Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Aphasia Access Conversations

How We’re Reducing Communication Barriers

Aphasia Access Conversations brings you the latest aphasia resources, tips, and aha moments from Life Participation professionals who deliver way more than stroke and aphasia facts. Topics include aphasia group treatment ideas, communication access strategies, plus ways for growing awareness and funds for your group aphasia therapy program. This podcast is produced by Aphasia Access.

Apr 29, 2021

During this episode, Dr. Janet Patterson, Chief of Audiology & Speech-Language Pathology Service at the VA Northern California Health Care System, talks with Dr. Michael Biel about theories of motivation and their application and value in aphasia rehabilitation. 

Guest Bio:

Michael Biel is an Associate Professor in the Communication Disorders and Sciences department of California State University, Northridge and senior speech-language pathologist at UCLA Medical Center.  From 1993 to 2012, Michael was a full-time speech-language pathologist working in the Los Angeles and Pittsburgh VA healthcare systems.  Michael is board certified in neurologic communication disorders from the Academy of Neurologic Communication Disorders and Sciences and specializes in working with persons with aphasia.

In today’s episode you will hear about:

  • Self-Determination Theory, and Flow, and Aphasia rehabilitation
  • Psychological nutrients of competency, autonomy, and relatedness, including a short list of actions one can take to satisfy these nutrients
  • Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and therapeutic engagement as a process.

Interview Transcript

Dr. Janet Patterson:  Welcome to Aphasia Access Conversations. Today, I am delighted to be speaking with my dear friend, research partner, and pioneer in the study of engagement, motivation and aphasia. Dr. Michael Biel. Dr. Biel earned his master's degree in Communicative Disorders from California State University Northridge, and clinical doctorate degree in medical speech language pathology from the University of Pittsburgh. Mike dedicates much of his clinical practice and research efforts to understanding the science of motivation, and how to translate well established theories in the psychology literature to clinical practice and research in aphasia rehabilitation. He also has an interest in the role of the arts and humanities in adult neurorehabilitation, and with his wife, Francie Schwarz, started a book club for persons with aphasia. You can hear about that book club in Aphasia Access Podversation # 12, where Francie describes the aphasia book club within the Los Angeles Public Library System. 

Before joining the faculty at CSUN, Dr. Biel worked as a speech-language pathologist for the VA Healthcare System, and the UCLA Medical Center. Mike is Board Certified in Neurologic Communication Disorders from the Academy of Neurologic Communication Disorders and Sciences or ANCDS. 

Welcome, Mike. I am pleased to have a conversation with you today, and to turn the tables on you so to speak, as you are typically a podcast interviewer with ANCDS. Today you are our aphasia expert on motivation and engagement. Thank you for talking with me today about aphasia, rehabilitation, motivation, and engaging patients, family and clinicians in the treatment enterprise.

Dr. Michael Biel: Great, thank you so much for having me.

Janet: Mike, I would like to start our conversation by asking you about motivation, and how we might think about it as a concept in rehabilitation. People scatter their conversations with the word motivation, attributing all sorts of their actions and reactions to motivation or the lack thereof. Knowing that this is a vast topic, can you help our listeners develop a frame of reference for thinking about how motivation fits into aphasia rehabilitation?

Mike: Well, Janet, you're right. Motivation is a broad term. I think one author said that motivation is the why behind all human behavior. Some years ago, a paper was published, exploring the definition of motivation, and I think the author catalogued something like 200 different definitions. In its simplest form, I think we could say that motivation is the energy that causes us to do something, to act. Typically, whether motivation is effective, the many theories of motivation, are regarding its strength. The stronger the motivation, the more someone's going to pursue their goals and, and persist. Another way to think about motivation, one that I've kind of subscribed to comes from Self-determination Theory, and they focus more on the quality of motivation. They acknowledge that the strength is important, but they argue that more than the strength the quality is important and in its simplest terms, they define motivation as being either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is motivation where we're moved to act, because the activity itself is enjoyable, interesting, or satisfying. When people play video games that would probably be an example of intrinsic motivation. I use the example of going dancing, right, we dance because we'd like to dance not because we're expecting some kind of outcome after we're done. And so, if we are expecting an outcome, or if we have a goal in mind, then that would be considered extrinsic motivation. When I teach my students about motivation, they are in some ways, very tied to this notion that intrinsic motivation is good, an extrinsic motivation is bad. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily bad. Much of adult life is characterized by us having to do things that we don't always enjoy. But if we're working towards a valued goal, and we're doing something because we desire to achieve that goal, then we're in a positive state of motivation, I guess you could say. Self-determination Theory divides extrinsic motivation into controlled and autonomous forms. In controlled forms of motivation, we’re acting out of some pressure to act. That can be due to some external threat, such as the client in acute rehab, who's told that if they don't participate, more, there'll be discharged, or even the pressure to secure a reward. And in this case, the care and the positive regard of a health care provider. Even we can put pressure on ourselves, wherein we have this “should” voice in our head. In Self-Determination Theory, this is thought of as some recommendation, or belief or value or goal that's been internalized, but to a shallow degree. In a better way of saying it, the authentic self is not really integrated and identified with this goal, and so it simply remains kind of a “should” voice in our head.

Janet: That's fascinating, all the ways to think about motivation, several different perspectives. As I was listening to you, I was thinking about all of them, or at least, most, I think, have in common, that you're motivated to engage in something behavior, whether it's intrinsically motivated, or extrinsically motivated. But let me ask you a little bit about motivation from the perspective of engagement in the rehab process, because you mentioned that as an example of using motivation to keep people engaged in that process. I looked at the definition of engagement and found these two examples. One is, the fact of being involved with something. And another that adds a psychosocial component specifically says emotional involvement or commitment, which is exactly what I think you were talking about in differentiating the kinds of motivation. 

I also found this interesting description of how engagement feels when riding a horse. Now, I am not a horse person. However, this description resonates with me, and I wonder if it does with you as well. I think it has application in how we think about aphasia rehabilitation. Paraphrasing from the site,, and I bet you never thought that aphasia and happy horse training would be in the same sentence, but there they are. “There are different degrees of engagement, and it can come and go when we are writing in itself. It is a particular gymnastic state when the horse brings into action, a specific set of postural muscles, which fundamentally alter the dynamic of how he carries himself. It is only in this state that the horse is able to carry the rider in balance, and without the damaging effects that otherwise a rider inevitably has on the horse. This is why any educated rider who cares about their horse’s well-being will make engagement a priority when they ride. Apart from the fact that an unbalanced horse is never a pleasure to ride, nor is it safe. The engagement of the horse gives you the following sensations: you feel the power from the hind legs feeding underneath your seat, instead of pushing out behind, and you feel lifted up by the horse’s back underneath the saddle, instead of dropped into a hollow. Above all, engagement is an incredibly good feeling for both the horse and the rider, because we instinctively enjoy the feeling of balance and power. Instead of always focusing on what you are doing when you ride, start to become aware of the moments when it simply feels good. This is the most reliable way of finding the direction towards a correct engagement.” Several phrases in this description such as being engaged is a good feeling for both patient and clinicians (those are my words, replacing horse and rider) they resonate with me because I think we instinctively enjoy the feeling of balance and power. What do you think, Mike?

Mike: I completely agree, I think we all have a sense of what that feels like. Some people might call it flow. And in fact, there's a theory of flow and in that theory, they say, essentially, that we get into a flow state, when there is a particular balance between our skills and ability, and the degree of challenge that we're facing such that if the challenge is too great for our skills, then flow is lost. If there isn't enough challenge to capture our attention, then we're not going to have the kind of absorption that we might have in that flow state. I certainly think most of us have had that experience working with a client where, particularly after we get to know them for a while, and we've developed some skill at facilitating their communication abilities, or some aspect of a treatment that we're working on and things are starting to flow. I know that when I was at the VA in Pittsburgh, working in their Intensive Aphasia Treatment Program, one of the things I noticed was that, we worked with people for a whole month, and after about a week or two, I felt as if I was really dialed in. I was like an instrument that was being tuned, so that I could really exquisitely cue my client and facilitate their production. When we think about engagement, people have written about engagement as an experience that is co-constructed, it is a process. People have also talked about it as a state, and flow state would be an example. In going back to Self-Determination Theory, intrinsic motivation would probably be very closely related to this idea of a flow state in the sense that when we're intrinsically motivated, we're drawn to do something because we get some satisfaction out of the very act of doing it. In Self-Determination Theory, the ingredients that contribute to intrinsic motivation are that our sense of competency is being satisfied, we're feeling effective. In fact, one of the details of that competency satisfaction is that there's an optimal challenge, that we're meeting, a challenge that is not too hard, not too easy. The other ingredient that's being addressed is we're it we're doing it truly out of our own choice freely, without a sense of pressure, because we genuinely want to.

Janet: That makes a lot of sense to me as you talk about engagement and motivation, and how we can apply it in the aphasia rehabilitation sessions that we do in in our program planning. I wonder if you had any other additional thoughts you might want to share at the moment about how we can think theoretically, the theories of motivation and how we can apply those to our aphasia rehabilitation practice?

Mike: Sure, you know, when I started off as a therapist, and I was thinking about ways to motivate my clients and to increase their engagement, I think I often thought about the stimulus. I thought about making the activity more interesting to them. I thought about incorporating their hobbies, or something like that. And I think that practices is fairly common. But again, it tends to be focused on the interesting aspects of the stimuli. I think when we look at theories of motivation, we realize that there are deeper needs, that people have needs that are going to provide more of this motivational energy and provide a kind of energy that sustains itself for longer. I think when we focus on some of these more superficial aspects, quite honestly, of therapy, they just don't have the staying power. And at least in Self-Determination Theory, there's a concept of basic psychological needs. In this theory, they've identified three, (1) the need to feel autonomous, to feel that what we're doing is truly of our own choice that we desire to do it, (2) the need to feel competent at doing those things that we want to do, and (3) the need to feel connected to other people, what's called the need for relatedness, to feel that there are people who care about us, there are people we care about, and that this care is unconditional. I think if therapy and rehabilitation is constructed in a way where these needs are satisfied, then we're going to have a lot more fuel for engagement, and particularly when we hit the different challenges that people have to cope with. 

Now, the listener may be wondering, well, exactly how did these needs influence motivation, and, to be honest, I probably don't have time to go into that in much detail, but essentially, it contributes to motivation in two ways. Number one is, at least according to Self-Determination Theory, these needs are innate. We tend to be drawn towards activities, goals and contacts, where these needs are being satisfied. These needs fuel a process called internalization, which is the human tendency to kick in the recommendations that belief, the values, the practices of important people around us, and to identify with them and to make them our own beliefs and practices and what not.  I think in rehabilitation, we do a fair amount of teaching in one way or another and recommending and espousing certain beliefs and values that we think will serve people in positive ways. In the dynamics of a relationship and satisfying these needs, there is a kind of a security and a trust, and a nurturance that our clients feel and that increases the likelihood that they do take on what we have to offer and make it their own and, develop some ownership over it. Of course, that really is going to form the foundation of a more persistent engagement.

Janet: Mike, in the past year during the pandemic, and its requirement for social isolation, which perhaps may continue for several months into the future, increased mental health challenges, such as depression, have appeared in the general population, and likely also in persons with aphasia. How do you think that fostering engagement in aphasia rehabilitation and in communication interaction can help persons with aphasia cope and indeed thrive during these challenging times?

Mike: Yeah, that's a that's a really interesting question. Staying on this notion of a psychological need. Self-Determination Theory is not the only psychological theory that proposes that humans have psychological needs. What these theories tend to have in common, these needs-based theories, is that it's the satisfaction of these needs that is necessary for us to be psychologically healthy. In fact, in Self-Determination Theory, these needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are sometimes referred to as psychological nutrients, communicating the idea that just like physical, dietary nutrition, that these elements really do need to be addressed for us to be optimally healthy. I think that as therapists, of course, we have our limits. In my sessions with clients and the dynamics of our interaction, I do the best I can to address and satisfy these needs. That would also include the kind of goals, collaborative goal setting that we might do, and, and I will frankly discuss these needs with clients and family members, too, and people seem to get it. Other examples are, let's take the need for relatedness, which is not just satisfied between individuals, a client-clinician relationship, or a romantic relationship, or a parent child relationship, but it's also satisfied when people have a sense of belongingness to community. I think, right now, I've noticed that a couple of the aphasia groups that I belong to and facilitate seem to be playing a really important role in helping people feel connected to a community. Hopefully that is having a prophylactic effect in terms of helping people stay psychologically well.

Janet: Which again makes sense. But as you are interacting with people, both patients with aphasia and their caregivers, what are some of the indicators you see, that suggest a client is engaged in rehabilitation, or not engaged? How do you measure engagement or feel confident in identifying when a patient is engaged with you in the rehab process?

Mike: There are some measurements of engagement out there. Off the top of my head I don't know how valid they are. There are most definitely a number of measurements of motivation and Self-Determination Theory related measures of intrinsic motivation, of autonomous versus controlled forms of motivation, and need satisfaction. I don't administer those tests myself in my clinical practice, although I sometimes pull one aside to guide the kind of conversation that I might have with a client so that I can kind of get a sense for whether they're really struggling with this need for autonomy. In other words, they're not feeling as if they're having much choice over their life, that they have a sense of doing what is important to them, or steering the conversation towards getting a sense of how competent they feel, doing the things that are important to them, how connected they are to friends and family, etc. In general, I guess I rely more on my interactions with people and my observations. I think in terms of kind of markers of engagement, I think it does look different at different stages of rehabilitation. Early after a stroke, for example, or early in a clinical relationship, our clients often don't understand enough about their disorder, about the process of rehabilitation, to be real engaged the collaborators. At that point engagement is more focused on them being engaged in wanting to learn about aphasia, and the options for rehabilitation and whatnot. In so in the beginning, I'm spending more effort supporting people developing some competencies that will help them become more true collaborators, so that later on engagement is manifest much more in the sense of them participating in decision making and sharing their opinions on different treatment approaches, for example, then sharing their observations of what's going on with them and their progress towards their goals. So, I guess, overall, my experience has been when things are going well, that people start off most definitely curious and engaged in that way. Over time, they develop more ownership over the process and become, if not collaborators, maybe even more than that, for lack of a better word, become their own therapist. Then, of course, there are, I guess you could say, the more traditional observation observations of engagement, adherence to treatment schedules, home practice schedules, following up on recommendations, things of that nature. As a kind of an example, I think of the way one can use a theory of motivation to maybe start to think about some of the patterns of behavior that we see. I'll sometimes see clients who are using an app on their iPad and so I can monitor their practice how often they're practicing, when they're practicing. I might see that they kind of don't practice much until the day before their scheduled session with me. And to me, that's really one example of someone being in a more controlled form of motivation, wherein the reason for them to be motivated is perhaps the desire to maintain my approval of them. When our motives are external to us they don't really exert much influence until they're in proximity. And so, as we get closer to the scheduled appointment, all of a sudden, this external motivator starts to kick in, and they'll do some practice. I might look at that and realize that there's something missing in terms of addressing goals, etc. so that people are more truly, the genuinely autonomously motivated, in which case, the pattern would be more like, not just that people are more persistent on their own, but at times, they're even asking for more.

Janet: That is a good place to leave it because you've been helping me visualize this picture of engagement as a process. Everything's so new in the beginning of a person's journey through aphasia. And as the clinician, you are helping them become more comfortable with that and take more of an active role, if you will, owning the aphasia and what to do about it. Let me ask from your experience and research, what advice or techniques or suggestions can you give to our listeners that they can take and incorporate into their clinical practice? I know you've described a little bit about how you use your observations, but are there some specific pieces of information you can impart to our listeners?

Mike: Sure. I think engagement starts with me. If I am truly engaged, then that tends to facilitate the engagement of my clients. If we think about when someone listens to us, let's say and listens to our story, in a manner in which they genuinely seem to be trying to understand our perspective, that tends to cause us to be a little bit more interested in in it ourselves. I think engagement is contagious. You will read in in qualitative studies, rehab patients particularly in the acute phase, talk about this need to kind of draw on the positive energy of their clinicians to carry them through this difficult time. Now, there are some specific practices that have been described that are focused on satisfying these basic psychological needs, which are kind of the ingredients of motivation, and therefore, engagement. Maybe it would be helpful for me to just go through the list of them, or the short list, so people can kind of get a flavor for what this might look like. 

The need for a satisfying people's autonomy is often achieved through first doing what is called perspective taking, listening to people, their concerns, their stories, with the particular intention to try and see the world through their eyes. That kind of listening interest is an acknowledgement of a person's autonomy, and therefore, its autonomy satisfying. Providing choice has been studied quite a bit in terms of satisfying the need for autonomy. I think most of us are familiar with that, because it plays a role in shared decision-making and client-centered goal setting, providing rationales for any of the recommendations we make, rationales that are meaningful, from the client’s perspective, that allow people to genuinely self-endorse them and to kind of take ownership of them. That's believed to be autonomy supportive. Finally, establishing an environment that is not pressuring. In other words, that we don't set up contingencies either explicitly or implicitly. What I mean by that, specifically, is that people don't feel that they need to be a certain way, or behave in a certain way, in order to secure our approval, and our energy, and also to some degree, that means paying attention to the language that we use. Those people who are familiar with motivational interviewing will know that, in motivational interviewing, you pay quite close attention to the language your client is using, the language you're using. For example, you may make an extra effort to stay away from controlling language such as “you should”, “you must”, “you need to”, etc. As far as satisfying the need for competency, that starts by providing the kind of structure that makes people feel secure, that makes them feel supported in making progress. It’s not chaotic, therapy is not a chaotic experience, it's somewhat predictable. I mentioned previously optimal challenge, such as finding tasks, goals that are optimally challenging. The nature of the feedback that we give can support people's needs to feel competent, in other words, that our feedback is more informational than evaluative. It's informational in the sense that, once we give it people have a sense of how to do better next time. It's useful a feedback. And then of course, monitoring progress is an important component of satisfying people's needs to feel competency within rehabilitation and measuring progress in a way that is meaningful to clients. As far as the need for relatedness. In general, it means that we do not send any overt or covert signals that our positive regard for our clients is in any way dependent on what they say or do. Let them know that our care for them is unconditional, and that our motivation is autonomous. In other words, that they are not an object to us. What I mean by that is, they are not a means to an end for us they are not a productivity requirement, they are not a means of generating income, they are not a means of stroking our egos, that we genuinely empathize with them and want to help. And they that is their experience of us.

Janet: It does sound to me like you've spent a lot of time thinking about motivation and engagement, and also applying it in your everyday work with patients and their family members. Would you describe for us one of the successful experiences you've had and engaging patients and family members in your rehab process?

Mike: Sure. I can honestly say that all of my clients now and in recent memory, or I think, successes. One of the things, as I mentioned before, that I've been experimenting with more is working with caregivers and talking about these basic psychological needs and how we, the people around the person with aphasia, can sometimes out of good intention, thwart those needs, and how they can do some simple things, to help people feel autonomous, to help them feel competent, to help them feel connected to others. I've gotten a lot of good feedback from starting to do that. Another thing I've been experimenting with are very, very short term goals. In goal setting theory, which is referenced now and then in rehab literature, proximal goals, very short term goals are thought to be more motivating than long term goals. My PT colleagues are fortunate in the sense that the kinds of goals their clients are working towards her so much more concrete and tangible. A person could not transfer from their bed to their wheelchair independently. Now, they can. It's easy to observe. Communication improvements are more abstract. To some degree, I think my patients suffer from struggling more to have a tangible, concrete sense that they're making improvements towards their goal. And so I've been working with super short term goals. In other words, goals, like,” Okay, what would you like to achieve by next week.” What's been really interesting about that process is that when we think about a goal in that short of a term, it tends to focus the mind in ways that longer term goals, one month, two months, three months, just don't. It seems to cause people to really reflect carefully on their strengths, what they can do. Then there’s this heightened sense of expectation that people have, because they're going to experience meeting a goal in a very short timeframe. Now, of course if we can link these one week goals up towards some longer term valued goal, all the better. But that's been a very interesting process, and really helpful not just for my clients, but for me as a as a clinician, too.

Janet: I can imagine it has. It must, again, thinking back to the definitions we talked about earlier on engagement, make you feel good, help you and your client feel good that you're in balance with each other. You're working together, little steps, baby steps to achieve some larger goal in future time.

Mike: Yeah, I think setting goals and thinking about goals is, is difficult for all of us. And by really shortening the distance. It makes it easier to conceptualize,

Janet: I can imagine. Well Mike, as we bring this conversation to a close, and quite frankly, I would rather not. I'd rather go on talking to you for hours and hours because I know that you've spent a good deal of time studying this topic, and practicing this topic, and can talk for days with us about motivation and engagement and its value and importance in our rehabilitation activities. But we are limited on time, so as we bring this conversation to a close, are there any last comments on engagement or motivation? Or in particular Self-Determination Theory, that you would like to share with us? 

Mike: Yeah, I think there may be two things. First is that we don't motivate people. We support people's motivation. We support people in ways that contributes to their need for motivation to show up. I want to make that statement because I know that earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to believe certain things, to do certain things, and whatnot. In a related way, you know, for me, motivation was a thorn in my side, because I often felt that my clients were not as engaged in a persistent way as they needed to be to kind of reap the benefits that treatment had to offer. That wasn't just my perspective, they felt the same way, and they often didn't know why. It was some time before it dawned on me that there was this factor - motivation - that I put a lot of emphasis on, but I essentially knew nothing about it, I followed my intuition. Learning some theories of motivation, not just Self-Determination Theory, although I think that's my favorite one, I think it's the best fit for the people that I see in my practice, but I draw from other theories, too, this has really transformed my practice and made me more comfortable in my skin, as well as I think more effective. I'd suggest that people who are interested in this topic to start to read about it. One thing about motivation is that the factors that influence motivation tend to be universal, so that we can read about motivation in the context of education or even the workplace, and I think with some confidence, translate that into our own practice. So even though their research is really not there, in speech pathology land, there is a lot of useful research that we can draw upon.

Janet: Thank you, that's a good recommendation. I hope that our listeners will take that recommendation, and I hope they will to learn from a project, Mike, that I know you and I with some other people are working on to really examine how people in speech language pathology are reporting motivation when they report their clinical work. We look forward to disseminating that information in a future venue. I want to thank you so much for your time today, Mike, and for chatting with me about motivation and engagement in aphasia rehabilitation. 


This is Janet Patterson speaking from the VA in Northern California, and along with Aphasia Access, I would like to thank my guest, Mike Biel for sharing his knowledge, wisdom and experience in studying and practicing principles of motivation, and engagement in aphasia rehabilitation. You can find references and links in the Show Notes from today's podcast interview with Dr. Michael Biel, at Aphasia Access under the Resource Tab on the Homepage. On behalf of Aphasia Access, we thank you for listening to this episode of The Aphasia Access Conversation Podcast project. For more information on Aphasia Access, and to access our growing library of materials, please go to If you have an idea for a future podcast topic, please email us at  Thank you again for your ongoing support of Aphasia Access.



 Self-Determination Theory 

VA Pittsburgh Program for Intensive Residential Aphasia Treatment & Education (PIRATE)