Being a coach not a therapist is an idea that I’ve been promoting for a while now. Much like the idea of coaching not therapy, the idea is to help people by providing them with the tools they need to help themselves. I want to help people become happier and more confident in themselves and in their lives. I’ll try to do this by helping them to become more aware of what they are doing to create the negative emotions and experiences they are currently experiencing, and then offer them ways to work through these issues.
I’ve been coaching for a few years now and have learned much about how to create a coaching relationship with people. I was recently looking through my notes from coaching clients and started to write down what I’ve learned. These are the things that have worked best for me and my clients, but I’d be interested to know what works for you.
As a fitness and health coach, it’s easy to get frustrated when clients talk about their deeper problems than diet and exercise. It’s easy to think: I’m a coach, not a therapist! But you’re more of a therapist than you think. In this article, we will help you turn your clients’ emotional pain into meaningful change without overstepping your practice.
Every coach experiences an embarrassing moment sooner or later.
The client imposes a very high equity release obligation on you.
Perhaps you have just started a new job and are completely overwhelmed at work. Maybe they don’t have a good relationship with their mother, who has always been critical of their weight, and that is why they are having problems now. Or maybe they’ve discovered something very serious, like childhood trauma or abuse.
Your customer looks at you expectantly with tearful eyes.
Can you help them?
Suddenly, the room seems small. My mouth is dry. His brain is empty. You feel those uncomfortable, complicated, unwanted feelings bubbling up in your belly. Fears. Panic. It’s terrible. You. Got it. NO. Idea. What you need to do.
This is the moment novice coaches dread. The moment when your client expects you to stop being their health, fitness and nutrition coach and become their therapist.
Of course, you’re not a therapist.
You are a better therapist than you want to believe.
I’m a coach, not a therapist.
I’ve heard that song a thousand times from coaches. Regardless of their country, culture or profession, all coaches want to remind us that they are the ones. No. Therapists.
And, coach, I hear you. It’s not good when someone takes their problems out on you. If they ask for help that is not within your education and experience.
And you’re right. You’re not a therapist.
(You shouldn’t even try – unless you’re a real therapist.)
But sometimes you really need to be like a therapist.
Because therapists don’t allow themselves to be guided by the deep, dark, disturbing confessions they hear all day. Better yet, they empower the sufferer to do something about it. Just me.
You can’t change the fact that your customers share their problems with you. Everyone has them. But you can change the way you respond to these problems – and use them wisely. And it is this change that can make you a great coach.
In this article, I’ll show you how to :
- How to turn those awkward and uncomfortable moments into opportunities to do your best coaching work.
- A powerful two-step process for resolving serious customer issues – and techniques for dealing with them skillfully.
- How to stop being influenced by client bullshit (without getting fired or losing your job).
- What to do when you’re not yourself.
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In the beginning, take the uncomfortable moments for what they are.
When clients come to you with their debilitating dilemmas and emotional crises, they are actually coming to you with an opportunity for change.
Psychologists call this dark moment creative despair. This is when things get so bad that your normal coping mechanisms can no longer function. They are forced to try new things.
Therapists and counselors are dedicated to helping people overcome their creative despair and achieve change. And so are you.
As a coach, change is your game, baby. Less experienced coaches fear these uncomfortable moments, but super coaches love them.
Take my client, who has had an illustrious career as a lawyer.
His work was remarkable – according to those around him. But I, as a coach, could see that the work was making her unhappy. She was incredibly tense. She ate and drank a lot. She was awake.
She collapsed once during a session. The truth is out: She couldn’t handle her life anymore.
It turned out that she actually wanted to be a landscaper, which her career-oriented family didn’t really approve of. But it took that awkward moment of creative desperation to make him realize that something had to change. Overeating and constant stress didn’t help anymore. It’s time to try something new.
She finally realized that to open the door to the life she really wanted to live, she had to leave the job she hated. Suddenly, it didn’t matter what others thought. She knew what to do.
And I supported her during this difficult and challenging time, which only strengthened our coaching relationship.
So remember that uncomfortable moments and emotional meltdowns, with the right approach, can be breakthroughs.
Turning points for something new and better.
And opportunities to do your best work.
Good coaches have a system for working with things.
When coaches are confronted with their clients’ issues, they may want to turn around and run away.
Shake it off! Back to the squats! Play music to drown out the crying!
(I call this the DRIP method: deny, suppress, ignore and pretend. Maybe you learned it during excruciatingly uncomfortable family dinners).
Or your default response may be to do what you can to cheer the customer up. Help them look on the bright side. Better yet, solve their problem for them. Start listing the solutions!
Or maybe you are so irritated with this customer and his problems that you are considering firing him. Ugh. Why did they take you?
But none of these actions will help your client change.
Good coaches – those who lean into those raw, difficult moments with grace and skill – have a better process.
You’ll be surprised how easy it is to turn an uncomfortable conversation into a powerful moment of change.
To do this, you need to do two things similar to the work of a therapist:
1. Identify this moment of change and help the client notice it.
2. Develop an action plan once you have thoroughly investigated the problem.
This is how it works.
Identify this moment of change and help the client notice it.
At this point, your goal is to help the client see the possibility of change and take action. No special skills are required. It requires some basic people skills that you probably already have.
Here are some techniques to help you execute step 1 more easily.
Staying in discomfort
Often we want to escape the uncomfortable moments. Leave it.
Be there. Stay where you are. Breathe. Let the moments unfold.
Often the bravest and most effective thing you can do is simply to be present and aware of yourself and the situation.
Say to yourself:
Man, it’s really weird/uncomfortable/uncomfortable right now.
I have no idea what to do here.
Acknowledge this reality. And stay inside.
Notice and name what you feel, think and experience.
Help your client do the same by being present and assisting them. They don’t know where to go, and it’s okay if you don’t know at this point either.
Empathy and communication
You may not identify exactly with what your client is saying, thinking, experiencing or feeling. But you’re both human. Find common ground.
Be empathetic and let the customer know that you have heard and seen them, without judging them.
Wow. It seems very difficult.
I can only imagine what you must be going through.
That really hurt you, didn’t it?
Practice using nonverbal cues, such as. B. Body language that speaks, uses: I’m paying attention, and I understand this is an important issue for you.
Listen and observe carefully
Gather information. Ask thoughtful questions to better analyze and understand the situation. Try to find common ground.
Take your time answering. Wait, consider and respond thoughtfully.
Listen to the client’s scripts and stories – how they explain themselves and the events in their lives.
I’m really an altruistic person. That’s why people use me. I did too much, and now I’m a ball of stress and anxiety.
Your client may be altruistic, but it is unlikely that this is the only factor at play.
Also, observe your own experiences, thoughts and feelings as you work through this situation. This is an opportunity to learn more about your own coaching processes and responses.
Listening to help the client talk
What does your client need right now?
At this stage, clients often need us to listen to them, to hear them and to put ourselves in their shoes.
As a coach, you may want to develop an action plan. (But you need to hear and understand the bad stuff before you go any further.
Why? If your client can talk openly about their concerns and express all their thoughts and feelings, they will feel safe, supported and confident that you are there for them during this difficult time.
If you don’t list possible solutions or explain how you’re going to solve their problem, you’re essentially giving the customer a vote of confidence.
When you give them a chance to really be heard without immediately discussing next steps, you show the customer that they don’t need you to fix it. They’re not broken. You’re going through something complicated.
If you give them a chance to address the problem without judging and without suggesting solutions, you will find that clients often begin to solve the problem themselves before the session is over.
Even if they don’t, you can just let them know that you appreciate what they’ve given you and want them to start thinking about possible strategies – which don’t have to be implemented yet.
It’s definitely something to think about, Rick. I can tell you that it has been quite a challenge for you to balance insanely long work hours, spending time with your family and taking time for your health. Thank you for trusting me with this.
I’ll tell you what – right now we’re not worried about fixing anything. I just want to make sure I understand what you mean. If you don’t mind, I’m going to ask you a few questions to expand on that.
So let’s spend the next few days, before our next meeting, thinking about what we want to do next.
Trust your intuition
Not just thinking. To feel. Feel what your senses and instincts are telling you. Yes, some instincts can scream: Run! …but other instincts can help you gather information.
You know how sometimes you can tell when someone is lying to you? Not based on anything specific they said, but based on a hunch?
The same thinking applies here. Gather information not only from what you are told, but also from what you observe yourself.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language and intonation. Keep a close eye on their behavior. Notice where something doesn’t add up, where the scenarios and stories don’t make sense (or conversely, where everything makes perfect sense).
Draw up an action plan when you have thoroughly investigated the problem.
Your second goal is to take action.
Again: Take your time. But when you – and the client – are ready, work on an action plan that moves the client forward.
This process requires some study.
You and your client will have to take this into account:
- What the client has already tried to do to improve the situation
- The question of whether these things actually work is tangible.
- What other options are there for them
- What are the next steps you can develop together?
Here are some tips to make step 2 easier.
Feeling stuck or hopeless often comes from being stuck in old patterns – but not realizing they are patterns.
So please indicate where you have noticed common themes.
Listening to your description of what happened when you did CrossFit every day for three weeks and ended up eating an entire pack of Oreos on the couch, it strikes me that this seems to be a recurring theme with you. Does this look like a picture you know? What elements are repeated here?
It is enough to draw the client’s attention to the design itself.
Don’t try to change your pattern of behavior right away.
Now you just want the client to notice and name their own patterns and see their individual bad choices as part of a larger context of behaviors, thoughts and feelings.
Feeling stuck or hopeless is often like playing tug-of-war with a monster. The monster is always stronger, no matter how hard you fight.
Did you know that a monster in a horror movie is much scarier if you haven’t seen what it looks like yet? The same goes for monsters in real life.
Ask clients to indicate exactly what their sample is. You can ask for:
What is your biggest concern in this situation?
What’s the worst part about this whole thing?
Strange question: if the problem you face was a monster, what kind of monster would it be? Can you describe it?
Tracking down a sample, naming it and giving it a voice or shape is just a figurative way of developing a hypothesis that can form the basis of your action plan. The underlying problem is defined, described, analyzed and prioritized.
Keep drilling until you have a clear view of the sample.
If you have a right-brain or visual client, ask him to draw a sample or problem or visually describe it as if it were a thing.
I even had a client who bought one of those ugly printed dolls to symbolize her monster. She called him Planky.
This is a non-intuitive step. It sounds like you are focusing on the negative. But if you ask clients to identify and describe their most acute pain point, you will find out exactly what is really bothering them.
Interestingly, naming the monster out loud is often enough to change the client’s perspective.
The worst part is my need to always be perfect. (But now that I’ve said that, I realize I can handle myself better.
Help them let go
When the client tries to gain control, he faces a monster that will always be stronger.
Let’s say a client’s monster is a strict habit of calorie counting that causes him stress every time he makes a food choice, and can even trigger memories of past eating disorders.
Ask the client what would happen if he just let the situation go. How will it look?
You could say something like:
The situation you describe sounds like an uphill battle against a problem – a monster, if you will. And the monster will always be stronger. They’re tired of fighting.
Let me present you with a possibility. Why don’t you let go of the rope? For example, if you stopped counting calories, what would happen?
Letting go can happen gradually.
This is especially interesting for clients with an all-or-nothing mentality.
Let’s just say you don’t have to drop everything. Is there anything very, very small that you could drop? For example, how about not counting calories at one meal a day?
Imagine the worst possible scenario
We often get frustrated and anxious because we imagine all kinds of terrible outcomes and deep down think we can’t handle it. So we try to control the situation to avoid such consequences.
Articulate the client’s fears and see if he can survive them.
Let’s say you stopped counting calories. Let’s say you never count calories again.
What’s the worst that can happen? On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it? What would you face or have to deal with? Could you survive this disaster?
They are likely to realize that they can and will survive even if the worst case scenario occurs. It’s a distraction from the monster they’re fighting.
Being a therapist does not mean you have to take crap from clients.
So, to summarize: If things aren’t going well, you show up and help clients through difficult situations.
But that doesn’t mean your customers’ problems are your problems.
When coaches complain that they are not therapists, they sometimes mean that they are (rightly) tired of carrying their clients’ emotional baggage.
But remember: It’s not therapeutic to take over someone else’s baggage. In fact, it’s the opposite of being a therapist.
If therapists had to deal with this pain and suffering themselves, they would not be doing their job properly. And they probably won’t live to be 35.
Do not take the customer’s pain.
Customers suffer. Pain is an inevitable and perhaps integral part of life.
Pain is what brings them to coaching. And, as we said earlier, as a coach you can advise your client on how to use their pain to create positive change.
But it goes wrong when you take that pain away from them.
You take on the pain of trying to fix or change what they are experiencing.
If you try to solve their problems for them. When you take over and cling to their stuff instead of living it or being a fellow traveler.
You accept pain when you feel responsible for its growth, evolution and development.
By accepting their pain, you do it for yourself too:
Customers are supposed to be marked every week, and mine are not. That should say something about my coaching skills.
My client is not making any progress, so I must be a bad coach.
My client is so unhappy. I need to fix this.
Making rules about the universe and taking responsibility for the emotional well-being of your clients does not make you a better coach. Let your customers keep their pain to themselves.
Don’t take his shit.
Clients talk crap when they’re in pain. We call it poop.
You may think pooping is an unkind behavior caused by pain – or the fear of pain.
Poop can be:
- Passive-aggressive resistance: doing nothing
- Active resistance: Negative, it sucks, I can’t…, I already know that….. etc.
- Drama: common problems and negative vibes
- Luggage: Unintentionally taking it out on you, such as with harsh words or a bad attitude in your life.
People who suffer and fart are not bad or spoiled.
They’re probably pretty normal.
In fact, many clients are wonderful people who share their pain and suffering with you simply because they don’t know what else to do.
Having pain and shit in you sucks. Wouldn’t it be more fun to pass it on to someone else? Of course it is!
(You’re probably also a great person who wants to help! So you grab the bag of painful stuff like an avid excrement collector. And at the end of the day, you wonder why you smell so bad).
But when you accept their pain and their poop – when you internalize the pain, when you let them throw poop at you without scolding them – you exhaust yourself.
And you will miss the opportunity to alchemize pain and poop into change.
With the right strategies, you can put your clients on the path to better pain management and greater independence.
Start by understanding whose pain and shit it is. The property of the clients remains with them.
Once you have that in mind, you can discuss the situation (calmly, objectively) with your client and agree that it’s disgusting….. but ultimately it’s their business.
The key to achieving this goal is to ensure that all further actions are determined by the customer.
puts the pain away and pouts.
If you live in a big city, you know about pigeons. They make their nests in crevices and dark places. Their droppings are corrosive and can destroy building materials.
Therefore, city officials often have a simple solution: Pigeon points. They line the edges of the nests with small spines that hit the pigeons in the buttocks to keep them from flying.
The same concept applies to customers.
Don’t let them settle into their dark corners. Give them a push. Let them fly away and find another, better and sunnier place. Keep them moving.
When we see a client resisting a habit, struggling, frustrated or questioning: What do you want me to do, coach? Our first reaction would probably be to ease their pain.
We can rush to make them feel better immediately, or offer a solution that will help them avoid discomfort. (Or just get rid of the abomination).
Change occurs when the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing. We need pain to grow and develop.
Let them experience the pain.
Go back and look around a bit. Explore. Be curious. Invite reflection.
Play with the pain and poop for a while, but don’t keep it to yourself.
Give your client a gentle, caring nudge to move them forward instead of letting them stay comfortably stuck in the old familiar place of no growth and stagnation.
Observe their reactions and be flexible. If you change the way you approach the dog, you will change the way he responds to you. They control the interaction.
Here are some techniques that can help you:
Beware of pain and poop professionals.
Now, a more cynical moment.
Most of the customers, like I said, are normal, good people.
They do what they can.
But a very small percentage of them are *professionals* in pain and shit.
They are experts at passing on their poop and pain to others. They sense your good heart and good intentions and use them to their advantage. Sometimes they are clever manipulators.
But even if they don’t do it on purpose, at least they can’t handle their own shit. One day. You MUST give it to someone else.
The signs that you are dealing with a professional are the following:
- They never seem to have had anything good, but have gone from crisis to crisis.
- They ask you to go beyond your practice (for example, they want you to help them solve their marriage).
- Every conversation with them is like a TMI overload. You know more about their lives than some of your best friends.
- Every time you see it, it feels like you’re being sucked into a black hole with no breath.
- If you refuse to solve their problems for them, they will say or do things that make you look bad.
You see, common, everyday, non-professional poop can be eliminated with the techniques described above. All you have to do is be there for the customer, empathise with them, look at their problem and take action if necessary.
But when you’re dealing with a professional?
Nothing is enough.
They don’t stop at a trifle. They fill one bag of shit after another that you have to carry around, sucking out every last drop of empathy, compassion and hope you have in you.
Important: You can’t change the professionals who bring the pain and shit. You have to change your own reactions to them.
Don’t take on that pain or malignancy by trying to fix it. Instead, use two simple strategies to protect yourself and educate them at the same time.
Remind them of what is not part of your coaching superpowers. And be extreme. Oh, boy. Of course.
Marriage counseling is not my area of expertise, but what I can say is that you need to create a plan of action that will help you eat well during this time.
We have a half hour today, and I have a standing appointment at 10:30.
Do this as often as necessary. Hold your position.
Notice how you communicate and call it.
Coaches are often empathetic people who get confused when others don’t have the same social skills.
You probably know how to ask for what you want, and also how to respond when you don’t get it. You can probably also determine if something is an appropriate request or not. Many professionals do not have these skills.
And if professionals often ask you to tackle problems that are outside the box, you will probably find that among the many problems they tackle, there are one or two that you can really help them with.
So when a professional starts an endless monologue about what’s going on in their life, get to the point:
Do you want to do something about the problems that sleep deprivation brings, or do you just want to keep talking? Anyway, you can pay me, but it would be much more useful if we could work out some actions to help you do it right.
By explicitly pointing out that the professional is resisting reason, and by making clear what you are willing to do (and not do), you ensure the best possible outcome for both the coach and the client.
When is it time to see a real therapist?
Most coaches really want to help. It can be tempting – oh, how tempting – to go beyond the call of coach duty.
This is where the coaching border ends and the land of heroic and misguided individual actions begins. It’s a good place to visit occasionally, but only stay there for a short time before handing your client over to a qualified guide.
How do I know if I am in trouble?
What can you handle and what is beyond your means?
When is it time to register?
Perhaps the situation does not improve despite your efforts to explain the problem to the customer, enable him to find his own solution and help him do so.
Maybe he hasn’t been feeling well for months and thinks he’s depressed, even though he’s tried different strategies to cope.
Or even after you convince them to gradually give up counting calories, they exhibit eating disorders such as severe restriction, overeating and general fixation on food.
Maybe their monster is anxiety, and they have regular panic attacks. They were interested in learning some breathing exercises, but these did not have much effect.
These are all situations in which it is better to see a therapist.
And this is what you may feel when your client’s needs truly exceed your abilities:
- Distracted, preoccupied and consumed by customer dilemmas.
- fear or aversion of e-mail
- Like you’re constantly putting out fires, fixing things and solving problems.
- Feeling constantly overwhelmed or out of place.
If you see these signs, it’s time to call a member of your support network and/or refer the client to a specialist in your registry.
And don’t forget it: There’s no shame in not being able to do everything. Everyone is ignorant sometimes, even the super coaches.
Good coaching is first and foremost a team effort.
Who is on your team?
As you develop your coaching practice, you need to build a support network. Have a group of trusted professionals to whom you can refer your clients when needed.
This way, you don’t feel like you have to take care of everything, and your clients get the help they need.
Here is an example of a team composition:
- A psychologist and/or psychotherapist (especially one who specializes in body image issues and eating disorders, but who can also treat other common mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, etc.)
- A sports doctor
- Massage therapist and/or soft tissue therapist (e.g. ART therapist or myofascial release therapist)
- A medical nutritionist (MNT) or dietitian (RD).
- A chiropractor or osteopath
- Doctor and specialist in women’s or men’s health (depending on client)
Make a list. Be prepared. Try our orientation worksheet.
Some educators are afraid of losing business by turning to other professionals. In fact, the opposite is true.
If you give your clients the help they need, they are more likely to succeed.
They will really feel that you are supporting them.
And when your clients are well supported, they are more likely to stick to your coaching plan.
It goes something like this: You feel better. Now they can do the work they need to do. You’re getting better. And they think you’re great.
In addition, other professionals may refer to you.
It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship.
So think of collaboration. Always be on the lookout for qualified, like-minded professionals with a good track record who are willing to work together.
You can even host social or school events where you collaborate with some of your professional colleagues to present a unified dream team to your clients.
Remember, you’re not alone.
Ask for help anywhere, anytime. And refer clients who need it.
Support yourself first.
You know the saying: Before you help someone, do you put your oxygen mask on? Well, that’s the case here too.
Your customer service doesn’t just help your customers. Your support team can also help you.
Maybe you feel a little overwhelmed by the demands of coaching and need some psychological support.
Maybe you’ve lost your eating habits and need help correcting them.
Perhaps your lower back is bothering you and you find it difficult to sit with customers.
Maybe you just need a trusted colleague to contribute some ideas.
Training is good, but it’s hard work. You can’t do it alone. All you need to become an exceptional coach is to get that support before you burn out.
Keep your coach superpowers.
What to do next
Some advice from
1. Pay attention to your own discomfort.
How do you usually respond when a client comes to you with a personal problem? Are you looking for cover? Are you trying to cheer him up? Do you treat their problem as if it were your own?
What makes you uncomfortable in this situation?
Try to get past the discomfort. Sit with him for a while. Stay with the customer and don’t try to solve, dodge or ignore the problem.
The more you are aware of your own patterns and reactions, the better you will be able to help your clients in the process of change.
2. Helping clients recognise moments of change.
Uncomfortable and desperate times are great opportunities for change. Your first step is to help clients become aware that this change may be part of their problem.
Practice asking questions that will help you find the A-Ha! moment with your client. Try one or two of the strategies mentioned in this article.
After you have thoroughly studied the problem, you develop an action plan together with the client.
Take your time. Don’t be tempted to rush things.
Remember that pain is a necessary part of change.
3. Sniffing the poop.
Do you have a client who causes you constant pain and heartache?
How do you react when this happens?
If you think you’re dealing with customer pain and poop, take a look at the table above. Can you try replacing one of your standard answers with one of your more therapeutic techniques?
Try an exchange or two and see what happens.
4. Prepare your list of recommendations.
Make a list of professionals to whom you can refer your clients when their needs exceed your capabilities. These can be general practitioners, specialists and doctors, dieticians, etc.
Actively build your list and don’t be afraid to ask the experts.
If you haven’t made your list yet, use our handy worksheet.
5. Listen to your feelings.
If you’re feeling burned out, constantly dissatisfied with your clients or overwhelmed, you may need some extra time to rest and recuperate.
Pay attention to what you need. If necessary, call on someone in your support system: a coach, a mentor, a paid professional or a close friend.
It is necessary to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. The best coaches don’t try to do it alone.
If you are a trainer or want to become one….
Learning how to educate clients, patients, friends or family members about healthy eating and lifestyle changes that fit their bodies, preferences and circumstances is both an art and a science.
If you want to learn more about both, consider Level 1 certification.
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