“Every relationship you will ever be in will fail,” begins the advice of Dan Savage, “until one doesn’t.” I have a lot of different ways to try to communicate complicated ideas simply, but one of the most effective ones I’ve found so far is to reframe my clients’ questions using the sage wisdom of my favorite relationship advice columnist, Dan Savage.
A good coach asked me this week, “What are ways that I can prevent my client from relapsing into bad habits? Especially during the times they are not in the gym or with me personally.”
So let me Savage that question. What if instead reading an article by a Health Psychology Nerd, you were reading a relationship advice column?
“What are ways that I can prevent my significant other from cheating on me? Especially during the times they are not with me personally?”
Well, you could follow them everywhere, but they’d probably dump you. You could ask them “where the hell you been?!” every time they get home, but they’d probably dump you. You could demand that they check in with you 17 times a day, but they’d probably dump you.
So to be blunt, you can’t. You can’t prevent your client from relapsing. In fact, you can’t make them do anything. Ever. They can always ignore your advice and never speak to you again. In fact, most people who ask for your advice (and even pay you for it) will ignore it. But just like there are lots of simple things you can do build trust with your spouse, there are lots of things you can do to maximize your client’s chances of success.
1) Don’t call it a “relapse.”
Everyone struggles. Everyone stubbles. Everyone has bad days. Our job is to give them to tools to keep those bad days from becoming bad decades. And since most of the tools we will use with our clients are words, the words we choose matter. And calling a bad day a “relapse” is like calling spilled milk the fucking apocalypse. Call them “off-days,” “slips,” “detours,” or even, “oopsie daisies.” The point is to pick a word that doesn’t bring this to mind
And instead brings this to mind
2) Help them make an “oopsie daisy” plan.
Assume they will slip up, because they will. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” So when you work with them to pick a nutrition habit they are 90-100% confident they can do, the very next question out of your mouth should be, “so what's your plan if…”
Then pepper them with 200 more “what ifs.” Even crazy stuff like, “what’s your plan if there’s an earthquake?” Every time your client answers these questions, they are getting more confident they can stick to the “oopsie daisy” plan because their brain is actually picturing them doing it and having success. And you can thank Albert Bandura for that shit.
3) Never EVER let them feel judged. EVER. (Can I put that in more capital letters?)
Ed Deci, the founder of Self-Determination Theory, summarizes everything we know about motivation in a single sentence thusly: “You cannot motivate people to do anything. You can only create an environment where people feel emotionally safe to motivate themselves.”
Many of the clients that fall off the wagon will simply never talk to their trainer again. Most people think of us as righteous bastions of all things fitness (no really, tell people at a party you’re a personal trainer and see what happens. They practically spit the pizza and beer right out of their mouths), so we need to go out of our way to make sure they don’t think we are judging them. So when your client tells you “man, I slipped up this weekend,” remind them we all do. It’s human. Maybe even tell them a story about how you slipped up in a similar say, then how you got back on track. Then ask them what they want to do to get back on track.
So choose your words well, help them make a plan, and always make them feel like you’re a safe person to confide in or else they won’t. And remember that every attempt your clients make to change their habits will fail… until one doesn’t.