7 Game-Changing Coaching Principles, Part 1: Leading With Questions, Centering On The Client, And Focussing On Awesomeness vs. Awfulness
By John Berardi, PhDElite Level Coaching
Many health and fitness coaches unconsciously fall into coaching caricatures: The Hardass, The Cheerleader, The Best Buddy. Not only do these cliches undermine relationships, they hurt the profession. We can do better. And, in this three-part series, I outline the principles for doing just that. In part one, strategies for seeing clients differently.
The Drill Sergeant And The Cheerleader
Ask most people what their idea of a health and fitness coach looks like and I bet they picture some sort of comic-book extreme.
A yelling, red-faced, make-you-hurt drill sergeant who shames you into another set of pushups or bullies you into binging on beets. Or a slap-you-on-the-butt cheerleader who rah-rahs you into box-jumping onto the roof and washing it down with a green smoothie.
(See also: An evidence-based physician who doesn’t understand what it’s like to fear the weigh scale. A nutritionist whose only food crayon is “leafy green.” Or a yoga teacher who can twist like a pretzel but would never condescend to eat one.)
You know what? They may not be that far off-base. Many coaches unconsciously fall into those caricatures (perhaps influenced by popular portrayals of trainers of shows like The Biggest Loser).
Now, I have nothing against drill sergeants or cheerleaders when they’re actual drill sergeants and cheerleaders. However, when health and fitness coaches act like drill sergeants and cheerleaders, that’s when things go awry.
The World’s Best Coaches Think Differently
Traditionally, in coach-client and doctor-patient relationships, professionals act like they’re preordained to have all the knowledge and power while clients are there to be the passive, pliable recipients.
I’ll tell you what to do; you go out and do it.
This is a logical holdover of medical paternalism, a set of attitudes and practices common until the end of the 20th century. With medical paternalism, physicians believed diseases were nothing more than a collection of symptoms and that patient history (and preferences) didn’t matter in providing care. Since the patient was irrelevant in the medical encounter, physicians often undermined their autonomy by making decisions for them, sometimes against their will.
In today’s environment, not only is that insulting for the patient, it’s a surefire way to fail as a coach.
Another less-common, but also somewhat dangerous, approach in health and fitness coaching is: Client as best buddy.
While this might sound like a good situation, it’s not. In this scenario, the coach tries to “motivate” the client by being “nice,” spends a lot of time talking about the client’s non-health-related personal problems, and may even tell the client way more about their own life issues than the client should know.
The result? Coaches can become enmeshed in a friendship (or even more inappropriately, romantic relationship) with the client. This makes it hard to set a clear direction, focus on the task at hand, offer difficult feedback, or “disappoint” the client (for instance, by taking time to go on vacation or not being available 24/7).
Thankfully, there’s a better approach.
Instead of seeing the relationship as “teacher-student” or “boss-employee” or “sergeant-trooper”—or even as “buddy-buddy”—today’s most effective coaches see themselves more like professional guides.
Their job isn’t to lecture about what they know, judge performance, give directives, or become a BFF. It’s to collaborate with clients to co-create their program and then walk side-by-side with them, nudging them down paths they should see, pointing out potholes and missteps they should avoid—and ask them where they want to go next.
Sometimes clients know a lot about the area they’re exploring. In this case, the coach is just there to open their eyes to new things. Other times, when clients are brand new to the environment, the coach’s work is a little more involved.
At times, coaches may even need to offer uncomfortable feedback, prod their client into acknowledging unpalatable truths, or highlight cognitive dissonance (e.g. the difference between what someone says they want, and what they’re actually doing).
Sage On The Stage vs. Guide On The Side
Sure, from time-to-time coaches might need to step in front to lead, or behind to push. But, most of the time, the best coaches are right there, next to clients, side-by-side.
A simple way to remember this? Instead of being a sage on the stage, opt for being a guide on the side.
Think less about who you are and what you know. Think more about who your clients are and what they need, including:
- how they see the world,
- what they want from the coaching process,
- which stage of change they’re currently in,
- why they react to change the way they do, and
- how you can best help facilitate change.
You’ve heard the saying: “You can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink.” That describes how far most coaches are willing to go in helping clients change.
I‘ve told Drew what to do a million times, given him at-home workouts, told him to cut back on alcohol, and he just won’t do it.
For coaches, it’s seriously frustrating. Plus it lends itself to blaming clients for not following orders. But imagine what it’s like for clients, who really do want to look, feel, or perform better but can’t figure out how within the context of their real lives. Then, on top of that, they have this coach giving orders without much sensitivity to the things getting in the way.
Change makers look at the process differently. They think: “No, you can’t make the horse drink. But you can make it very, very thirsty.”
Seven Game-Changing Coaching Principles
Most professionals spend their first few years immersed in the science of health and fitness, from muscle physiology to nutrient biochemistry.
They learn about energy systems, organ systems, macronutrients, and micronutrients. If they’re lucky, they’re also taught how to translate that into useful recommendations.
It’s a good start, if it were only a start. Unfortunately, it’s where most education ends. Many newly minted professionals never learn how to deal with the real health issues, psychological barriers, and frustrations of working with real people.
If you’re planning on being a professor or researcher you could always stop at the science. However, if you’d like to become an elite change maker, you have to go one step further by also studying, and developing mastery in, the best practices of coaching and change psychology.
The following principles will give you the blueprint to do that.
(By the way, many of these principles will work for your business development, too. A client might want to lose weight, and you might want to grow your business; the focus is different but the path to mastery is the same).
Coaching Principle #1:
Become More “Client-Centered”, Less “Coach-Centered”
Think back to a time in your life where you’ve had a problem or a challenge, where there was something you wanted to fix or change but didn’t know how.
What did that feel like?
Did you start out motivated and confident?
Or did you feel something else?
Now consider what it would feel like to reach out to someone for advice and, instead of considering your unique situation, they incorrectly diagnosed your problem and made a bunch of haphazard recommendations.
What would that feel like?
Let’s say you’re having stomach pain. You go see a doctor and, within the first 30 seconds, no greeting or anything, the doctor says: “Ah, pain right there? It’s stomach cancer. We’ll treat it with radiation. Make an appointment at the front desk.”
After freaking out, you’d probably think that the doctor was a jerk and that the diagnosis wasn’t credible because the doc never asked questions, did diagnostics, took a family history, or anything.
Same goes for most other things, right? When you have car trouble, you don’t want a mechanic to flippantly say, “It must be the transmission.” When you have computer trouble, you don’t want the help desk to answer the phone with, “It must be the RAM.”
You want people to hear you to help you. And it’s not just because you want to be heard, but because you have some essential information that the other person needs to draw an accurate conclusion.
In my experience, when someone has an answer before hearing and deeply understanding the problem, it’s probably not the right answer. (And, even if they get lucky and come up with a technically correct answer, it usually isn’t a helpful one.)
Now, let’s take the same principle and apply it to you—and how you work with people.
Do you make the same mistake as the doctor, the mechanic, and computer expert above? Are your answers sometimes too flippant? Are you sometimes too focused on your knowledge, expertise, and authority (what I call “coach-centered”) instead of focusing on the lives and embodied experiences of your clients (what I call “client-centered”)?
That’s normal, especially at the beginning of our careers. Because we spend so much time learning facts about anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and biomechanics, it’s easy for us to fetishize our knowledge and accidentally prioritize it when sitting with living, breathing humans. And young coaches can lean on information dumps and bluster to hide insecurity about their lack of experience. This leads to interactions that are all about us, our knowledge, our authority, and our reputation.
Think about it: If we’re too concerned with “having the right answer” or “looking smart” or “retaining our authority,” we’re not thinking enough about what the client needs, what they already know about their body, what their real challenges are, and which dreams inspire them.
When we’re too concerned with our reputation, we’re less willing to humble ourselves in front of clients and ask the deep questions required to help us understand their lives.
Here’s one way to think of it. Sure, you’re an expert on the body. But your client is the world’s #1 expert on his or her own life. Great coaching can only happen when a coach integrates their own expertise with the necessary expertise of the client.
This is the essence of client-centeredness.
This is part of what will make you a successful coach.
Decades of research in teaching, counseling, and coaching have confirmed what we found to be true with more than 150,000 Precision Nutrition Coaching clients.
The client-centered approach cuts down on some of your biggest obstacles: client ambivalence and resistance. Plus, rather than building you up, it builds the client. As their dignity, self-determination, self-efficacy, and self-expertise increase, you’ll see better, more sustainable results.
Just don’t make the mistake of pretending you’re less educated or expert than you really are; while clients want to feel like a collaborator in their own process, they also want to feel like their coach is knowledgeable and experienced.
No doubt, it’s a difficult tightrope to walk. But it’s important. You’re doing it right if you’re constantly assessing each client situation to see if a little more expert direction is needed at that moment, or a little more collaboration is needed, and adjusting accordingly.
Here’s an example of the difference.
If a client comes to you with a question that you think you have a slam-dunk answer for, it’s easy to feel like a kid in a classroom. “I know this! I know this!”
For example, someone’s not losing weight, you look at their food journal, and boom! “Replace that potato with veggies and you’re all set!”
The problem is that, without a discussion, you don’t know enough about why the potato is in their diet in the first place. Nor, without the client’s input, do you know whether they’ll even want to remove it (or if they’d prefer to remove something else from a different meal).
Instead of blurting out your knee-jerk solution, this is a perfect time to ask questions about their exercise, about their overall eating patterns, about which foods they can (and can’t) live without, what’s convenient and easy to eat, and so on.
Once you learn more about them, you can discuss how, for their goals, they might be eating more carbs, or calories, than optimal. Then, finally, you can ask how they might adjust their diet to make the necessary improvements.
One of my favorite ways to open the discussion is: “I have a few ideas on what to do next here, but I’d love to hear yours first.”
Coaching Principle #2:
Ask Good Questions To Practice Active, Compassionate Listening
A few years back, my wife, Amanda, and I were living with her parents while renovating a house about two hours away. During the week, after working a full day, we’d drive two hours to the new home, work on it for a few hours, and drive two hours back. Then, on weekends, drive to the house in the morning, spend the entire day there, and drive back at night.
It was exhausting. For the first few weeks, I didn’t work out at all. And I didn’t like the feeling.
Now, when I say I had close to zero time to work out, that’s accurate. But since it wasn’t exactly zero time, I was determined to make something work. So I reached out to a friend who’s an excellent coach.
He listened carefully to my story, asked a bunch of questions, and summarized with this: “Here’s what I’m hearing. Tell me if I’ve got it. You have almost no time to exercise, but want to do something, even if it’s not ‘perfect.’ You’d prefer to do it first thing in the morning before your day starts. It has to be really short. And you don’t mind doing it in your bedroom with only body weight.”
He nailed it and went on to create a four-day per week circuit training workout that: a) lasted only 10 minutes, b) I could do in the morning, immediately after waking up, c) required no equipment, and d) I could do right next to the bed.
Notice what he did there. First, he listened to my story. Then he asked questions until he thought he understood. Rather than assuming he understood, he summarized what he heard out loud so I could correct him if necessary. Only then did he make his recommendations (which turned out to be really creative and exactly what I wanted).
Imagine a scenario where he didn’t practice compassionate listening, where he didn’t ask lots of questions, where he didn’t seek clarity. Imagine if, instead of focusing on my needs, he made it all about him, his expectations, his expertise.
He might have tried to convince me to go to a gym or to persuade me to “just try” four 45-minute workouts. He might have said my program demands were unreasonable. Tried to guilt me into making time for more exercise. Or tried to chastise me for making excuses.
But what would that have accomplished? I couldn’t have followed a more intensive program at the time. If he had prescribed one anyway it would have been frustrating. I would have resented him for pushing his agenda on me without respecting my limitations. He would have resented me for not trying hard enough.
Thankfully, it didn’t go that direction. Instead, for the months we renovated that home, I maintained my fitness with those 10-minute circuit workouts, a healthy eating plan, and all the extra physical activity that came from doing the renovations themselves. About 6 months later, when the house was complete and we’d finally moved in, we outfitted it with a sweet home gym.
Guess who I hired to design my first workout program?
The point here is that the world’s best professionals are willing to do everything it takes to understand their clients, which starts with asking great questions and then deeply, actively listening to the answers without any agenda of their own.
This brings us to high-quality listening, a critical part of client-centered coaching.
We’ve all heard this, of course. Maybe you’ve even heard the adage that we were given two ears and one mouth so we would listen twice as much as we speak.
However, many of us struggle with listening because we feel that we have to be “the expert” and that experts teach, talk, and give next actions. That’s precisely why letting go of “being the expert” helps us become better listeners.
It also helps with another thing: Becoming students of our clients.
When we take our ego needs out of the equation, we can better learn (and understand) what they’re thinking, appreciate their current habits, discover what’s holding them back, and find ways to inspire better and healthier choices.
Of course, I’m not saying that teaching, talking, and giving next actions are bad things. What I’m saying is: They’re only valuable—in a coaching context—after we’ve invested the time to truly listen to and understand our clients.
However, I cringe when people tell coaches to “listen better” and leave it there. That’s because I don’t think you can become a more active, compassionate listener without learning to ask better questions.
Good questions unlock the insights worth listening to. And you can use them in a variety of ways, in almost every scenario, to empower clients to:
- share personal information,
- gain clarity in their own thinking,
- say things out loud for the first time,
- actively engage in change talk, and
- begin solving their own problems.
Plus, they help extend the adage above. Because, instead of listening twice as much as you speak, I recommend listening at least four times as much.
In fact, one way to level up your coaching immediately is to spend about 80 percent of your time asking questions and listening, 20 percent of your time guiding or giving instructions.
Here are a few examples of the kinds of questions we use every day at Precision Nutrition, questions designed to improve our listening skills, better sense into client needs, and pave the way for giving advice without triggering client resistance.
Types of Compassionate Listening Questions
- What things are important to you, and how does exercise and eating fit into this?
- What sort of things would you like to accomplish in your life?
- What would you like to see change?
- If things were better with your eating/exercise, what specifically would be different?
- What have you tried? What worked and what didn’t?
- Imagine you can X (your goal). Describe your experience.
- Imagine you are already doing more of X. What would that feel like?
- Imagine that you have the body and health you desire. What exactly did it take for you to achieve it?
- If you weren’t constrained by reality—let’s imagine for a minute that absolutely anything is possible—what might you…?
- In the past, when were you successful with this, even just a little bit
- How could we do more of that?
- Where in your life have you been successful with something like this?
- Did you learn any lessons that we can apply here?
- Where is the problem not happening? When are things even a little bit better?
- In what ways does this concern you?
- If you decided to make a change, what makes you think you could do it?
- How would you like things to be different?
- How would things be better if you changed?
- What concerns you now about your current exercise and eating patterns?
Statements that act like questions to validate feelings
- I get the sense that you may be struggling with…
- It seems to me like you’re feeling…
- If you decided to change, on a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you could change, when 1 represents not at all confident and 10 equals extremely confident?
- If you wanted to change, what would be the tiniest possible step toward that? The absolute smallest, easiest thing you could try?
- Tell me what else is going on for you right now, in your life. What else do you have on your plate besides this? Let’s get a sense of what you’re working with.
- So, given all this, what do you think you could do next?
- What’s next for you?
- If nothing changes, what do you see happening in five years?
- If you decide to change, what will it be like?
- How would you like things to be different?
- Would it be okay if I shared some of my experiences with you?
- In my work with clients/patients, I’ve found that…
Statements that get people thinking
- I wonder what it would be like if you…
- I wonder if we could try…
- I’m curious about whether…
Coaching Principle #3:
Focus On What’s Awesome, Not What’s Awful
Watch popular portrayals of TV trainers and fitness coaches and you’ll get the idea that telling people how much they suck is motivating.
What’s that in your hand? A donut? Typical. Get off your butt and let’s see some pushups, you pathetic unmotivated blob of goo!
These coaches are always on the lookout for awfulness, stalking, ready to pounce on it with good ol’ fashioned “tough love.”
In real life, most of us would never speak to clients in this cartoonish and extreme way. However, whether we realize it or not, whether it sounds nicer on the surface or not, most of us do our own “awfulness-based coaching.”
And that makes sense. When it comes to helping people, logic tells us: Person has a problem. You have a solution. Put the two together and results follow.
I think that’s why the entire health and fitness field is full of assessments and a subsequent “weakness” obsession. Glutes aren’t turned on? Fix it with this exercise. Diet’s broken? Fix it with this menu. Blood has too much cholesterol? Fix it with this supplement.
Again, no matter how nice we dress up our language, coaches spend a lot of time looking for flaws and rushing in to fix them. There are three problems with this.
First, most clients who can afford health and fitness coaching are decidedly not screw-ups in most areas of their lives.
If they can afford you, chances are they’re outperforming you in at least one area: professionally. In other words, there’s a good chance that the person you’re condescending to about their inadequate protein intake spends the rest of their day performing surgery, running a successful business, or teaching at a university.
This is good to know because the skills they use to be successful at work can also be used in the service of their health and fitness goals. (Great problem solver at work? Awesome, let’s apply that to your breakfast issue!)
Second, no one—especially people who are winning in other areas of their lives—enjoys being made to feel like a screw-up.
It’s demoralizing and demotivating. It kills relationships and results.
Third, coaching using a deficit model—i.e. a core assumption that your clients are fundamentally flawed, defective, and lacking—means that your clients will never be, or feel, or do good enough.
Sure, they’ll “make improvements,” maybe. But the core belief (which many of your clients will share) is that they are basically broken. Think about how disempowering and discouraging that belief is. If they’re so screwed up, why bother? Might as well just lie down (with poor posture) and suck ice cream through a straw while waiting for death.
That’s why shifting from coach-centered to client-centered means thinking less about awfulness (what the client’s bad at) and more about awesomeness (what the client’s good at).
With awesomeness-based coaching you specifically ask yourself: “Where is this client winning outside of health and fitness?” And, “What skills are they using to win at that?” (Don’t know where they’re winning or how? Ask them.) Then you look for the following.
- Skills: What do they already know how to do?
- Knowledge: What information do they already know?
- Expertise/Experience: What have they already done? (In particular, what have they already done well?)
- Interests: What do they like to do? What do they enjoy?
- Talents: What are they naturally good at?
- No-problem-times: When does the problem they often face not happen?
Once you understand where clients are awesome, give them the kinds of tasks that interest them or that use their talents. Or help them work toward a goal that inspires or excites them.
Use their awesomeness to shape their goals, to solve health and fitness challenges they keep coming up against, or to come up with next actions.
Today’s article—the first in a three-part series—outlines three game-changing coaching principles that’ll change how you view (and interact with) your clients. Here they are again:
#1: Become more “client-centered”, less “coach-centered.”
Your client is the world’s #1 expert on his or her own life. Make them an active contributor to their lifestyle plan. And actually value their feedback and thoughts. (At times, more than you value your own).
#2: Ask good questions to practice active, compassionate listening.
Ask great questions and then deeply, actively listen to the answers without any agenda of your own. Become a student of your clients. Listen at least four times as much as you speak.
#3: Focus on what’s awesome, not what’s awful.
Look for areas of your client’s life where they are winning—find how they can apply these skills, experiences, and talents to work through roadblocks and make progress toward a goal that inspires and excites them.
Stay tuned for part two where I share three more principles, including how to do better at goal setting, how to use practices to build skills, and how to confidence test.
In The Meantime, Want To Learn More? Go Deeper?
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Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.
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