I remember when I thought it was my job as a coach to motivate clients. It was 2014, and I’d been dreaming of playing coach for almost two years. Finally, I found myself coaching a group online. We had 13 men, who all who wanted to look better naked. Perfect.

How My First Coaching Group Started (and Ended)

This was going to be my first-ever experience coaching a group (or anybody). It was my chance to finally do some “coaching”. I put coaching in quotes because I had no idea what the hell I was doing. And I was, to be fair, a little cocky. I had a graduate degree in Organizational Psychology. Translation: I thought I knew all the things you needed to know about how to help people change their habits. I was feeling excited.

In the first week the guys in the group could not have acted more pumped. The forum was full of chatter about the training and nutrition plans I’d made. A typical comment from one in the men in the group went like this: “Nice first week! I was raging sore on Monday and Wednesday, and today I needed a nap after work.” Stuff like that made me feel even more confident. All these guys had to do was follow my instructions for another sixteen weeks. Another sixteen weeks of following the plan, and they'd be in the best shape of their lives! By the end of week two, I thought to myself, “God, I love coaching. And I’m so damn good at it!”.

Then we entered the third week, and I noticed my clients started posting less. The Habit Habit Hangover was kicking in. I panicked. I doubled down on communications. I sent each of them personal messages asking about their progress. It felt so important to make sure they were doing what they should be doing. After all, they were paying me to keep them motivated to reach their goals. No way would I give up on them!

And guess what? By the end of the third week, most of the guys stopped participating in the program. Only two of the guys would even return my messages.

It was puzzling. These people had decided, for whatever reason, that they’d rather lose their hard-earned money than engage with someone who wanted only to help. Why? Why would people fork over cash for my advice, only to stop talking to me after I gave it to them? So much for being so damn good at coaching.

You Can't Motivate Anyone

Coaches can’t motivate people. We can only provide opportunities for people to feel competence, autonomy, and belonging. It’s those three feelings that help our clients feel motivated about the work they do with us.

Competence is our perception that we can get better at doing what we need to do, to get what we want. The opposite of competence is feeling stupid.

Autonomy is a feeling that we are the source of our own behavior. That we are free to choose how to behave and act in line with our values. The opposite of autonomy is feeling controlled or coerced.

Belonging is a feeling of being connected to people we like. That we are valued by people we like. The opposite of belonging is feeling isolated or rejected.

The Motivator Trap

That stinging defeat in my first coaching group was my first contact with what I now call The Motivator Trap.

Coaches can’t motivate their clients, yet we often act like we can. Because we don’t set appropriate relationship boundaries, we end up holding ourselves accountable to motivating our clients. And this sets them up for failure in the long run.

So we need to understand how to avoid The Motivator Trap. Otherwise, we prevent clients from appreciating and using our expert advice. Just like I did with my “look good naked” clients. And how do we do that? To paraphrase Coach Stevo (as I often do), it’s much easier to avoid making people feel controlled, stupid, and isolated than it is to support their competence, autonomy, and belonging. So let’s talk about that.

Three Easy Mistakes: Ways I Made My Clients Feel Stupid, Controlled, and Isolated

I told my clients in my first group that focusing on the process was important. But the way I ran that group communicated to them that I didn't actually believe that. These are the three main ways I made my clients feel stupid, controlled, and isolated.

Excessive focus on progress over process. This was the biggest mistake I made. I required clients to submit progress photos and body weight measurements. Bad idea: body composition changes take months, and I was asking them to submit reports weekly. I spent almost no time setting their expectations for a reasonable rate of progress. So they inferred that I expected progress every week. I gave them the wrong metrics to focus on and made them do it every week. They needed to talk about how they were succeeding and what they were learning. And how they were going to make working out an expression of who they were becoming. They were left feeling stupid, controlled, and isolated.

Excessive focus on hard things. I didn’t consider how hard they would find the workouts and nutrition plans I designed. My only yardstick for workouts and meals was what I’d find reasonable. Instead, I needed to get them to personalize the plans to their level of confidence, so that they were set up for success. They were left feeling stupid, controlled, and isolated.

Excessive focus on all the things. They needed to focus on one habit at a time. Instead, I gave them multiple tasks, which divided their limited attention and energy. Also, I was posting links to articles and making them more confused. They never got enough momentum going. They were left feeling stupid, controlled, and isolated.

How to Start Thinking Like a Motivator

Clients come to us expecting to outsource their motivation to us. Often they’ve just taken a big leap of faith and are hoping for big results. That why we need to be extra careful, especially at the start of our relationship with them, to avoid making them feel stupid, controlled, or isolated. And we should take advantage of the intensity they’re feeling to start their journey right. Remember, we can’t motivate our clients. We can only provide them opportunities to feel competence, autonomy, and belonging.

There are many techniques and fun tricks to help this process along. Most of them are included in the Habitry Method, and other Motivators and I talk about them every day in the Habitry Professionals community.

Do you have a story about your struggles with The Motivator Trap? Share what you learned in the comments or talk to us at hello@habitry.com.

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