There is a quote, probably apocryphal, that changed how I thought about working with clients when I read it.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
— Henry Ford

Many clients come to us thinking they know what they need to change their behavior, but they often have no clue what works and what doesn’t, at least for the long haul. It can feel like toddlers asking if they can have ice cream and gummy bears for dinner. And like toddlers, our clients can be relentless when they think there is an easier or faster way to get what they want. Amber Rogers told me over coffee once, “they tell me they hired me because I don’t sell silver bullets, then they beg for silver bullets 24/7.” Here are three “silver bullets” that I’ve identified and what I think is the root fear that needs to be addressed in each one.

1. Harder Workouts. 

The coaches of the Motivate Forum are constantly talking about people who want more cardio, more intensity, more “finishers”, and more more. The reason behind this is simple enough: doing more feels like you’re doing more. But most coaches know that this is rarely the case and that junk workouts can actually set your client back. But after years of arguing with clients, I found a better way. I addressed the fear. I realized that what my clients wanted was the perception of competence. The feeling that they were fire-breathing workout monsters who were making progress. And I needed to figure out a way to give them that feeling because there was no arguing them out of the deep-seated, emotional fear that they weren’t getting better. So I started doing what Dan John calls “eye wash.”  

After a 20- or 40-minute strength & mobility session, we’d do a “finisher” that was frankly bullshit, but that I could supervise and knew wouldn’t be affecting sustainability. In fact, it became more than eye wash, it became bait. They would keep coming back because that last 10 minutes made them feel like they were making progress. I’ve worked with clients for years and told them every single day, “all the stuff that matters is in the first 20 minutes. The stuff we do the rest of the time is bullshit. It's not doing anything except make you sweat and breathe heavy.” And for years, every day, they say “that stuff at the end is really working!” And I would face palm. But they were coming back and would eventually see progress on the things that mattered to them. The perception of competence would become actual competence.  

2. Meal Plans. 

If there is a way to sell people meal plans and still teach them the necessary long-term habits that make permanent change possible, I haven’t found it yet. But I’ve also never had a week go by without someone begging me for them. And since every online group that a Habitry Coach starts has a Q&A for potential clients, I’ve heard every variation in the English language of “will there be meal plans?” And my answer is not just “No.” Instead I address the fear and reframe their question. The client’s fear behind a request for meal plans is that they won’t know what to eat. That they won’t know if they’re doing things right or wrong.  

“I promise that you will know what you need to eat every day. But we’re going to teach you that in the fastest, most efficient, and most permanent way we know how. How did you decide what to eat today? Did you consult your Almanac of Eating that has 3 meals a day (plus snacks) and on April 23rd it states, “Breakfast: Starbucks Blueberry Muffin?” Of course not. Did you buy the muffin at Starbucks out of a combination of habit and poor planning? Probably. So don’t you think a faster, more efficient use of your time and money would be to work on the habits and poor planning that led to the muffin in the first place?”  

3. Tough Love. 

I’m a huge fan of honest feedback and hard conversations, but “tough love” is just a code word for “asshole.” And I don’t know how being an asshole became a virtue in coaching, but I want to blame Jillian Michaels. At just about every cocktail party I’ve been to, someone has told me, “I need to hire you to follow me around and yell at me when I reach for muffins.” They don’t even have to say, “like Jillian” anymore because this is the popular image of what personal trainers do: guilt and shame. And it makes me sad that people actually think this would work. That if they were just shamed, bullied, and treated like a low enough form of shit, that they’d lose weight. But not only is it sad, it’s patently untrue, and the idea that guilt and shame or controlling coaching styles will motivate in the long term has been completely eviscerated by 40 years of motivation science.

So what’s the client fear? Like with meal plans, the fear is they can’t trust themselves to make the right choices. And the only way to address that fear is to give them quick wins and lots of honest feedback to improve their self-efficacy. Frankly, this is even easier in groups, because they can see lots of other people like them struggling with the same fear. (I’ve written lots more about cultivating self-efficacy in group settings in We Make Communities.) Clients working in groups realize they’re not alone in their challenges, and when they see other people like them succeed, it boosts their confidence in their own ability to make good food choices. 

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