we would source this drive from the Holy Spirit) towards transformation.

Cool stuff right? Well here’s what it can look like as a process:


Engagement always is the first step in building trust. This is where the attitudes of care and empathy can really start to inspire someone to see something new in their future. This is a step to guide reflective listening, or to restate what the client has expressed in a different way, without telling them what to do. In other words (a key phrase in reflective listening), the phrase, “What I hear you say is…” and then followed with an invitation to affirm by “Would you say that’s close to how you’re thinking/feeling”? This can build trust in the conversation.


This is often where we start in conversations about transformation, but it’s important that empathy lays the groundwork. This step in a conversation is all about bringing to surface the dissonance between what the person is currently doing and how the consequences impede where the person wants to go. The issue can be anything from drug use, lying, debt, anger, loneliness, or some sort of trauma event.


This is the time to start looking at the “why” behind a change. In other words, why do you want to go from here to there? Why do you want to feel accepted by your friends? Why do you want to be able to have a different relationship with your parents? Why do you want to save up to buy a car? Motivations can be varied, but obviously (or not so obviously), motivations will not always be perfect. In many instances (and I can think of MANY), a student’s initial motivation for change was an external force. The process then, through engagement and focus, is to evoke a sense of internal desire and passion for something different for themselves.


Youth workers often find themselves as bridges towards something different in a student’s life. This may look like advocating, encouraging, or modeling a new future for a student.

MI isn’t a Christian concept, and it’s certainly used in more clinical than non-clinical settings. However, there is value found in learning from professionals concepts and strategies that are leveraged in very structured ways to help give us some guidance in how to navigate life-changing conversations. I think there’s much to learn about this process that can give us some handles to be more strategic about our interactions with students.

For more resources and information about Motivational Interviewing, check out MINT (Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers) and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s description of MI.

Tim Balow

TIm Balow is has served in a variety of youth worker roles between Chicago and Minneapolis over the last 10 years. Tim currently serves with Youth Specialties working on projects focused on customer and content operations. Tim's passion is to serve the under-resourced youth worker and to encourage the next generation of students to step into a transformative relationship with Jesus.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.