One of the biggest problems that we coaches face is often not recognized as a problem until it’s too late. Until after a few clients have just stopped showing up. Or maybe never came back after that summer vacation. Or joined a Soul Cycle. But this problem starts on Day 1, often during the assessment or even before when we’re just making small talk.

"Our clients tell us the things they think we want to hear."

More often than not, it’s subtle. A, “I’m just looking to get a little more toned” here or an “I average about 1300kcal per day” there. They fudge numbers up or down, phrase things in certain ways, or hedge their guesses for lots of reasons. Fear of being judged, desire to connect, or just universal human cognitive biases. And it’s not just our clients. We all have cognitive biases. We all fudge and hedge. We all want someone (maybe more than one someone) to like us.

So what is a coach to do when you know that you’re being innocently lied to?

Luckily, people may be irrational, but as Dan Ariely notes, we are predictably irrational.

I have found that the creativity of the questions I ask and the way that I ask them goes a long way to getting honest (and self-honest) answers. I first started thinking about this problem when Dan John told me he stopped asking people how many vegetables they eat, “because they all lie. Instead I started asking how many colorful vegetables they eat. Just adding that word suddenly made them honest with themselves.”

It seems that by asking the unusual version of the question, the weirder version that makes the client think for half a second before the “usual” answer, is a fantastic tool to get at self-awareness (it’s also an old counseling trick). So here are a few tactics to get a little deeper and to get the client to start thinking more about what they want and what they are doing to get there.

  • Be overly specific, like with “colorful vegetables.” Instead of asking, “how often do you work out?” try “did you work out last week?” Instead of, “how many hours of sleep do you get per night?” ask “what time did you go to bed last Thursday?”
  • Be blunt. Instead of asking, “how much weight do you want to lose?” try “what number on the scale will make you smile?” Instead of, “why do you want to run a marathon?” try, “do you want to run a marathon or be the kind of person who ran a marathon?”
  • Change the question words. Instead of, “why are you doing this?” try “who are you doing this for?” Instead of, “when do you want to reach this goal?” try, “on what date will this goal no longer be attainable?”
  • Mess with the time scale. Instead of, “what are you going to eat this weekend?” try, “what are you going to eat for dinner on this date 3 years from now?” Instead of, “what’s your goal bench press?” try, “how much do you want to bench press on your 80th birthday?”
  • **Play with phrasing. **These are subtle, but you’d be amazed how well they work to get people to honestly self-assess before they speak. Instead of, “how much do you deadlift?” try “how much weight can you pull off the ground?” or even simpler, “do you think can you pick that up?” Instead of, “do you have active friends?” try, “who do you know that would want to join you for a hike this month?” Or instead of, “does that feel OK?” try, “does that movement make you feel more athletic?”

The goal of all of these unexpected questions is to create an environment where honest self-assessment is the norm and where the client knows that you care enough to go further than the usual stuff. And that you won’t judge them, no matter what they say. They take practice to remember, but the answers are worth the effort.