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Know someone dealing with stress or anxiety? Try motivational interviewing


If you’re stuck at home and searching for a way to help people, there may be a simple answer: Listen.

Seriously. People are struggling right now. Not with just physical health and economic issues but with stress, anxiety and depression. We may not be talking about severe issues, necessarily, but plenty of us know people who simply need a listening ear.

You can be that for them. And the truth is, that could be exactly what that person in that moment needs more than anything.

Not sure how to do that exactly? Ask a PAL.

Ohio State students who volunteer for the Buckeye Peer Access Line (PAL), a non-emergency talk line within Student Life’s Student Wellness Center, learn skills that include active listening and motivational interviewing. These skills empower people struggling with everyday stresses and anxieties to find their motivation and capacity to make pivotal changes in their lives.

“It’s all about helping the person to process what they’re feeling and feel confident in their decision moving forward,” said Ivory Levert, the PAL program manager and training coordinator. Student volunteers for PALs aren’t trained therapists (if someone is in a critical situation, PALs forward them to trained therapists or emergency hotlines), but they do learn techniques that prove beneficial in their own relationships.

“The feedback we get is: ‘These are skills I can take anywhere, this has helped me with friendships, this has helped me be a better person in all my relationships,’” said Levert, who recently shared key points of PAL training that anyone can use to help those around them.

  1. First, internal reflection is critical.

    “Internal reflection is helpful for the volunteers to think about their own life experiences and their own interactions with how they seek help, or don’t seek help, and where that comes from. It helps them be more empathetic when students call in and maybe they’re having a hard time expressing what they’re feeling.”

  1. Active listening goes hand-in-hand with motivational interviewing.

    “It’s the ability to listen to understand rather than to respond. Taking time to hear what the person is talking about, not only what they’re saying but hearing the tone in which they’re talking, paying special attention to the type of language they’re using, and language in which they may be repeating certain things, picking up on some of the things they may not necessarily be saying. Just really cluing in to all those pieces.”

  2. Motivational interviewing is a collaborative conversation.

    “We’re strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change. We want to help the student process what they are feeling, help them summarize and hear their own thoughts. We use a lot of open-ended questions to evoke DARN CATS.”


    “DARN stands for Desire, Ability, Reason and Need."

    • Desire: “We want them to think why would they want to make this change? Get them to reflect on why this is important.”
    • Ability: “How might you go about it to succeed?”
    • Reason: “What are three reasons to do it? Find those intentional reasons behind it all.”
    • Need: “How important is it to make this change and why?”

    “It’s really going through these questions throughout the process of the person presenting the challenge they are facing. Allow them to start internal reflection before they can actually make steps forward in doing any change.

    “After learning those things, it really is walking through what they will need to do to make this commitment, some real action steps, and processing those steps together.”

    Hence, CATS:

    • Commitment: Think about and plan for change.
    • Action: Adopt new habits.
    • Taking steps: And maintain new, healthier behaviors.
  3. And for our final acronym, let’s look at OARS.

    “OARS stands for Open-ended questions; Affirmations; Reflections; and Summaries. After learning more about their desires, ability, reasons why, we walk them through what they will need to do to make this commitment, some real action steps, and processing those steps together.”

    • Open-ended questions: “Ask questions like, what have you already done to accomplish your goal?”
    • Affirmations: “These are statements that help people recognize their strengths and see themselves in a different light. A lot of times they’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed so it’s hard for them to see any positivity to what they’re doing. The fact they reached out shows bravery in itself. It’s about helping them identify things they’re already doing well.”
    • Reflections: “Have them reflect on what they’ve done in the past that may reveal their strengths and skills. Then allow them to hear their own voice. Make statements that mirror what they are saying. It may allow them to realize they're stronger than they realized.”
    • Summaries: “Recap much of what you’ve discussed and allow them to move forward to their next steps.”