Sick of your clients not following the plan? It might not be their fault. It might be… yours. The reason: Just telling clients what to do isn’t very effective. After all, it’s hard to make people do anything—even when they know it’s good for them. (That’s why we still have texting-while-walking accidents.) But in this article, we’ll show you a proven way to get your clients… to get with the program. For better results and the lasting change you both want.
- Want to listen instead of read? Download the audio recording here…
Clients rarely say, “There’s no way I’m doing that.”
Even though that’s often what they’re thinking.
Maybe you prescribe a new eating or exercise habit, and in return, they give you the side eye.
Or they say, “No problem!”, but later admit they always knew they’d never follow through.
Perhaps you could sense they just weren’t that into:
- eating more vegetables
- going to bed an hour earlier
- cutting out soda
But you forced it anyway because, hey, it’s what they needed to do.
Here’s the truth:
Telling clients what to do doesn’t work.
There’s a far better way. It starts with a simple question, and it ends with a plan that doesn’t just help clients thrive—it almost guarantees they will.
So much so, we can tell you straight-faced: This method could change the way you coach forever. (It did for us.)
No one wants to be a minion.
In the health and fitness industry, most people are trained to use a “coach-centric” approach.
It goes something like this:
“I’m the expert, and you’re going to do what I say. Because it’s good for you.”
That works… when your client’s a Navy SEAL. Read: highly disciplined, does what it takes (no matter the cost), and always follows the “chain of command.”
But everyone else? Not so much. That makes it a very ineffective strategy, at least in the long term.
By telling a client you know what’s best for them, you’ve minimized their input.
They don’t see it as their plan; they see it as your plan. As a result, they’re not 100% invested. (Often not even close.)
The fix: a “client-centric” approach.
The concept is simple.
Before a client attempts any new habit or type of change, ask them to rate how they feel about it.
For example, say they’re not exercising now, but you want them to work out hard at least five days a week.
On a scale of 0 (no way in hell) to 10 (a trained monkey could do it), how do they rank their confidence that they will follow through?
Ask them, and emphasize the need for honesty. Not only is it okay for them to voice doubts and concerns now, it’s the absolute right thing to do. For everyone involved.
If they say “9” or “10,” you’re good to go.
But anything less? You need to scale back the proposed plan, and ask again.
What does it take to get them to a solid 9?
Maybe it’s only doing hard workouts four days a week. Or three days. Or perhaps it’s just one 20-minute brisk walk.
Sometimes you’ll have to scale back so much, you might think, ‘This will never work! It’s too easy.’
It doesn’t matter.
Because if they can stick with the change for 2 weeks, they’ll start to gain the confidence to scale up. As they do, you can push them a little further, as long as it’s not beyond their capabilities.
This makes them an active participant in their own plan, instead of an order-taking minion.
They’re now adopting habits and making changes at a pace that’s comfortable for them.
And since you’re making these decisions together, they’re helping create the prescription themselves. One that matches their abilities, preferences, and lifestyle.
The result: You get full buy-in. Which is the catalyst for sustainable change.
Now, that’s the basic version of the client-centric method. You can keep it this simple to start, but if you want to take it to the next level, keep reading.
(Sign up for our FREE newsletter, The Smartest Coach in the Room. Every week you’ll get helpful takeaways on the hottest nutrition and health topics and the world’s most effective coaching techniques. )
Supercharge this strategy.
Okay, so you can ask one simple question, and make some serious progress with your clients. But if you want true mastery, you need to dig a little deeper by asking three questions.
- How ready are you to do this task?
- How willing are you to do this task?
- How able are you to do this task?
These might sound similar, but each can spark unique conversations and provide you—and your client—with greater insight and better strategies.
Let’s look at them one by one.
1. “Are you ready?”
Being “ready” means you see the need for change and feel an urgency to take action.
It doesn’t mean it’s the perfect time to change.
In fact, you can’t ever count on that.
Sometimes, clients say they’re not ready because they don’t feel like they have it “together.” Their lives are crazy, and now just doesn’t feel like the right time to add something new.
But here’s the truth: There’s never going to be a time when things are magically easier.
Life doesn’t come with a pause button.
Let’s say you’ve suggested your client stop using electronics 30 minutes before bed in the name of better sleep, recovery, and overall health. You ask, “How ready are you to do this?”
And… they give you a “5.”
They agree shutting down earlier would be good for their health (and sanity), but work is crazy right now… and they have all the emails… and they need to use every waking moment to stay on top of their inbox.
Maybe it’d be better to do this later on, they say. Like in a few weeks, when their job isn’t so hectic. (The work gods laugh about this at their cocktail parties.)
The message: They’re not quite ready.
But what if you scaled it back?
For instance, what if they signed off email just 5 minutes before bed? While 5 minutes might seem irrelevant, it could be what it takes for your client to feel ready now.
It’s not 30 minutes, but it is progress.
And progress is what matters, not perfection. After all, consistently doing a little bit better adds up to major change over time. (Exhibit A: Our clients, who show how even small efforts can lead to impressive health transformations.)
In a couple of weeks, your client might be ready to shut down 10 minutes early, and ultimately, work up to 30 minutes over time. So eventually, you get them where you wanted—but you do it on their schedule.
Anytime you ask, “How ready are you?” and your client answers 8, 5, or even 1, it’s time to probe for “why.” Asking these questions can lead to helpful (and even surprising) insights.
“What does being ‘ready to change’ mean to you?”
How it can help: This answer shows you where your client really is. Do they want to change, but like our examples, just feel like they’re too busy, or it’s not right time? It’s an opportunity to help them see perfection isn’t a prerequisite.
“Imagine a world where you’re completely ready to make a change. What would that world look like?”
How it can help: Considering what the “perfect” time would look like helps a client see there won’t ever be a perfect time. What’s more, you might be able to steal something from this imaginary “completely ready” world, and incorporate it into their life right now—to help them feel more ready.
“What’s pushing you away from making this change right now? Is there anything pulling you toward trying something different?”
How it can help: Many clients feel ambivalent about change. Read: They want to, but they also don’t want to. Instead of trying to talk your client into changing, this question gets them to do it themselves—by reminding them why they came to you in the first place.
“Instead of making a big, massive change you don’t feel ready for, how could you do just a little bit better in this area today?”
How it can help: This question gives your client the opportunity to tell you what feels reasonable and sane to them at this moment in their life. Work from there.
2: “Are you willing?”
Being willing to change doesn’t mean you have zero reservations about doing things differently.
It means you’re game for pushing past those doubts.
Imagine you’ve trained to be a cliff diver for several months. Your body’s in great shape, and all techniques have been honed. You’re ready.
When you get to the top of the cliff, you start thinking, ’What if I slip? What if I didn’t train right? What if the tide is too low?’ But you jump anyway. Because you’re willing.
That’s often not how it goes with clients, though. Their doubts create resistance they can’t get past. Only they may not tell you that directly.
A coach was assessing a new client, and discovered he was drinking 10-20 Diet Cokes a day.
She told him he should drink more water instead. He replied: “Isn’t Diet Coke made of water?” (Smart client.) Plenty of back and forth followed, but it was more of the same.
The client didn’t say, “I’m not willing to give up Diet Coke,” but through his endless debating, yeah, that’s pretty much what he said. He wasn’t a 9 or 10; he was more like a 1 or 2.
Don’t push against a client’s resistance. You’ll only meet more.
Instead, get them to “notice and name” where their resistance is coming from, so you can explore the reason for it.
You may find it’s not the change itself that’s the problem; it’s what the change represents.
Suppose you have a client who wants to improve their body composition, but doesn’t like the idea of “eating to 80 percent full.”
This is one of the core habits in the Precision Nutrition coaching method, because it can help people better tune into hunger and fullness cues.
But after years of eating until stuffed, it can feel like a big—and unwelcome—change.
Maybe your client rates this a 4, and voices their resistance like this:
“I like eating until I’m totally full. There’s just something so satisfying about it.”
You might ask them:
- What would happen if they stopped eating until they were stuffed?
- How would they feel?
- Why don’t they want to feel that way?
They might respond with something like:
“My life is so busy and stressful. I feel like I deserve a big meal at the end of the day. It just makes me feel happy and comfortable. I’m afraid I’ll lose that feeling if I stop.”
And there it is.
They’ve just noticed and named the real reason they’re not willing to eat to 80 percent full.
From there, you can work with your client to find other ways they can comfort themselves at the end of a hard day, if they’re open to it.
Use the questions that follow to delve into the source of a client’s resistance. Also: Remind your clients they always have the option not to change. Often just knowing this makes them more willing to change.
“What comes up for you when you think about making this change?
How it can help: This question gives your client an opportunity to notice and name the resistance they feel when they think about starting a particular habit.
“Imagine what would happen if you did make the change, despite your reservations. What do you think the outcome would be?”
How it can help: Picturing the benefits can help a client decide that even though the change might be challenging, it could also be worth it. (Or not—that’s okay too.)
“What would happen if you didn’t make the change? What would that look like?”
How it can help: The natural answer is, “Well, things would stay the same as they are now.” And no one invests in coaching because they want things to stay the same, right?
“How would making this change help you achieve your goals? Are there any ways it could keep you from losing weight or feeling healthier or moving better or [insert client objective here].”
How it can help: Getting your client to weigh the pros and cons of making a change helps them reevaluate their willingness to try it.
3: “Are you able?”
Being able to change doesn’t mean your path is free of obstacles.
It means you’ve figured out how to remove—or dodge—the stuff blocking your way.
Let’s say your client lives on an isolated military base. They’re ready and willing to add lean protein to each meal—another of our core principles—but they don’t feel able.
Their food choices on the base aren’t so great. The grocery options are limited, and they often eat their meals in a cafeteria, so they have no control over what’s served.
The good news: The problem isn’t coming from your client; it’s coming from their circumstances. So by brainstorming together, you can “engineer” the habit to fit their life.
Maybe they could:
- Order portable protein options like packets of tuna or single-serving protein powders.
- Check the cafeteria menu ahead of time, and strategically plan around the most protein-challenged meals.
- Work on their meal prep skills to make sure there’s always a good option in the freezer.
- Discover smart solutions in the store they hadn’t considered.
If all else fails, perhaps it means accepting that eating lean protein with each meal just isn’t going to happen. But could they eat lean protein at two out of three meals a day?
Remember: Perfection isn’t required for progress.
There’s always a solution. Make sure your clients know that. After all, humans managed to send people to the moon with less computing power than what’s on an iPhone. (Android, too, of course!) We can surely troubleshoot healthy eating obstacles. Use these questions to help identify and overcome their obstacles.
“What does being ‘able to change’ look like to you?”
How it can help: Just as there’s no perfect time to change, there’s also no scenario where there are zero barriers to change. Asking this question helps your client realize with some creative problem solving, they probably can change right now.
“What obstacles are in your way? How are they limiting you?”
How it can help: Narrowing down exactly why an obstacle is limiting your client may make previously hidden solutions more obvious.
“Let’s say you can’t remove the obstacles completely. How could you ‘dodge’ them?”
How it can help: This question opens up a brainstorming session, allowing your client to come up with solutions that make sense for them as an individual.
What to do next
Let’s say your client is ready, willing, and able (for whatever habits and changes you’ve agreed upon).
Now it’s time to see what happens.
Observe and monitor how they’re doing with the habit. Gather your data. You may want to keep track of the following in regard to their new habit or task:
- how often they’re getting it done
- how well they’re completing it
- the questions and concerns that come up for them
- how it’s impacting their chosen progress markers (weight, girth measurements, energy levels, and so on)
Ask yourself: Is your client getting closer to the result they’re looking for? Are there any patterns or trends that are becoming clear to you?
Once you’ve analyzed your data, decide what’s next.
If you determine the new habit isn’t taking your client in the right direction, maybe you want to try something completely different.
If the client had a tough time completing the task, perhaps you want to scale back and make it more approachable (decrease from 5 servings of veggies a day to 3).
Did they totally master their habit or task? Then consider increasing the difficulty (ramp up from 15 minutes of screen-free time before bed to 30).
And if they haven’t nailed the habit yet, but they feel confident they can, maybe you keep things exactly as they are for a little longer.
No matter which path you choose, remember:
Your clients will tell you what they need to change. You just have to listen.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
You can help people build sustainable nutrition and lifestyle habits that will significantly improve their physical and mental health—while you make a great living doing what you love. We'll show you how.
If you’d like to learn more, consider the PN Level 1 Nutrition Coaching Certification.