It was 2009. My husband and I were running our fitness boot camps and had just had our first child. I knew I didn’t want to travel anymore to speak with a new baby at home, and decided to focus on online training and coaching instead. I loved helping clients effect change in their lives and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to marry what I loved best, with the flexibility and schedule I was looking for. I added in clients who wanted a deeper dive in nutrition and behavior and was excited to get to work.
At first I loved it. Clients adopted the changes we discussed and were making progress and I felt like a rock star. It felt great to know that I was helping them reach their goals and creating a program that worked. They told friends. I took on more clients. And then I hit a road bump.
A client wasn’t following any of my nutrition strategies — despite planning around every barrier and talking about things she could try each week. I sent reminders. I followed up. When we would get on the phone to chat for her weekly session it felt like a confessional of what she wasn’t doing. I would think harder and offer new suggestions, tweaking and offering new meal and snack ideas and new strategies, only to no avail.
Eventually I remember telling her, “I can’t help you. I’ve given you every strategy and tool I can and at this point, you have to make the decision to put them into practice in your own life. Until you do that, you won’t be successful and you won’t make any progress.”
It hurts to recall this now. In hindsight I can see how much I failed that client and all the things I would do differently — but more on that in a minute. Because what I distinctly remember in that moment wasn’t that I had failed to coach her, but that I was just a failure. I wasn’t the rock star or the expert who had all the answers. None of my answers worked for her. And if I couldn’t help this client, then how could I call myself a coach?
Looking back on those days, I wasn’t really a coach. I was selling a program with a specific approach to nutrition and fitness behaviors that worked for many people, and that also worked for me. I was good at directing my clients on how to best use my principles. I had no idea how to guide my clients to find their own principles and answers. That wouldn’t come for a few years.
I continued coaching for a year or so, of course from time to time running into clients who didn’t mesh with my programs and my answers, and I’d feel defeated again. Eventually, I decided to stop individual coaching and go back to small group programs. I started speaking again.
A Question of Mindset
It wasn’t until I became familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on mindset that I began to see my first mistake in my online coaching days. I had a fixed mindset.
If you’re not familiar with Dweck’s work, she is a Stanford University psychologist who studies how we think about our talents and abilities and the impact it has on learning, performance, parenting, athletics, etc.
Essentially people fall into one of two categories: fixed mindset — those who believe that intelligence, skills, and abilities are fixed and their potential is set at birth — and growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed, skills can be learned, and potential is essentially limitless with hard work and effort.
Individuals who have a fixed mindset focus on proving their worth and their value. If you are a coach with a fixed mindset, you expect that you have to be the smartest one in the room. When it comes to your relationships with your clients, you are the expert with the answers. And while in theory the reason you are coaching clients is about helping them succeed, ultimately your choices always comes back to proving your value as a coach.
I remember discovering this concept and feeling such relief! “You mean I don’t have to hold all of the answers? I can meet my client wherever they are?”
I realized my previous errors. By assuming I had to have all of the answers, I didn’t empower my clients to find what was possible for them. By telling my clients what to do, I took the change process out of their own hands. And by being so quick to offer alternatives and new strategies, I took the responsibility for their success.
The Consistency Struggle
If you’re in the behavior change business, it is inevitable that you will encounter clients who struggle with consistency. Whether it’s clients who say their goal is to reduce body fat but who are unwilling to monitor or change their eating habits, those who say they want to maintain progress when traveling and then skip workouts, or those who turn to quick fixes and magic bullets despite your steady reminders that those don’t work.
Poor client consistency can be difficult at any stage in your career. It can be a source of frustration, leave you uncertain about your skills and abilities and can even lead to burnout. When dealing with consistency issues we have to remember it’s not necessarily the client’s fault. Too often we’re quick to think of what the client isn’t doing, instead of recognizing, like in my case, it may be the way we’re coaching the client in the first place.
When our clients aren’t consistent they are trying to tell us something. Maybe they’re saying:
- “This requires too much of me, it’s too challenging, too rigorous, etc.”
- “This isn’t something I believe I can do; I don’t think I have the energy or resources for this.”
- “I’m afraid of failure.”
- “I’m afraid of success”
And any other thing in between.
When we take a “comply or die” mentality with clients, we ignore their unique story, experience and underlying concerns.
Even worse, we may be taking someone who has little belief in themselves and validating all the fears and reasons why they think they can’t be successful in the first place. If you have clients who are struggling with consistency, help them own the change process. Use these steps to see if you can meet them along the way.
Start With You
First, check your mindset. Are you feeling responsible for having the answers for your client? Are you focused on your client reaching outcomes rather than on their experience?
It’s easy to fall into a routine with clients that “works.” Without even realizing it, you may be doing what feels best for you instead of what works best for your client. If this is the case, shift toward a person-focused approach.
Focus on Your Client
One of the best tools to help you turn the focus on the client is to use Motivational Interviewing (MI) and its related concepts in your coaching practice.
Motivational Interviewing as a practice is extensive, and further information on training can be found at MotivationalInterviewing.org. However, we can use some of the key concepts from MI to better understand our clients and improve client outcomes.
1. Develop Great Listening Skills
To take a person-focused approach, we have to be willing to get curious. Ask open-ended questions that start with what, how, why, or tell me about. Yes or no questions stop the flow of information between you and your client, but open ended questions may give you information you wouldn’t know or think to ask about. Consider:
Coach: “Ready to train?”
Coach: “Haha! Let’s go.”
Coach: “How was your day?”
Coach: “Tell me about it. In what way?”
Client: “We had a flood in part of our office last night and I had to unpack and transfer 32 banker boxes of files to the other side of the building. I thought of it as a workout!”
Coach: “Sounds like it was. If you’re feeling overtired we could focus more on mobility and core training today.”
In the first example, you may get to the fact that the client is exhausted from work. Or you may not, and you may just wonder why her performance seems to be suffering, or she could end up feeling over fatigued and sore. The open ended question allows you to obtain more information than you would otherwise.
2. Use Reflective Listening to Seek Clarification
When you’re engaged in open-ended questions, it’s helpful to check for understanding by reflecting your client’s words back to them.
Client: “And after I get home from work, I just feel done and I never want to cook.”
Coach: “So you feel too tired to cook?”
Client: “No. I just hate cooking. It takes so much more energy to do the things I don’t want to do.”
Coach: “I know that feeling. What do you think you would be willing to do?”
3. Understand That Ambivalence Is a Normal Part of Behavior Change
Ambivalence refers to having mixed feelings about something. Most of us experience conflict over the choices we make each day. We know we’ll feel better from eating the salad with lean protein, but we also like the taste of a burger and fries. We know we should get more sleep, but the Netflix binge is too compelling.
When you’re working with your clients, help them to see that this conflict is natural and then help them work through it. To do this, help clients identify:
The benefits of staying the same — What’s good about not changing? By asking what’s good about keeping things as is, you can see what benefit the client sees in not changing.
The challenges of changing — Here you can better understand your clients underlying concerns and worries they have for making change.
The benefits of changing — What’s good about making the changes they desire for themselves?
The negatives of staying the same — What’s bad about not changing?
Hope and optimism for changing — What do they see as possible for themselves? This is a critical step, because ultimately your clients hold the answers.
How to visualize change — Ask your clients to imagine what change looks like for them. If they were able to change, what would that look and feel like?
Walking clients through these steps help them understand that there may be reasons why change feels difficult and why they may not be ready for it. It normalizes the change process and allows your clients to work through their ambivalence until they reach a place where the benefits of change outweigh the negatives of staying the same.
4. Identify Discrepancy
Clients may not see the difference between what they say they desire for themselves and where they are currently. For example, a client may say they really want to dial in their nutrition, but often allow their partner to talk them into making less than healthy food choices. By pointing out the discrepancy, you can explore the potential challenges and barriers to making that change a reality.
This last point may be the most important step. When a client is highly resistant to suggestions and ideas, avoid getting into a back and forth with them. Instead, let go of the need to steer them in one direction. They don’t have to change. Knowing that you have their back no matter what choices they make helps your client trust that you see them as a person first and that they are responsible for deciding what happens. It empowers them to stay with the status quo or to decide to move ahead and shows them they are not being pulled into that decision.
One Last Thought
You will encounter clients who, for whatever reason, are an energy drain. Maybe it’s not a good personality match, maybe the client needs additional support outside of your scope, or maybe they’re seeking training that is inconsistent with your approach.
If you find you and your client aren’t connecting and you’re left feeling drained after each training session, don’t be afraid to fire a client. Not everyone is a good match and if a person is leaving you in a negative mindset, or feeling as though you have less energy for other clients, yourself or your family, it’s time to say goodbye. If you take this approach, try to offer the client alternative options and of course, be as gentle and clear as you can be.
Consistency struggles are a normal part of the behavior change process.
By getting curious, normalizing the challenges and helping clients work through ambivalence, you can help your clients move closer to the goals they desire.
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