What is Sustain Talk – A Crucial Element in Motivation

Imagine you’re at a crossroads in your career, contemplating a significant change. Yet, every time you start to take a step forward, a voice inside you insists, “Maybe it’s not the right time.”

This internal dialogue is something many of us face when standing on the brink of change. Sustain talk refers to the dialogue, either internal or expressed outwardly, that emphasizes maintaining the current state of affairs, and resisting change.

It’s the conversation that focuses on the reasons against making a change, highlighting the comfort of the known over the uncertainty of the new. Recognizing and addressing sustain talk can lead you to more effective communication with others and yourself.

Key Takeaways

  • Sustain talk expresses contentment with the current state and resistance to change, often manifesting as excuses or justifications. In contrast, change talk articulates desires, abilities, reasons, and the need for change, serving as a catalyst for personal transformation.
  • It can limit personal development and negatively affect relationships by reinforcing communication patterns that resist change.
  • Moving from sustain talk to change talk involves reflective listening, setting specific goals, and focusing on values that align with change.

The Origins of The Methodology

Resistance in motivation

Sustain talk finds its roots in motivational interviewing, a counseling technique that facilitates dialogue about change and the obstacles to it. Developed in the 1980s by psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick, it’s an empathetic and non-judgmental approach that aids individuals in exploring their own reasons for resistance to change.

This methodology is deeply embedded in psychological theories that emphasize the importance of understanding and resolving ambivalence to facilitate change. By engaging in motivational interviewing, therapists help clients articulate their own motivations for change, often bringing to light the sustain talk that hinders their progress.

Main Characteristics

Sustain talk is characterized by verbal expressions that signal satisfaction with the current state, apprehension about the unknown, and doubt in personal capability for change. This type of talk can subtly undermine motivation, as it focuses on the perceived safety of the status quo rather than the potential for growth.

In addition to excuses and justifications, it may also include a longing for past successes or a glorification of previous states of being, which can further anchor an individual in their current state without moving forward.

Sustain Talk vs. Change Talk

In the dynamic interplay between sustain talk and change talk, the latter serves as a powerful catalyst for personal transformation.

Aspect Sustain Talk Change Talk
Focus Maintains the status quo, emphasizing comfort with the current state. Propels individuals towards new behaviors and decisions.
Language Characteristics Expresses contentment, fear of the new, and lack of confidence. Articulates desires, abilities, reasons, and need for change.
Impact on Personal Transformation Limits personal development by reinforcing resistance to change. Serves as a catalyst for personal transformation by encouraging a proactive approach to life’s challenges.
Goal Reinforces ambivalence towards change. Lays the groundwork for envisioning and achieving a different future.
Role in Motivational Interviewing Represents the barriers to change that need addressing. Facilitates a shift in perspective from ambivalence to action.
Outcome Keeps individuals in their comfort zones, hindering growth. Enables the transformation of mindset and approach towards embracing change.

The Impact of Sustain Talk on Personal Growth:

Overcoming sustain talk

Sustain talk’s ability to keep individuals within their comfort zones results in missed opportunities for learning and development. This comfort can become a golden cage, where the familiarity of current circumstances outweighs the potential joy of achieving new goals.

Moreover, it can diminish self-esteem and self-efficacy over time, as individuals convince themselves they are incapable of overcoming challenges or achieving success in new endeavors.

Effects on Relationships and Communication

When sustain talk pervades an individual’s communication style, it can create a barrier to deepening relationships and fostering open, growth-oriented dialogues.

This resistance to change can become contagious, affecting entire groups, families, or work teams, leading to environments where maintaining the status quo becomes the collective norm.

Consequently, relationships may lack the dynamism and adaptability needed to navigate life’s inevitable changes, leading to stagnation rather than mutual growth and understanding.

How to Recognize Sustain Talk in Yourself?

Motivation psychology

Awareness of one’s own sustain talk is the first step toward meaningful change. This awareness can often lead to an “aha” moment, where the realization of how much these patterns of thought and speech are holding one back becomes clear.

Engaging in self-observation allows individuals to confront their fears and doubts head-on, offering a path toward a more empowered and proactive stance in life.

Fun fact: Did you know that the concept of motivational interviewing, from which the idea of sustain talk and change talk is derived, was first developed in the context of treating alcoholism? Psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick created this counseling approach in the 1980s, finding that a non-confrontational and empathetic approach significantly improved the likelihood of change in individuals struggling with addiction. This discovery has since revolutionized the way therapists approach behavior change in all areas, not just addiction.

Transforming Sustain into Change Talk

Motivational interviewing

The process of transforming sustain talk into change talk is akin to navigating a ship away from rocky shores towards open waters. It involves an intentional effort to redirect thoughts and conversations toward the possibilities that change can bring.

This transformative process is not just about achieving specific goals but about embracing a more adaptable and optimistic outlook on life.

How to Implement What You’ve Learned to Reduce Sustain Talk?

Reducing sustain talk requires a commitment to self-reflection and the courage to face one’s fears. This practice is not a one-time effort but a continuous process of growth and learning.

By adopting a mindset that welcomes change, individuals can begin to see challenges not as obstacles but as opportunities for development.


How do therapists initially identify sustain talk in a counseling session?

Therapists listen for language that indicates resistance to change, such as statements highlighting the negatives of changing, expressing comfort with current behaviors, or showing reluctance to discuss new behaviors. They pay attention to both what is said and how it’s said, noting any ambivalence or hesitation.

Can sustain talk ever be positive or useful in therapy?

Yes, it can be useful as it provides therapists with insights into the client’s fears, values, and barriers to change. Understanding these can help therapists tailor their approach, making it more relevant and impactful for the client.

Are there specific techniques used to shift from sustain talk to change talk?

Therapists use a variety of techniques, including reflective listening, summarizing to highlight discrepancies between a client’s goals and their current situation, and asking open-ended questions that encourage clients to explore their own motivations for change.

How long does it typically take to move a client from sustain talk to change talk in therapy?

The time required can vary widely depending on the individual, their circumstances, and the complexity of the issues being addressed. Some clients may show signs of shift within a single session, while others may take several sessions to begin articulating change talk.

Is motivational interviewing effective for all types of behavioral changes?

Motivational interviewing has been shown to be effective across a wide range of behaviors, including substance abuse, health-related behaviors like exercise and diet, and mental health issues. However, its effectiveness can depend on the individual’s readiness for change and the skill of the therapist.

Can motivational interviewing be applied outside of therapy, such as in everyday life or coaching?

Absolutely. The principles of motivational interviewing, including the encouragement of change talk over sustain talk, can be applied in various settings like coaching, healthcare, education, and even personal relationships.

By using empathetic listening and guiding others to articulate their own motivations for change, individuals can support growth and development in those around them.

The Bottom Line

We’ve seen how sustain talk can both reflect and reinforce our resistance to change. But, more importantly, we’ve learned that recognizing and transforming sustain talk into change talk is within our grasp.

By applying the strategies discussed, we can shift our narrative from one of stagnation to one of growth and opportunity. Wait no more, start right away!