Professor Stephen Rollnick

steve rollnick

What an incredible opportunity to chat with Stephen Rollnick who provides consultancy, mentorship and training on the subjects of motivation, change, teamwork and Motivational Interviewing, which he co-founded. He is an Honorary Distinguished Professor in the School of Medicine in Cardiff University and a clinical psychologist. He has now retired to focus on training, writing and consultancy, in the field of elite sport. Stephen’s work has included support to programmes for pregnant teens, children with HIV-AIDS in Africa and medication adherence in different areas.  He is a co-founder of PATA (Paediatric Aids Treatment for Africa) and the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT), an international network for trainers.  He is the co-author of Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change (Miller and Rollnick, 1991; 2001, 2012 & 2023), Health Behaviour Change: A Guide for Practitioners (Rollnick, Mason & Butler, 1999); Motivational Interviewing in Health Care (Rollnick, Miller & Butler, 2008,2022), Motivational Interviewing in Schools (2016) and Coaching Athletes To Be Their Best: Motivational Interviewing In Sports (Rollnick, Fader, Breckon & Moyers, 2019).


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

My mother was a successful short story writer for The New Yorker magazine. Simple sentences that capture the essence! I regularly hand out copies of Think Again by Adam Grant to elite sports coaches.

I love reading fiction, particularly books by Cormac McCarthy, Sally Rooney and Damon Galgut. They all write beautifully and evoke emotion and thoughts. Just like music, I know which kind of book to read depending on my mood.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

A Grunsfors axe for splitting oak logs.  My subscription to Audible has got me back into novels and it’s been a fantastic way to spend my time in the car and walking, it’s really accessible.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

It wasn’t so much the failure but the sense of what I made of it afterwards.  Then I learned like anything. So that’s been good to realise. 

I completely changed careers aged 63 and found myself right there beyond my wildest dream – speaking with the owner of this top American football team on the side of the field an hour before the game kicked off. Now was the moment to make an impression and secure the kind of work I could only dream of. TV cameras, music, dancers, the crowd…. no shortage of distractions, and then he asked: ”So how can learning empathy help this club?”.  I completely blew it. My life’s work was there to bring to life, and let’s just say it all landed with a dull thud.  What I noticed that my ego was too prominent, I was not calm, I tried to be clever, and my mind was full needlessly complex nonsense. This gave rise to what I now call my personal 6 Cs: Let go of Complexity, Clutter and Cleverness, and hold on to being Calm, Curious and Compassionate. . Adam Grant in his book Think Again says something along the lines of this:  good leaders acknowledge their failures, show others how they rectified them with competence and have emotional regulation throughout.  If I get back into a scenario like that, will I handle it differently? Wish me luck!


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

Take huge care in how you exchange information and give advice to people. Avoid top-down dumping and offer up your ideas.

This activity is fragmented and toxic in every setting I’ve ever been involved in whether that is sport, business, education, or healthcare. It causes harm and depresses learning and growth.

How we convey information and advice is as important as the content. Think of it this way. When you’re speaking to someone, if you haven’t got their heart, how do you think you will gain their head?

In motivational interviewing we have developed a framework for doing this with compassion and much more effectively. Listening well is close to the heart of it.


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.) 

I’ve spent a lifetime investing in learning what listening involves. And I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to learn how to listen. Because it’s not easy.

I failed at school and got a third-class degree from University. My Mother used to say to me, “Use your imagination, stupid.” Probably not the nicest thing to say but she was right. I invested in learning what empathy was and in how to develop my listening skills.

Other things that I’ve invested time in are learning to serve, learning to write, learning to play, and learning to trust my mother’s affectionate challenges.


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love? 

My kids would definitely agree with this and it’s having outrageous conversations with complete strangers. I’m from South Africa, a different culture, so I think this is where it comes from.


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life? 

The skill of emotional self-regulation. It’s a big thing for leadership. Skilful leaders are emotionally regulated. That means people can understand me better, that I’m able to be more authentic, assertive, sincere and think more clearly. I’ve learnt that and it’s been hugely valuable.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?” 

When you get to a crossroad in your career path ask yourself these three questions. 

  1.   What am I good at, and not good at?
  2.   What do I like and not like?
  3.   What suits my temperament best?

You’ll never have perfect control over what happens in your life and it’s often the things that happen by chance that are the most useful.

Another tip is try to listen to yourself first before you listen to media influences. Make decisions from the inside out and recognise that the media is encouraging you to make decisions from the outside in and that won’t serve you well.

Topic: Tribe Tuesday