What would happen if fitness and wellness professionals stopped selling their services and, instead, concentrated on helping their clients clarify the value of training? Would your individual fitness and wellness business wither or grow? My money is on growth. I'm not suggesting that we stop charging for our services or that there is something shameful about selling. Rather, I am suggesting that we can be more successful as fitness and wellness professionals if we shift our perspective — from recommending behavior to facilitating behavior change, from directing our clients' actions to guiding their growth, from an authoritarian relationship to one that is collaborative — which is the shift from simply training to coaching our clients. In short, I'm advocating a shift from selling our expertise to fishing for our clients' motivations and goals.
So How Do You Fish?
The answer to this question can be found through the use of Motivational Interviewing (MI), a powerful, evidence-based methodology for helping people change behavior. According to William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in their book, Motivational Interviewing, Second Edition, MI is defined as, "A client-centered, directive method for enhancing intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence." This methodology, first off, focuses wholly on the client — his or her agenda, purpose and state of mind. So, if we're interested in creating a collaborative relationship with our clients, it's important to go fishing for the information that is beyond simply creating an exercise prescription. In order to fish successfully, we must be genuinely curious about our clients. We show such curiosity by asking questions like, "What do you want to accomplish?" Or, "If we are having this conversation a year from now, what would be different about you?" When fitness professionals are genuinely curious about some aspect of their clients' lives or behaviors, their questions assume that clients themselves have the answers and that these answers are correct. In other words, fitness professionals, through coaching, explicitly recognize that their clients are the experts of their own lives and, through MI, give them permission to freely say whatever there is for them to say — without judgment. We may or may not agree as fitness professionals, but we should respect that our clients have their own perspective and that this is the perspective we will work from.
However, there may be times when a client's perspective is based on erroneous information or an inaccurate understanding of the scientific literature. There is, after all, no shortage of "diet du jours" and "fitness by celebrity" programs. It is our responsibility to speak up and educate our clients if they choose goals that are unrealistic and/or are not supported by exercise science. But what will make the difference, however, is how we speak up. Remember, breathe first, and then go fishing. This is, in fact, the perfect time to ask your client, "What do you like about the diet?" Or, "What attracted you to this particular exercise program?" You could even ask, "How did you learn about this program?" Questions like these respect your client's intelligence, are non-threatening and will provide you with valuable information about your client's agenda and motivations. Furthermore, this is information you need to hear and will want to use to maximize your client's success.
Once you have clarified what's really important to your client, you can now provide specific feedback and education. Do this by summarizing the relevant information and ask permission to share your expertise. For example, you could say, "Now that I know you don't enjoy cardio exercise, we could create a program that integrates shorter bouts of aerobic training with strength training. Is this something you'd like to hear more about?"
MI also proposes that change occur naturally. Consequently, a fitness professional's job as fisherfolk is to encourage a client's natural propensity to change. This can be done by listening for and responding to "change talk." What is change talk? It is when clients declare their intention to change. Change talk gives voice to our clients' motivations, serves as the primary expression of behavior change and also increases the likelihood of change. It works simply because according to D.J. Bem's self-perception theory, "People are more persuaded by what they hear themselves say than by what someone tells them." In other words, clients are always going to be more moved by what they say about themselves and your service than by what you tell them about yourself, your service or the promise of exercise. So, when you hear such change talk, don't just sit there! Repeat it back to your client; reinforce it; and ask for more information. Learning to hear and acknowledge change talk can be one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox, and it is worth taking the time to master this skill. '
Finally, MI assumes that ambivalence is a natural phase in the change process. Therefore, rather than ignoring our clients' ambivalence, asking them to suppress it or being angry with them when it appears (again!), we should embrace it. After all, exploring and resolving ambivalence is a prerequisite of change, and without this, clients can't move forward, and, therefore, change doesn't occur! Utilizing MI helps fitness professionals explore and resolve ambivalence with their clients by amplifying the clients' perspective — the discrepancy between their present behavior and their larger goals and values. In other words, we look to see what's below the surface, and we go fishing!
So, when your clients miss a workout or appointment, rather than reminding them that they can't achieve their goals without putting in the time (which they already know), it can be more effective to ask, "I'm curious. How did it feel to not come in when you said you would?" Or, "What was great about giving yourself an unplanned day off from your workout?" Notice that these questions are neutral in tone, respectful and non-judgmental. Depending upon your client's answer, you can then ask, "If you're faced with this situation again, what would you do?" Or, "What would you do differently next time?" And even, "What did you learn from this experience?" These kinds of questions will help your clients remain accountable to themselves and clarify their motivation and learning — to both themselves and to you.
If we, as fitness professionals, learn to fish more effectively, we would actually have to sell less. The value of our services would increase as our clients hear their own change talk and learn to articulate for themselves all they receive from our services. Further, such service is more comprehensive because now it includes more than our technical expertise. It includes fishing, and fishing permits us to explore our clients' belief systems, their goals, their motivations and their barriers to change — all of which impact their success. Thus, the more we can help our clients access and consciously use these change variables, the more successful they are likely to be. And the greater our clients' successes, the greater our reward — personally and professionally.
Heidi Duskey is a licensed Corporate Wellcoach with over 15 years of experience as a group exercise instructor, personal trainer, program facilitator and fitness director. She also maintains a private coaching practice. For more information, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.