It’s a great day in the gym … until That Client walks in the door.
You know who I mean.
She radiates negative waves, beating herself up over the slightest missteps and ignoring all the positive feedback you give her. If it was raining gold nuggets, she’d focus on her back pain from picking them up.
Negative clients don’t just make themselves miserable, for no apparent or logical reasons. They make your job much harder than it should be, draining your motivation to train them. If you take it personally, your relationship can spiral into a toxic tango of blame and frustration.
But it doesn’t have to. If you understand where the negativity comes from, what purpose it serves, and how it affects both of you, you can take steps to help your client achieve something positive.
Even if your client doesn’t see it that way at first (or at all), you can still protect yourself from matching their negativity with your own.
Even better, you can better understand, and perhaps even shut down, your own negative thought patterns.
What negativity is, and where it comes from
Negative thoughts are an integral part of human experience. Fitness pros are often our own toughest critics, especially when it comes to our appearance. When your body is a walking, talking billboard for your personal training business, it’s natural to look for flaws no one else would notice.
If you’re looking for imperfections, you’ll surely find them, thanks to what psychologists call negativity bias.
Negativity bias, ironically, isn’t entirely negative. It helps you understand where you’re falling short and need to improve. But it’s easy to drift from healthy accountability to unhealthy obsession over your shortcomings, real or perceived. It can wreck your self-esteem, along with your performance in every part of your life.
Other people’s negativity can wear you down as well, especially when it comes from people you can’t avoid, like your clients.
The seven types of negativity
“All or nothing”
The client convinces herself that if one thing’s wrong, everything’s wrong. Not only are there no shades of gray in this black and white world, there’s never a silver lining.
If you offer a compliment (“Great job keeping your heels down on the squat”) followed by a correction (“Next time, we’ll work on keeping the chest up”), they’ll ignore the positive reinforcement and dwell on the one thing that didn’t go right.
The client extrapolates from a single disappointment—like the inability to do a pull-up—to declare herself incompetent at everything, dismissing all the things she actually does well.
We all have awkward encounters with people, most of which we quickly forget. But some people imagine they know what the other person was thinking, and construct a narrative in which a simple misunderstanding becomes something much bigger and more meaningful.
Like the Spinal Tap guitarist who declares the backstage meal “a complete catastrophe” because the bread is too small, this client takes an isolated occurrence and carries it to an illogical conclusion: “I had a second slice of cake at the birthday party, and now my entire diet is blown.”
At worst, this type of negativity convinces them there’s no point in continuing with the plan, and they really do inflict the consequences they imagined.
On a day when the client feels off—exhausted, unmotivated, overstressed—they find larger meaning in their temporary emotional state. They say they’re not good enough or smart enough or strong enough, as if the way they feel today is a fact.
These clients will say things like “I should be a size 4” or “I should be able to do 10 chin-ups.”
Like so many pressures we all impose on ourselves, the idea that everyone should look or perform a certain way comes from the media. A generation ago it was glossy magazines; today it’s Instagram. Whatever standard they feel bound to is typically something an editor, trainer, or influencer just made up.
Let’s say you’re having a foggy day because the baby kept you up all night, or you’re distracted because of an argument you had with your manager. It has nothing to do with the client, but the client imagines it does. It can also work in reverse, if the client is having an off day and you imagine it’s because of something you did or said.
How to assess your client’s negativity
The first step is to understand a paradox:
You’re a powerful person in your client’s life. You’re the expert.
But when it comes to your client’s thought process, you’re powerless. You can’t force them to embrace a more positive outlook. Some of these clients are truly awesome at being negative. They’ve been doing it longer than you’ve been training people. Some have been doing it longer than you’ve been alive. In many cases, they learned to look on the dark side from a parent, who may have picked it up from their own parents.
You can’t undo that in the two or three hours you spend with the client each week, no matter how hard you try. The most determined clients are more likely to infect you with their negativity than you are to change them.
To avoid that contagion, and to have any positive effect on your client, you need to hold this thought:
Remember, it’s just data.
Approach it as a scientist would. Observe. Think about what you’re hearing. And then ask yourself these questions.
What’s the source of the negativity?
When a client says, “I’ll never lose these last 10 pounds,” it’s obviously not a factual statement. So what is she communicating? Is she fatigued? Experiencing stress in too many parts of her life at the same time? Is it something you can alleviate with changes to her diet or training program?
What’s the effect of the negativity?
Does it depress the client’s performance? If you’re in a group setting, does it affect the others? Is there less energy in the room?
What does the negative statement do to you?
Does something the client says trigger you?
For example, when you give the client a compliment, he reacts negatively, questioning your sincerity or knowledge. Your response is to offer more praise, which satisfies the client but makes you feel worse because it’s more than he earned.
Now you’ve been pulled into the client’s negativity spiral.
What part of the negativity should you respond to?
Let’s say a client is berating himself because he ate or drank too much on the weekend. If it’s a client who’s extremely social, it’s not helpful to offer ways to be less social, to go out less, or bring his own food to dinner parties.
Instead, look for the part of the behavior that would be easiest to change. Sometimes there’s no point in offering advice. Just move on to the workout, and see if you can channel the client’s frustration into a higher level of effort.
READ ALSO: Forget About Setting Goals. Do This Instead.
How to respond to your client’s negativity
Think of your interaction like an aikido match. The goal of aikido is to defend yourself without injuring your attacker.
To pull it off, you have to understand what the attacker is trying to do, engage with the opponent, and then redirect the force of the attack to your advantage.
It only works if you lean into the assault. Retreat just increases your opponent’s advantage. Same with debating the client; it puts you on their level, where the client has more weapons and experience. It would be like an aikido master standing in the middle of the ring with a boxer and trying to slug it out.
Here’s what you can do.
Restate or clarify what you’re hearing
This is a basic motivational interviewing technique: “What I hear you saying is that you’re not happy with where you are right now.”
Now, instead of debating the point, you lean in: “I totally get that, and you’re right. You haven’t hit your marks. Why do you think that is?”
If the client’s goal was to start an argument, you’ve reversed the attack by accepting the premise. The onus is now on the client to identify why the program isn’t working the way both of you hoped, and what you can do to fix the problem and move on.
READ ALSO: Motivational Interviewing in Practice
Detach with love
The idea of separating yourself from a client’s difficulties comes from 12-step programs. It begins with the understanding that the client wants to relieve the burden of their emotions by putting them on you.
But you’re under no obligation to do it. Nor would you help the client if you did.
READ ALSO: How to Tell a Client to Cut the Crap
Final thought: Get your reps in
Your interventions, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned, are no match for your client’s long-held negativity. Their thought patterns are grooved, and those thoughts feel true to the client, no matter how irrational or untrue they seem to you.
But that doesn’t mean your work is ineffective. Those negative patterns can be disrupted, challenged, and minimized. Even if the client dismisses your advice or encouragement in the moment, it probably got into their heads. They’ll mull it over later, like a dog who buries a bone to gnaw on later.
You just have to understand it’s going to take time and practice.
Put another way, you need to get your reps in, just as your client has done.