“How am I helping you?” is a simple question to ask a client. A short five words. Only sixteen letters. Yet such a powerful tool for building strong relationships. This friendly question may even startle the client you ask, but it will also make them think. The ensuing conversation will deepen their whole perspective of who you are as their coach. And, their honest, heartfelt responses will let you know if your assumptions about what you do are spot-on or way off.

I’ve learned this myself as I went through Habitry’s Essentials of Habit Coaching. The Essentials program helped me shift direction on my coaching journey. No longer am I on my way to become one of many instructor coaches who focus mostly on telling people what to do. I’m now on my way to becoming a Motivator coach, dedicated to helping my clients become their best selves.

While a Motivator coach may sometimes tell a client what to do, they value even more deeply the practice of asking questions.

How a Five-Word Question Transforms a Coaching Relationship

As I underwent my metamorphosis from instructor to Motivator, my eyes opened to a new vision of the coach-client relationship. The landscape is now a two way street between myself and my client. Going from giving instructions to motivating changed the nature of my client interactions. It opened both my client and me to so many more opportunities. Client remarks like “You helped me understand how to set realistic expectations for myself” not only resonate with me but also lend me the motivation to continue this quest of becoming the best Motivator I can be.

Why is this new vision so important to me? In any relationship, person A can come to assume they understand what person B is feeling and thinking. But this can be a problem when things get left unsaid. When thoughts and feelings (good, bad, or indifferent) aren’t communicated, they become potential triggers for unexpected conflict in the future.

The solution to avoid these issues is simple yet powerful. When person A expresses their thoughts, feelings, and questions to person B, neither is left wondering anymore. It strengthens the foundation of the relationship. When I asked the question “How am I helping you?” to some of my clients, their feedback was both gladly given and eye-opening.

One response really stands out in my mind. One of my personal training clients here in Nashville, who I’ll call “Jessie”, is a mother in her early 50s working a high-stress job. I told Jessie that my goal was to keep improving as a coach and trainer and I would appreciate her feedback on how she thought I was helping her, including what problems I was helping her solve. Jessie explained that it was hard to answer without comparing me to previous personal trainers with whom she had worked. She said the most noticeable difference between me and them was how I applied my methodology, which she felt was both attentive and designed to build confidence and results.

What do you think were the chances that Jessie’s previous trainers focused only on telling her what to do?

Jessie went on to say my methods kept her from quitting because while sessions were tough, they were tough in the right way. She felt that I designed her workouts for her specific capabilities, versus the death-by-boot-camp/one-size-fits-all approach she’d encountered before. She appreciates that I don’t let her cut corners. And she was grateful that I’d guided her to set realistic goals and expectations for herself, because she is easily discouraged and willing to go off track. That’s five strengths I never would have seen in my coaching relationship with Jessie had I not asked her one simple question.

You Know What Happens When You Assume

You’re not done just because your client responded to your question. There’s a significant chance the answer you got doesn’t reflect the client’s true meaning. Why? Because they’re not used to answering questions like “How am I helping you?” You surprised them, and now you’ve got them thinking. This is when the coaching technique of reflecting back what you think you heard comes into play. For example, a fairly new client, a local minister I’ll call “Shane”, recently told me he was eating things he knew he shouldn’t be eating. Here’s how I reflected back to him during our conversation:

Mitch: What’s your vision of yourself in 30 days?

Shane: I see myself weighing 5-10 pounds less.

Mitch: How do you think you’ll accomplish that?

Shane: I’ll stop eating a fast food breakfast and stop snacking on donuts every day. And I’ll replace the fast food breakfast with eggs. I can make them at home.

Mitch: Okay, I’m hearing that you’re going to eat a good breakfast at home and stop eating processed foods.

Shane: Not all processed foods. Just donuts.

Mitch: I stand corrected. [Both of us laughed.]

Shane: Probably I’ll replace the donuts with a handful of unsalted nuts.

As we went to work out, Shane laughed and said he was probably about to pay his penance for confessing his food sins to me.

Later, I related this story to Omar Ganai, the instructor for Essentials of Habit Coaching. He pointed out, “when your clients feel comfortable enough to tell you what’s on their mind, even if it means telling you that you’re wrong and you can laugh about it, then that’s coaching.” It’s a sign that I had gained my client’s trust.

This stuff isn’t applicable just in your coach-client relationships but in all your personal relationships. Think about how many times you might have had fights with your spouse, significant other, or best friend because of lack of communication. What did the lack of communication cause? Yep, you guessed it – assumptions. Assumptions are a big cause of interpersonal conflict. Because that old saying about what happens when you assume is an old saying for a reason.

While I always try to not make assumptions in my long time personal relationships, surprisingly I didn't practice the same in my client relationships. I was totally instruction-focused in my coaching and training: do as I’m telling you to do because I know what’s best for you. (Wow! Looking back on this is amazing. I never did this as a father or husband, yet why did I fall into this trap as a trainer and fat-loss coach? Well, no time to feel sorry for myself – I’m motivated now as a Motivator.) As I am more cognizant now: to be a Motivator coach, you can’t make any assumptions in your client relationships.

What a True Motivator Coach Knows

Motivator coaches listen to their clients and ask for their feedback. In doing so, the Motivator coach can tailor their coaching approach to fit their client’s unique needs. Hidden within the words you are listening to are the keys to how your clients believe you are helping them. Your eyes will be opened to the perceptions and feelings of your client. You’ll now have a better understanding of who you are working with and just as importantly, both you and your client will be motivated in amazing ways.

We must realize that habit change takes time. It happens in small steps. The true Motivator coach inspires their clients to change by investing whatever time is necessary to make it happen. Asking the simple question of your client “how am I helping you?” is one key to this process. Reflecting back what you hear is another. It takes a strong, confident coach to put themselves out there in what an instructor might think is a vulnerable position. Do you have the guts to do it? If you do, congratulations - you’re on your way to being a Motivator.

Mitch Kahn is a habit-based fat loss coach and personal trainer in the Nashville area who helps clients become the best version of themselves. His Live Lean and Fit Community is a community for busy people who want to lose fat by changing their habits so that they can become healthy and fit.

Essentials of Habit Coaching is a 5-week online training program offered by Habitry that helps Motivators foster habit-based change in their communities. Don’t have your own community yet? Join the Motivate Forum, a free community for coaches who are constantly improving their powers of motivation.

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