Every so often, you will encounter an ah-ha moment–you know, that moment when you are suddenly hit by a sort of life-changing realization. We’ve all gone through this at least once. For me, that happened when I read Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard
While I found the entire book to be excellent and helpful, one section in particular struck me as highly relevant to coaches and personal trainers. Specifically, they delve into a type of therapy called solutions-focused brief therapy (SFBT, or “brief therapy” for short).
I’ll get to what it is shortly, but it influenced me so deeply that I’d immediately begun integrating some of its techniques into my own practice. And almost immediately I noticed improvements in my clients’ habits. Ever since then, I have made SFBT techniques a prominent fixture in my counseling toolbox.
A brief primer on solutions-focused brief therapy for the fitness professional.
SFBT is a future-focused, goal-directed therapy that focuses on solutions, rather than on problems. With SFBT, the conversation is directed toward developing and achieving the client’s vision of solutions. While SFBT is used primarily in psychotherapy, it has been a major influence in business, social policy, education, criminal justice services, child welfare, and even in the treatment of domestic violence offenders. Very quickly, you can see how SFBT can benefit clients who have a weight loss goal, for example.
The SFBT model is goal-driven and centered on clear, concise, realistic goal negotiations. SFBT can go a very long way in effectively helping personal training clients become more open to change, especially with those who have always struggled to adopt healthy habits. It helps clients think about their own journey and is designed for efficiency, because it focuses very little on “archaeology” of the past. In other words, there is little, if any focus on previous failings or trying to analyze speculate as to why something hasn’t previously worked out for the client.
The best feature of SFBT is its simplicity. The basic elements are very easy to apply and the fundamentals don’t require a background in psychology or counseling, at least for clients who are just looking to change their bodies. It is particularly useful in the initial counseling session with clients as it is very efficient way to establish trust and help them see what’s possible. Not to mention, the techniques can be integrated regularly throughout your clients’ journeys toward their goals.
The techniques that will help you motivate your client.
The following SFBT techniques can be used in conjunction with or in addition to your pre-existing counseling repertoire. As with anything, tailor the questions and methods to the individual circumstances of your client. You can use all of the following or pick and choose elements that you feel beneficial to your client and their specific circumstance.
Opening (first conversation with new client): This may seem elementary, but the first step is to start with a “problem-free talk”.
Problem-free talk is simply dialogue that’s unrelated to the issues that your client has come to you for. In most cases, this is light-hearted in nature–small talk, even. This holds true for follow-up sessions as well. In other words, meet the person, not the problem. It’s important that the client feels at ease and comfortable sharing with you. Jumping right into problems might make the client feel uneasy and make give off an un-empathic, business-first vibe.
As an example, ask how their day is going, what they did on the weekend (if early in the week), or perhaps how long it took them to get to the facility. Keep it light, surface level, and as the name implies, problem-free. For now.
Establishing clients’ “best hopes”: A “best hope” is what the client hopes to achieve. In other words, what is the best foreseeable outcome according to the client. This can be part of the goal-setting process, but should likely be the first question you ask after the small talk is over. It essentially invites them to picture a desired future, with a mindset focused on progress. Ask about the client’s best hopes instead of a What brings you here? to set a course for potential outcomes, rather than dwelling on the problems that brought the client to see you.
Here’s an example of how this dialogue might sound:
Coach: “What are your best hopes from our time together?”
Client: “Well, I want to look better and feel better”
Coach: “What does looking and feeling better look like to you?
Client: “Hmmm… I want to fit into my clothes that I wore two years ago and like what I see in the mirror every day instead of being disgusted. I also want to feel more energized, less tired and be able to go up flights of stairs with less exhaustion.”
Coach: “And if you were able to fit into those clothes again and feel as though you could climb stairs effortlessly and have more energy, what are you hoping this will lead to?”
Client: “Well… I’d be happier about myself, better able to do things I enjoy and feel more confident and comfortable in my own skin.”
Coach: “I see. So if I understand correctly, you feel that if you achieve a body composition that allows you to fit into a size you were two years ago, like how you look in a mirror, and have more energy, then you would feel better and more confident about partaking in activities that you enjoy?
Client: “Yes, that sounds right.”
Observe that client may feel inclined to discuss their problems, but you need to re-direct the client toward solutions. As a coach, it’s important to guide the client towards what’s possible.
The miracle question: The “miracle question” is posed to the client to extract their “why”. You are having them describe and conceptualize a preferred future. It goes something like this:
Coach: “Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning, and by some miracle, you were at your goal weight. What’s the first thing you would notice that would be different about your life?” When you ask this, it’s important that you ask it slowly and methodically. The goal here is to get clients to dig below the surface. As a coach, you are looking for more than obvious answers.
If the client responds with something more cursory, here’s an example on how to handle it:
Client: “Well, I’d be able to fit into my clothes more easily and I would feel better.”
Coach: “And what would be different if you were to fit into a certain size of pants? Why do you suppose you would feel better?”
Client: “I would feel more confident about myself and feel better about being out in public and in the gym. This would make me feel better about being able to accomplish something.”
When clients are able to tap into their deeper “why”, they are much better able to align their actions to their deep-seated values.
Scaling questions: Ask clients to rate on a scale of 1-10 based on how confident they are in reaching their goals. Asking clients to rate their motivation or confidence in achieving their goals is quite common, but here’s the twist. Let’s say the client gives you a “6.” Ask them “Why not 5?”
I’ve found this question to catch clients off-guard–in a good way. They are forced to think about why they are better than the last number and prompts them to reflect on aspects of their lives, where they are doing well.
A follow-up scaling question might be, “Where on the scale do you hope to reach to feel you’ve made significant progress?” For some clients, it may be a single digit increase (7), or they may feel more ambitious and desire a “9”. This will give the coach a good idea of the client’s perceived potential and confidence.
Yet another scaling question to ask is: “On a scale of 1-10, what is the healthiest you have been in your adult life?” This will ideally give the client hope that better health is attainable.
Bright spots: The scaling questions flow into “bright spots”, or aspects of your client’s habits or health that are going well for them. Chances are your client may have come to you, discouraged. By asking your client to recognize some wins, you are helping divert them from what’s not going well and show them what is. You want to prompt your client to identify instances of success that are already occurring. If nothing else, remind them that they have come to you for help, which means they have taken action. Help them look for current or recent “wins”-however small–even if they think the road has been nothing but struggle.
Here’s an example of what this conversation might look like:
Coach: “Is there anything you feel you are doing well from a health standpoint?”
Client: “I suppose I’m pretty good about walking everyday.”
Coach: “That’s terrific! Walking is very underrated as a health-boosting habit. How do you manage to walk despite being so busy with work, family life and the other stresses you’ve described?”
Client: “Well, walking has always been automatic for me, as I’ve lived in cities most of my life and it’s the best way to get around. I guess it has always been my go-to activity to reduce stress for when I’ve had a fight with my boss, spouse, or kids.”
Compliments: Oftentimes a well-timed compliment goes a long way, especially to a client who may be frustrated or otherwise at their wits end. Perhaps it’s complimenting them on the aforementioned bright spots they may have identified. Compliments should be relevant, specific, truthful, and sincere. Use them often when you recognize the client has achieved something noteworthy, or if they are feeling discouraged. For example, the client may complain they feel weak or unfit during the session. To which you may respond “You committed to the session. You are here and showing up is 90% of the battle. Everybody has off-days.”
Other examples of timely compliments:
“Your form on the squats has improved dramatically. You’re getting much more depth and you’re moving far more weight than you were a month ago when we started.”
While looking at client’s food log, you can say, “Looks like you’ve been getting more greens in you – great job!”
“You haven’t missed a single session this month – high-five!”
“I see you are discouraged the scale showed up a couple of pounds heavier. Let me assure you that scale weight can be finicky and prone to fluctuation. I also want to remind you that your energy levels, strength, mobility and balance have all gotten way better.”
Keep using SFBT throughout your clients’ journeys.
SFBT can be used throughout your clients’ journey, not only in the beginning. You can even use the above techniques to some degree every session.
- Refer to scaling questions: Periodically using scaling questions to gauge how your client is doing. Look for increases in confidence of reaching goals and perceived level of fitness. You might ask this either monthly or every couple of weeks.
- Remind them of their miracle question. Have them repeat it to you to strengthen the connection and reinforce their purpose. Use as needed or when you feel the client has veered off track a bit.
- The “best hopes” question can be geared towards individual sessions as well. Ask them what they hope to get out of that particular session prior to the start of the session.
- Ask them what they would consider a victory before their next session with you. What accomplishments do they feel they can achieve?
The ultimate goal as a trainer is to help empower clients to make life-altering change. Solutions-focused brief therapy is a sound blueprint for asking the questions that will help them dip below “surface thinking” and into meaningful, goal-centered habits.
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