Editor: James Mills might be a candidate for "Most Interesting Man in the World." He is a coach, a Lawyer, and his background is in professional ballet and union contract negotiations. He is also one of the smartest people I know, so when he asked me if he could write an article about his coaching style, I said hell yeah! This conversation was also one of the many that happened at the Motivate Summit. If you are interested in joining more conversations like this and meeting more coaches like James, sign up for Motivate Oakland on June 27-28! Many of the questions at the first Motivate Summit in Salt Lake City involved how to effectively create a positive culture. This theme highlighted the fact that coaches rarely lack knowledge in the science of strength and conditioning, but often struggle with the interpersonal dynamics involved with the profession. One aspect of coaching that I have struggled with is managing a client’s emotions, which are often amplified in the gym setting. Coaches often see emotions of anger derail a workout, emotions of sadness flood from nowhere, or emotions of frustration lead a member to find another gym. The problem is that reacting to the hundreds of possible emotions as they arise is often too late and usually ineffective.
This article pulls from the book, Beyond Reason, where two experts in the field of negotiation and mediation explore the emotional side of negotiations. Authors Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro explain that the emotional component of the negotiation is often the largest stumbling block to a successful resolution. They advocate not to react to emotions but to address five core concerns from which a great many emotions arise - appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status, and role. When these concerns are met positive emotions flow from them and when they are not met negative emotions can flourish.
Let’s explore each core concern.
We all want to feel appreciated. This concern is not met when our thoughts, feelings or actions are devalued, leading to emotions of anger, humiliation, or spite. However, when our opinions or work are appreciated and treated as having merit, we are proud, enthusiastic, and prone to being cooperative.
As coaches we should appreciate all the work our clients devote towards reaching their goals. For example, an athlete will often respond to a correction by saying, “I was trying!” This reply indicates that the client feels their efforts were not appreciated. We can avoid this reaction by incorporating the core concern in the correction, saying, “I saw you working hard to keep your midline straight during those kettlebell swings. Great effort!” We could then give a specific correction tailored to helping them reach the goal of prioritizing a neutral spine.
Who doesn’t want to feel as if they are a part of something? When we are kept at arm’s length or treated as an adversary, emotions of hopelessness, anger, or shame may lead us to go it alone or not go at all. While being treated as a colleague, friend, or invaluable member of a group will lead to feelings of comfort, calm, and cheer. These positive emotions can fuel collaboration, creativity, and success.
This concern can be met by using language that communicates affiliation. For example, express how much a client’s dedication to sweat and suffer in the gym inspires you to train harder or thank them for being such an integral member of the gym. Affiliation can also be met through action. For example, Coach Stevo builds affiliation by asking his athletes to teach basic movements and his “four rules” to new members, rather than doing it himself. Kelly Starrett often finishes his classes at San Francisco CrossFit by gathering the athletes together to reflect on how the training session went for them. A coach could also have the athletes collaborate on programming that day’s workout or if you are training and a client arrives early, ask them to coach you.
When someone’s freedom is infringed upon, anger, stubbornness, and frustration often follow. But when someone’s freedom is respected, those very powerful negative reactions do not need to rise to assert independence, but confidence, respect, and happiness can flourish.
Our athletes need to feel autonomous. Even when a client says, "I trust you and will do everything you say,” it is a mistake not to respect their autonomy. They don't have to choose to train with you or to even train. Our role as a coach is to pass along our knowledge and experience while respecting the client’s right to choose what to do with that information. For example, Josh Hillis, author of Fat Loss Happens on Monday, collaborates with clients to create a group of habits or goals the client wants to develop and then asks the client to choose which one to tackle first. This beautifully illustrates a coach respecting his role as the hired expert, while still respecting the client’s autonomy to choose the next step forward.
To be clear, cultivating autonomy does not mean anarchy in the gym. We have rules and standards in the gym for a reason. The point is that we must be sensitive to creating an environment that allows for and respects the freedom of our clients to make their own decisions.
When a person’s status is infringed upon they are treated as inferior to, or less than another. Here, emotions of resentment, humiliation, anger, or irritation may rise. When a person’s status is given the full recognition it deserves, feelings of pride, accomplishment, or satisfaction often flourish.
The key is to treat our clients with the respect they deserve. If a client always shows up four minutes late, disrupting the class, we would ineffectively handle the situation by reacting and calling them out in front of the class. However, their actions do not deserve praise and ought to be addressed. Understanding the concern for status informs us that we should address their actions away from other people so as not to add the dynamic of being singled out, and we should not compare them to others when we broach the subject of their tardiness. In other words, it would be ineffective to say, "Your other classmates seem to find a way to be here on time." Rather, focus attention on the actual problem, saying, "When you arrive late it disrupts the class and my focus shifts from getting the whole class warm to how to catch you up to the rest of the class.”
When your current role is not personally fulfilling it can lead to feelings of hopelessness, impatience, or apathy. However, when a role is fulfilling it spurns creativity, joy, and the feeling that one can make a difference. If you have ever had a job that you hated or a job you were inspired by, you know how this core concern affects your emotions.
In building a community each member inevitably takes on some sort of role. Some people are happy to come in, work hard and go home. Others desire the social nature of the group class. Respecting a person’s role may be as simple as reciprocating their dedication to training by giving your all as their coach. There are many ways to meet this concern and no one shoe fits each client.
The five core concerns help us step into the shoes of another person to understand what is driving that person’s emotions. In other words, this is a framework for empathy. And before you meet a new client you already know five things about them – they want to feel appreciated and affiliated, they want their autonomy respected, they want their status acknowledged, and they want a role that is fulfilling. From that perspective we can use the core concerns as a proactive way to inform what action choices to take in building and maintaining our coaching business, and when emotions arise, we can evaluate whether that client’s core concerns are being met or not.
As a final note, developing this framework is not easy. Effective use of the five core concerns is a skill and it requires practice, not unlike a clean and jerk. We have to challenge ourselves to adapt in the ways we desire. In the end, a client wants their core concerns met, not just the best possible programming money can buy. As a former professor routinely advocates in her law classes, “We are human first, competent [coaches] second.”
Editor: If you are interested in joining more conversations like this and meeting more coaches like James, sign up for Motivate Oakland on June 27-28!