The Poetics of Therapeutic Practice: Motivational Interviewing and the Powers of Pause

E. Summerson Carr, Yvonne Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Motivational interviewing (MI) is an increasingly prominent behavioral therapy that draws from and claims to synthesize two American therapeutic traditions long thought to be antithetical-"client-centered" and "directive" approaches. This paper proposes that MI achieves its hallmark "client-centered directiveness" through the aesthetic management of the therapeutic encounter, and more particularly, through MI practitioners' marked use of silence. Drawing on data collected during the ethnographic study of MI trainings and the formal analysis of video-recorded MI sessions that are commonly used as models in such trainings, we identify three patterns of pause that regularly fall at specific grammatical junctures within seasoned MI practitioners' turns-at-talk. We demonstrate how these pauses allow MI practitioners to subtly direct the conversation while simultaneously displaying unequivocal signs of client-centeredness. In other words, we show how and explain why the poetics of pause matter to MI. In presenting this case, we more generally highlight practice poetics-that is, the aesthetic management of the style and delivery of a professional message with a particular practical aim in mind-suggesting that this is a central if under-appreciated aspect of therapeutic practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)83-114
Number of pages32
JournalCulture, Medicine and Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Behaviorism
  • Client-centered therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Pause
  • Poetics
  • Psychotherapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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