_This article originally appeared on Seth Munsey’s new blog, “The Client Centered Coach.” Seth is one of the many awesome gym owners in the Motivate Collective who are adding habit-based training and behavior change techniques to the way they do business. You can join our conversations on our private forum or at our Motivate Summits. _ There’s a great song by the country artist, Brad Paisley, titled “Letter To Me.” In the song, Brad gives advice to his younger self as to how he would have handled certain situations, or what choices he would have made differently.

I, like many of you I’m sure, would love to be able to write a letter to our younger selves and give some much needed pointers. Or in my case, a few hard slaps across the back of the skull.

Every now and then my mind wanders back to 2006 when I first became a personal trainer and knew everything I needed to know to get my clients the body of their dreams.

I was well read in proper exercise selection, programming, the latest stretching techniques, and so on. I knew exactly what my clients needed to get serious results, or so I thought.

I had one nagging problem that kept coming up. I couldn’t keep my clients for more than a few weeks. Man did it suck.

Here I was, holding the golden ticket…the keys to the Ferrari…the ultimate body transformation solution…and they didn’t want it.

The second client I ever had was a really nice man in his 40’s named David. He stated his goals were to lose a few pounds, increase his energy levels, and regain some of his lost flexibility. He was married with two young children and had an extremely stressful job. He wanted to relive the days of his youth and I was the guy that was going to make that happen.

I sold him a 24 session package and got ready to change his life.

A linear periodized program and strict elimination diet was just what he needed.

I still remember him saying repeatedly during his first session, “You’re killing me Seth!” First session and he’s already dishing out compliments? Success!

The second session was two weeks later because it took him that long to start walking normally again.

That was the last session I had with David. I tried calling him 6 or 7 times over the next few weeks and never heard back.

So here I sit, writing out a letter to my former self. Ready to give advice to someone who thought they knew it all.

Seth, your brain is full. You think you know a lot, so let me just give you one take-away from my many years of successful coaching.

Discover the power of empathy.

That’s it. Just sit on it and let it soak in.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a coach is thinking your clients are walking in your shoes.

You need to walk in theirs. You need to meet them where they are currently, not where you want them to be.

You are 26 years old, healthy, athletic, and have a ton of time on your hands to work out, prepare your food, and sleep till noon.

You are not your client.

They have family/work/life stressors that you have no first hand experience in.

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Now don’t mistake empathy with sympathy. They are not the same. You do not need to feel sorry or pity for them. You need to try and understand them. That is empathy.

It will not make you soft, or weak, or lesser than. It doesn’t make you a pushover.

Empathy doesn’t mean you condone the choices a person makes, but you do understand why they might have made them.

Think of it as perspective-taking if that makes it easier to swallow.

Now, there are different types of empathy, but I will save that for another letter at some other time.

Here are some ways to build your empathy:

  • Cultivate curiosity about your clients. Ask them questions about how they manage their day. What goes on inside their head as they prepare to come and train with you? What are the stressors they face on a daily basis? Don’t interrogate them though. As oral historian Studs Terkel states, “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”
  • Try spending a day in their shoes. I always joke that the best internship opportunity a new coach working with the general pop could have is spending a week living with a family that has young children. You may think you know what a parent is going through as they try to manage their responsibilities, their children’s lives, and still come and see you, but you really have no clue.
  • Remove all judgment, all pre-conceived notions on what you think your client may be going through, and imagine what you would do if you were in their shoes. Imagine coming home from a stressful 8-10 hour day at work and having only 30 mins to spend with your children before they went to bed; would you honestly choose heading off to the gym to work with a trainer over playing with your kids? image

You can spend time learning everything there is to know about anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and program design, but if you have trouble empathizing and understanding where your client is truly coming from, then the path you pave for your client to walk will be a rocky one.

Learning to become more empathic will not only make you a better coach, but a better partner, friend, parent, sibling, …human being.

“We need to understand that the quality of our lives is directly related to the quality of other people’s lives.” Carly Fiorina