As a health and fitness coach it’s easy to feel frustrated when clients share deep concerns that go beyond eating and exercise. It’s easy to think: “I’m a coach, not a therapist!” However, you’re more therapist-like than you think. And, in this article, we’ll help you turn clients’ emotional pain into meaningful change without going outside your scope of practice.
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Sooner or later, all coaches experience a certain uncomfortable moment.
A client lays some really heavy duty capital-I ‘Issue’ on you.
Perhaps they just started a new job and are completely overwhelmed at work. Maybe they have a not-so-great relationship with their mom, who has always criticized their weight, and that’s why they’re struggling now. Or maybe they disclose something super serious, like trauma or childhood abuse.
Your client looks at you, expectantly, through tear-clouded eyes.
Can you help them?
Suddenly the room seems small. Your mouth goes dry. Your brain blank. You feel those uncomfortable, difficult, do-not-want feelings start to blossom in the depths of your gut. Anxiety. Panic. Dread. You. Have. NO. Idea. What to do.
This is the moment that new coaches fear. The moment your client expects you to stop being their health/fitness/nutrition coach, and start being their therapist.
Of course, you’re not a therapist.
You’re more like a therapist than you want to believe.
“I’m a coach, not a therapist.”
I’ve heard this refrain thousands of times from coaches. No matter their country, culture, or exact profession, all coaches would like to hereby remind us all that they Are. Not. Therapists.
And coaches, I hear you. It’s uncomfortable when someone lays their problems on you. When they ask for help outside your area of training and expertise.
And you’re right. You’re not a therapist.
(Nor should you try to be. Unless you are, of course, an actual therapist.)
But sometimes, you do need to be therapist-like.
Because therapists don’t let the deep, dark, troubling confessions they hear all day affect their inner lives. Even better, they empower the person who is struggling to do something about it. On their own.
You can’t change the fact that your clients are going to share their issues with you. Everyone’s got ‘em. But you can change how you respond to the issues — and use them for good. And that shift is what can turn you into a supercoach.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll show you:
- How to turn these awkward, uncomfortable moments into an opportunity to do your best work as a coach.
- A powerful two-step process for navigating serious problems with clients — and techniques to handle them with skill.
- How to stop letting clients’ “crap” affect you (without firing them or losing your job).
- What to do when you’re in over your head.
To begin, see uncomfortable moments for what they are.
When clients come to you with their gut-wrenching dilemmas and emotional car crashes, they’re actually coming to you with an opportunity for change.
Psychologists refer to this dark moment of despair as “creative hopelessness”. This is the moment when things suck so badly, your normal coping mechanisms no longer cut it. You’re forced to try something new.
Therapists and counselors are in the business of helping people work through creative hopelessness to create change. And so are you.
As a coach, change is your game, baby. In fact, while less experienced coaches tend to dread these awkward moments, supercoaches love them.
Take my client who had a high-powered law career.
Her job was amazing — according to everyone else. But what I saw as her coach was that her job was making her miserable. She was incredibly stressed. She was binge eating and drinking. She wasn’t sleeping.
One day, she broke down during a session. The truth came out: She could no longer handle her life.
It turns out, she really wanted to be a landscape designer — something her professional-minded family didn’t exactly approve of. But she needed this deeply uncomfortable moment of creative hopelessness to realize that something had to change. The overeating and constant stress weren’t working for her anymore. It was time to try something new.
Eventually, she realized she needed to ditch the job she hated to open the door to the life she really wanted to live. Suddenly, what other people thought didn’t matter so much. She knew what she needed to do.
And I stuck with her during that tough, messy period, which only strengthened our coaching relationship.
So remember that the messy moments and emotional breakdowns, when handled properly, can actually become breakthroughs.
Turning points for something new and better.
And opportunities to do your best work.
Great coaches have a system for handling “the stuff”.
When faced with clients’ “stuff”, coaches may want to turn and run.
Shake it off! Get back to squats! Turn up the music to drown out the weeping!
(I call this the DRIP method: Deny, Repress, Ignore, and Pretend. Maybe you recognize it from painfully awkward family dinners?)
Or your default response may be to do everything you can to cheer your client up. Help them see the bright side. Even better, solve their problem for them. Start listing off solutions!
Or maybe you’re so put off by this client and their problems that you’re thinking about firing them. Ugh. Why did they make you “go there” with them?
But none of these actions will actually help your client change.
Great coaches — the ones who lean into these raw and difficult moments gracefully and skillfully — have a better process.
You might be surprised how simple it can be to turn a seat-squirmingly uncomfortable conversation into a powerful change moment.
To do that, you’ll want to do two therapist-like things:
1. Identify and help the client notice this “change moment”.
2. Develop an action plan, once you have fully explored the problem.
Here’s how it works.
Identify and help the client notice this “change moment”.
Your goal in this step is to help your client see the opportunity for change, and move toward action. This doesn’t require a lot of special skills. It does require some basic “human skills” that you probably already have.
Here are some techniques to help you facilitate Step 1.
Stay with the discomfort
We often want to run away from uncomfortable moments. Don’t.
Stay present. Stay checked in. Breathe. Let the moments unfold.
Often, simply staying present and aware of yourself and the situation is the bravest and most effective thing you can do.
Say to yourself:
“Man, this is pretty freaking weird / icky / uncomfortable right now.”
“I have no idea what to do here.”
Acknowledge that reality. And stay in it.
Notice and name what you’re feeling, thinking, and experiencing.
Help your client do the same by being present and sticking with them. They don’t know where to go next, and it’s okay if you don’t either in this moment.
Empathize and connect
You may not identify with exactly what your client is saying, thinking, experiencing, or feeling. But you’re both human. Find the common ground.
Empathize and let the client know you’ve heard and seen them without judgment.
“Wow. That sounds really tough.”
“I can only imagine what you’re dealing with.”
“That really hit you hard, huh?”
Practice using nonverbal signals such as body language that say: “I’m paying attention, and I recognize this is an important moment for you.”
Listen and observe carefully
Gather information. Ask thoughtful questions to better analyze and grasp the situation. Probe for understanding.
Don’t rush to react. Wait, process, and respond thoughtfully.
Listen for the client’s “scripts” and stories — the ways they explain themselves and the events of their lives.
“I’m a really selfless person. That’s why people take advantage of me. That’s how I wound up taking on too much, and now I’m a ball of stress and anxiety.”
Your client may, in fact, be a selfless person, but it’s unlikely that that personality trait is the only factor at play.
Also observe your own experiences, thoughts, and feelings as you work through this situation. This is a chance to learn more about your own coaching processes and responses.
Simply listen, to help your client talk it out
Right now, what does your client need?
At this stage, clients often just need us to listen, hear them, and empathize.
As a coach, you’ll eventually want to come up with an action plan. (We’ll talk about that in a second.) But let the bad stuff be heard and understood first before you move on.
Why? If your client is able to talk about their concerns openly and get all of their thoughts and feelings out, they’ll feel safe, supported, and reassured that you’ll stick with them through this difficult time.
You see, when you don’t immediately list potential solutions or jump to how you would solve their problem, you’re actually giving your client a vote of confidence.
When you allow them to truly be heard without immediately talking “next steps”, you’re showing your client that they don’t need you to “fix” them. They’re not broken. They’re just going through something tough.
When you give them this space to sit with their problem without judgment or “fix it” suggestions, you’ll find that clients often start solving it on their own before the session is over.
Even if they don’t, you can simply let them know that you recognize what they’ve given you, and you’d like them to start thinking about potential strategies — which don’t have to be put into action yet.
“That’s definitely a lot to think about, Rick. I can tell that balancing act between crazy-long work hours, spending time with your family, and making time for your health has really been weighing on your mind. Thanks for trusting me with this.
“Tell you what — right now, let’s not worry about fixing anything. I just want to make sure I really get where you’re coming from. I’m going to ask a few questions here to explore this a little more, if that’s OK.
“Then over the next few days, before our next session, let’s both think about where we can go from here.”
Trust your gut
Don’t just think. Feel. Feel what your Spidey sense and instincts tell you. Yes, some instincts may be yelling “Run away!” but other instincts may be helping you gather information.
You know how sometimes you can just tell someone is lying to you? Not based on any one particular thing they said, but that little tingle of intuition?
The same idea applies here. Gather information not just through what you’re told, but also through what you perceive.
Watch for nonverbal cues such as body language and intonation. Observe their behavior holistically. Notice where things seem “off”, or where the scripts and stories don’t add up (or conversely, where it all makes perfect sense).
Develop an action plan, once you’ve fully explored the problem.
Your second objective is to get to action.
Again, don’t rush this. But once you — and the client — are ready, work on creating an action plan to help the client move forward.
This process takes some exploration.
You and your client will want to consider:
- What things the client has already tried to improve the situation
- Whether those things have actually, measurably worked
- What other options may be available to them
- What next steps you can develop together
Here are some techniques to help you facilitate Step 2.
Look for patterns
Feeling stuck or hopeless often comes from feeling mired in our old patterns — except we’re often not aware that these are patterns.
So, point out where you notice common themes.
“As I listen to your description of what happened when you went to CrossFit every day for three weeks, then ended up on the couch eating an entire package of Oreos, I’m struck by the fact that this seems like a recurring theme for you. Does it sound like a familiar pattern to you? What elements here seem to repeat themselves?”
Simply bring the client’s awareness to the pattern itself.
Don’t try to change the pattern yet.
Right now, you just want the client to notice and name their own tendencies, and reframe “bad” individual choices as part of a larger context of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.
Name the monster
Feeling stuck or hopeless is often like being in a tug-of-war with a monster. The monster is always stronger, no matter how much we resist.
And you know how the monster in a horror movie is way scarier when you haven’t seen what it looks like yet? The same applies to real-life monsters.
Have clients identify just what their “monster” is. You can ask:
“What bothers you the most about this situation?”
“What feels like the absolute worst part of this?”
“Weird question — if the problem you were dealing with were a monster, what kind of monster would it be? Could you describe it?”
Noticing, naming, and giving voice or form to the monster is simply an imaginative way of developing a hypothesis that can ground your action plan. It identifies, describes, analyzes, and prioritizes what the foundational issue is.
Drill down till you get a good clear picture of the monster.
If you have a right-brain or visual client, have them draw the monster or the problem, or describe it visually, as if it were a thing.
I even had a client who got one of those “ugly” stuffed dolls to symbolize her monster. She named it Plunky.
This is a counter-intuitive step. It feels like you’re “focusing on the negative”. But by asking clients to identify and describe the sharpest pain point, you’re zeroing in on what is truly bothering them.
Interestingly, you’ll often discover that by simply naming the monster out loud, the client’s perspective starts to change.
“The worst part is this need I have to always be perfect. [pause] But having said that, I now realize I could ease up on myself.”
Help them let go
By trying to exert control, the client is pulling against a monster that will always be stronger.
Let’s say the client’s monster is a strict calorie counting habit, and it’s making them stress over every food choice, maybe even bringing up past issues with disordered eating.
Ask the client what would happen if they just let go. What would it be like?
You might say something like:
“This situation you’re describing is sort of like a tug of war with the problem — the monster, if you will. And the monster will always be stronger. You’re exhausted from struggling.
“Let me just float a possibility here. What if you just let go of the rope? So for example, if you stopped focusing on counting calories, what would happen?”
Letting go can happen incrementally.
This is especially a relief to clients who struggle with all-or-nothing thinking.
“Let’s say you don’t have to let go of everything. Is there something very, very small that you could let go of? For example, what about not counting calories for just one meal a day?”
Envision the worst-case scenario
We are often distressed and anxious because we imagine all kinds of awful outcomes, and deep down assume we couldn’t deal with those outcomes. So we try to control things in order to avoid those outcomes.
Get the client’s fears on the table and test whether they could, in fact, survive it.
“Let’s just say for the sake of argument that you stop counting calories. Let’s imagine you never count calories again.
“What is the worst thing that could happen? On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad would that be? What would you face or have to deal with? Could you survive that worst-case scenario?”
Chances are, they’ll realize they could and would survive, even if the worst case scenario played out. This takes power away from the monster they’re fighting.
Being therapist-like doesn’t mean you take crap from clients.
So to recap: When things get weird you show up and empower clients to navigate their way through the tough stuff.
But that doesn’t mean your clients’ problems are your problems.
When coaches complain they’re not therapists, sometimes what they really mean is they’re tired (quite rightly) of carrying clients’ emotional baggage.
But remember: Taking on other people’s baggage isn’t therapist-like. In fact, it’s actually the opposite of being therapist-like.
If therapists absorbed that pain and suffering themselves, they wouldn’t be very good at their jobs. And they probably wouldn’t live past 35.
Don’t take on clients’ pain.
Clients have pain. Pain is an inevitable — and arguably essential — part of life.
Pain is what brings them to coaching. And as we’ve already covered, as a coach, you can guide a client to use their pain to create positive change.
But things go wrong when you take that pain from them.
You “take the pain” when you try to “fix” or change what they’re going through.
When you try to solve their problems for them. When you take on their “stuff” and hold it, rather than being a witness to it, or a companion on the journey.
You take the pain when you feel responsible for their growth, change, and development.
Taking their pain means you make it about you:
“Clients are supposed to check in every week, and mine don’t. That must mean something about my coaching skills.”
“My client isn’t progressing, so I must be a bad coach.”
“My client is so unhappy. I need to fix that.”
Creating rules about the universe and taking responsibility for your clients’ emotional wellbeing won’t make you a better coach. Letting clients keep their pain for themselves will.
Don’t take their poop, either.
Clients give you crap when they’re in pain. We’ll call that “poop”.
You can think of poop as not-so-fun-to-deal-with behavior that is caused by pain — or fear of experiencing pain.
Poop can be:
- Passive-aggressive type resistance: doing nothing
- Active resistance: negativity, “this sucks”, “I can’t…”, “I already know that…” etc.
- “Drama”: frequent problems and negative vibes
- “Baggage”: unintentionally taking out whatever is going on in their life on you with harsh words or a bad attitude
People with pain and poop aren’t “bad” or “screwed up”.
They’re probably quite normal.
Indeed, many clients are lovely people who give you their pain and poop simply because they don’t know what else to do.
Having pain and poop inside you sucks. Isn’t it nicer to hand it over to someone else? Of course it is!
(And you’re probably also a lovely person who wants to help! So you grab their bag of painful stuff like an avid poop collector. And at the end of the day, you wonder why you smell so bad.)
But if you “take” their pain and poop — if you internalize the pain, if you let them fling poop at you without calling them out on it — you’re going to exhaust yourself.
And you’ll miss the opportunity to alchemize pain and poop into change.
With the right strategies, you can help clients move toward improved pain/poop processing and greater self-sufficiency.
Start by understanding for yourself whose pain and poop is whose. Clients’ “stuff” stays with them.
Once you have it straight in your own head, you can look at the situation (calmly, objectively) with your client and agree it stinks… but ultimately, it’s theirs.
The key to accomplishing this is to make sure that whatever happens next is determined by the client.
Poke the pain and poop.
If you live in a big city, you know about pigeons. They nest in crevices and dark places. Their poop is corrosive and can destroy building materials.
So city officials often have a simple solution: pigeon spikes. They line comfortable nesting ledges with little spikes that poke pigeons in the bum so they have to keep flying.
The same concept kind of applies to clients.
Don’t let them nest in their dark places. Poke them a little bit. Let them flap and figure out another, better, sunnier place to go. Keep them moving.
When we see a client resisting a habit, struggling, being upset, or asking “What should I do, coach?” our initial reaction will most likely be to “take their pain” from them.
We might rush to make them “feel better” immediately or give them a solution that will help them avoid discomfort. (Or just get ourselves out of the grossness.)
Change comes when the pain of not changing is bigger than the pain of changing. We need pain for growth and development.
Let them work through the pain.
Again, poke a bit. Explore. Be curious. Invite reflection.
Play around the pain and poop a little, but don’t keep it for yourself.
Offer some gentle, caring prodding that helps your client move forward, instead of letting them settle comfortably into the old familiar place of non-growth and stasis.
Watch their reactions, and be ﬂexible. When you change your approach to dealing with poop, you will change their reaction to you. You control the interaction.
Here are some techniques that can help:
Beware the professional pain and poop dispensers.
Now here’s a more cynical point.
Most clients are, again, normal and good people.
They’re just muddling through the best way they know how.
But, a very small proportion are *professional* pain and poop givers.
They are experts at handing off their poop and pain to others. They smell your kind heart and good intentions, and they exploit those. Sometimes, they are skilled manipulators.
But even if they’re not doing it on purpose, at the very least, they just can’t handle their own shiz. Ever. They NEED to give it to someone else.
Signs you might be dealing with a pro pooper include:
- They don’t ever seem to be doing well, but rather moving from crisis to crisis.
- They ask you to go outside the scope of your practice (they want you to help them fix their marriage, for example).
- Every conversation with them feels like TMI-overload. You know more details about their life than some of your closest friends.
- You feel like you’re being sucked into a breathless black hole every time you see them.
- When you decline to solve their problems for them, they say or do things that make you feel like a bad person.
You see, regular, run-of-the-mill, non-professional poop can be resolved by using the techniques outlined above. Being there for the client, empathizing with them, exploring their problem, and maybe moving onto a few actions steps will be enough.
But if you’re dealing with a pro pooper?
Nothing is enough.
They won’t stop at one little turd. They’ll fill up bag after bag of crap for you to carry, draining you of every last ounce of empathy, compassion, and hope you’ve got.
Important: You can’t change professional pain and poop givers. You have to change your own response to them.
Don’t absorb any of that pain or poop for yourself by trying to “fix” them. Instead, use two simple strategies to protect yourself and coach them at the same time.
Remind them what’s outside of your coaching superpowers. And be extremely. Freaking. Clear.
“Well, marriage counseling is outside of my powers, but what I can speak to is building an action plan to help you eat well during this time.”
“We have half an hour here today, and I have a hard stop at 10:30.”
Do this as frequently as necessary. Stand your ground.
Notice how you’re communicating, and call it out
Coaches are often empathetic people who get confused when other people don’t have the same social skills.
You probably know how to ask for what you want, as well as how to respond when you don’t get it. You also can probably gauge whether something is an appropriate “ask” or not. Many pro poopers lack these skills.
And while pro poopers will often ask you to deal with problems that are “out of bounds”, you will probably find that there are one or two things out of the many issues they bring up that you can actually help them with.
So, when a pro pooper is doing what feels like a never-ending monologue about every single thing going on in their life, just get to the point:
“Do you want to do something about the problems you’re having getting enough sleep, or do you want to just keep talking? Either way, you can pay me, but it’s much more useful if we come up with some actions to help you fix this.”
When you directly call out the fact that a pro pooper is resisting reason, and show them clearly what you’re willing (and not willing) to help with, you provide the best possible outcome for both coach and client.
When is it time to call in an actual therapist?
Most coaches really want to help. It can be tempting — oh, so tempting — to go above and beyond the call of coaching duty.
This is where the border of coaching ends and the Land of Inappropriate Heroic Individual Action begins. It’s an OK place to visit occasionally, but stay only briefly, before handing off your client to a qualified tour guide.
How do I know when I’m in over my head?
What can you handle and what is outside your limits?
When is it time to refer out?
Perhaps despite your best efforts at talking your client through the problem, giving them space to come up with solutions on their own, and supporting them through that process, things just aren’t getting better for them.
Maybe they’ve been feeling down in the dumps for a couple of months, and despite trying a few different coping strategies together, they’re starting to wonder if they might be depressed.
Or even after encouraging them to “let go” of calorie counting little by little, they’re exhibiting disordered eating behaviors like intense restriction, bingeing, and overall preoccupation with food.
Maybe their “monster” is anxiety, and they’re having panic attacks regularly. They expressed interest in learning some breathing exercises, but they’re not making a big enough difference.
These are all situations where you’d want to get an actual therapist involved.
And here’s what you may be feeling if the client’s needs are truly outside your scope:
- Distracted, preoccupied, and consumed by client dilemmas
- Anxious about or dreading your email
- Like you are constantly “putting out fires”, “fixing things”, and “dealing with issues”
- Constantly overwhelmed or like you’re “in over your head.”
If you recognize these signs, it’s time to call someone in your support network, and/or refer your client to a specialist from your roster.
And remember, there’s no shame in not being able to do it all. Everyone gets stumped sometimes, even supercoaches.
Great coaching is a team effort.
Who’s on your team?
As you develop your coaching practice, you should build a support network. Have a group of trusted professionals to whom you can refer clients when appropriate.
This will ensure that you don’t feel obligated to deal with everything, and that your clients will get the help they need.
Here’s a sample “team roster”:
- Psychologist and/or psychotherapist (especially one who specializes in body image issues and disordered eating, but who can also handle other common mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, etc.)
- Sports medicine practitioner
- Massage therapist and/or soft tissue therapist (such as an ART or myofascial release therapist)
- Medical nutrition therapist (MNT) or registered dietitian (RD)
- Chiropractor or osteopath
- MD as well as women’s or men’s health specialist (depending on your client base)
Make a list. Have it ready. Try our referral worksheet.
Some coaches may worry that by referring out to other professionals, they “lose business”. In fact, the opposite is true.
When you get your clients the help they need, they’re more likely to succeed.
They’ll truly feel like you’ve got their back.
And when your clients are well-supported, they’re more able to stick to your coaching plan.
It goes something like this: They feel better. They’re now able to do the work they need to do. They improve. And they think you’re awesome.
Plus, other professionals can refer back to you.
It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship.
So think collaboratively. Always be on the lookout for well-qualified and like-minded practitioners who have a good track record, and who are willing to work cooperatively.
You can even hold social or educational events where you get together with a few of your professional collaborators, to present a united “dream team” to your clients.
Just remember: You are not alone.
Look for support anywhere and everywhere. And refer clients who need it.
Support yourself first.
You know that saying, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting someone else”? Well, that holds true here too.
Your support team doesn’t just help your clients. Your support team can help you too.
Maybe you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the demands of coaching, and could use some anxiety counseling.
Maybe you’re getting into a weird space with your own eating habits, and could use some help working through disordered eating behaviors.
Maybe your low back is killing you and you can barely tolerate sitting down with clients.
Maybe you just need a trusted colleague who can help you bounce some ideas around.
Coaching is amazing but tough work. You can’t do it alone. Whatever you need to be an awesome coach — get that support before you wind up burned out.
Keep your coaching superpowers in good working order.
What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition
1. Pay attention to your own discomfort.
How do you typically react when a client comes to you with a personal problem? Do you run for cover? Try to cheer them up? Take on their problem as if it was your own?
What is it that’s making you feel uncomfortable in the situation?
See if you can simply stay with the discomfort. Sit with it a bit. Be there, with the client, without trying to fix, dodge, or gloss over the problem.
The more you become aware of your own patterns and reactions, the better you’ll be able to help your clients move through the change process.
2. Help clients recognize their change-moments.
Uncomfortable, hopeless-feeling moments are a great opportunity for change. Your first step is to help clients recognize the possibility for that change within their challenge.
Practice asking questions that can help unearth an “A-Ha! moment” in your client’s mind. Try out one or two of the strategies listed in this article.
After you’ve thoughtfully explored the problem, then work together with your client to create an action plan.
Take your time. Resist the temptation to rush through the process.
Remember that pain is a necessary part of change.
3. Sniff out the poop.
Do you have a client that keeps bringing you their pain and poop?
What’s your go-to response when this happens?
If you think you might be taking on clients’ pain and poop, review the table above. Could you try swapping out of one your standard responses for one of the more therapist-like techniques?
Try making one or two swaps and see what happens.
4. Build your referral list.
Put together a list of professionals that you can refer clients to when their needs are out of your scope. This can include therapists, specialized counselors and doctors, registered dietitians, and more.
Actively build your list and don’t be afraid to refer.
If you haven’t already got a list started, try our handy worksheet.
5. Tune into how you feel.
If you’re feeling burned out, constantly frustrated by clients, or perpetually overwhelmed, you might need some added rest and recovery time for yourself.
Pay attention to what you need. Reach out to someone in your support system if you need to: a coach, mentor, paid professional, or good friend.
Taking care of yourself is necessary in order to care for others. The best coaches don’t try to go it alone.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for their unique body, preferences, and lifestyle—is both an art and a science.
If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.