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14 April 2020

How to make your clients do what you want – A conceptual model for understanding behaviour change

by Aaron Hoey 0

Terry the trainer looked up from his laptop and sighed. It had been another long day on the gym floor with clients who seemed to take his words and allow them to travel in one ear and out the other. Terry was drained, long days on the gym floor was taking a toll on him,…

Terry the trainer looked up from his laptop and sighed. It had been another long day on the gym floor with clients who seemed to take his words and allow them to travel in one ear and out the other. Terry was drained, long days on the gym floor was taking a toll on him, and he was struggling to attract leads due to his lack of ability to get results with clients. 

Sessions missed, late check ins and programs which simply weren’t followed was just the beginning of Terry’s problems, and Terry couldn’t comprehend what he was doing wrong. Terry thought he was a pretty decent coach; he’d graduated with an exercise science degree and spent most of his income and spare time visiting various workshops teaching nutrition and training periodisation and exercise execution.  

And yet he struggled to get clients to do what he wanted them to. He didn’t understand what was so difficult. He spent half his day relaying the ins and outs of nutrition and training. He spent so much time looking at half completed or empty spreadsheets and incomplete MyFitnessPal lists. Maybe he was just unlucky, maybe he just got stuck with all the clients that didn’t want to change. Yes, that must be it. 

Many trainers in the world are currently in Terry’s shoes, they understand the principles of training and nutrition, but lack the requisite skills to communicate these effectively to clients in a way which actually improve the likelihood of the client altering their behaviours in a way which will lead to them getting the desired results. What I am giving to you in this blog format is a conceptual analysis of the many factors which lead us to behave in particular ways. By understanding this, and then putting it into application with your clientele, it is my aim to you not only begin to understand why people make decision, but how to alter their decisions in a way which is mutually beneficial to both parties. 

The model.

The model above is one which is adapted from Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. It gives a concise overview of the many factors that influence our decisions and behaviours, which result in different outcomes. Many trainers understand that in order to change outcomes they must try and teach habits and behaviours, but most don’t understand there are times where one has to take a further step back to address underlying issues which influence these behaviours. I also want to define knowledge/beliefs as a combination of the client’s current levels of understanding combined with their knowledge deficits.   

Let us take an example where a knowledge deficit is the primary driver behind dietary noncompliance. If client Susan has been reading lots of women’s health magazines and has recently been reading Gary Taubes’ work, she is going to have inaccuracies in the way that she views sugar and carbohydrates and the way that they influence her physiology. We as coaches understand that more rigid dietary models will have higher likelihoods of binges, but Susan may think that her tendency to binge is associated with a sugar addiction combined with poor willpower. Until this knowledge deficit is addressed and Susan gains a more comprehensive understanding of how carbohydrates are digested and metabolised, and how insulin secretion is not going to cause her to gain large amounts of fat, the cycle of restrict/binge will continue. 

Values and priorities

In another example of how values and priorities will shape our decisions and behaviours, lets take client Tara. Tara is what most would describe as a social butterfly. She is very extroverted, and her favourite time of the week is when she can kick back with her uni girls and drink wine and eat cheese platters. She’s a smart girl and understands the ins and outs of energy balance and macronutrients and how they impact her body composition, but she still struggles to adhere, even when many compromises have been attempted. Her number one hurdle is that she values the time she spends with her uni friends and her studies more than she values her body composition.

Many coaches will see this as borderline sacrilegious, how dare someone not take the opportunity to turn down social gatherings with friends in exchange for dinner out of a tupperware container and 9 hours sleep. But alas, many of us fall into this industry precisely because our values are heavily geared towards health, fitness and body composition. Thus these sacrifices are easy for us to make, but they are not so easy for Tara. Perhaps a conversation must take place where we highlight that Tara is currently faced with trade-offs between her fitness/body composition goals and her social life/uni, and that at the present stage, she’s not going to make drastic changes on the body composition front unless she decides to prioritise that the former at the expense of the latter. Maybe we put body composition goals on hold until uni holidays in 6 months time? It Is important to reiterate that the decision is entirely up to her, you will not judge her for choosing a social life and studies over dieting, and that you will still do the best as her coach to guide her towards the best possible health and fitness outcomes with high quality training and nutrition advice, even if its not coming from a body composition perspective. Understanding one’s values and deciding what course of action to take with informed choice, is paramount to clients finding the right balance between values and being able to adopt strategies which are realistic, enjoyable and flexible in nature.        

Adjusting expectations

In order for you to be on the same wavelength with your clients, you need them to have clarity as to how their current behaviours will impact their future. When initiating a fitness or nutrition intervention, many of us are overly optimistic and underestimate the level of commitment which is required to accomplish a drastic result. We can sit around pointing fingers at social media and inaccurate media portrayals of what constitutes “fast results” all day, but the more important thing is that we simply convey our le vel of understanding onto our clients in an accurate and concise manner. 

The former is a model which I use with my clients to illustrate what certain outcomes look like in real life. 

For a client who thinks they are doing everything they need to get a positive outcome change, their following “Now” may look as followed.

  • “Eating healthy” but not tracking
  • Eating out 3 times per week.
  • Training 3 days per week, but missing 1 session every second week.
  • Having very sedentary days 2-3 days per week (<4500 steps).
  • Beers with boys on weekend

If a client thinks that this healthy eating and training a few days a week is going to be enough to get him jacked for summer, you as a coach are going to have to illustrate that he must potentially sacrifice more to get to his ideal body composition, especially if he is expressing that he is after something which closely resembles “the best possible outcome. For starters, we could explicitly state what the best possible outcome for him may look like. As illustrated below.

  • 8+ hours sleep per night
  • All food tracked and macros met to within a few grams
  • No eating food which is not prepared by oneself
  • Training 4-5 days per week, no skipping sessions.
  • Minimum step target hit per day. Average hit over the course of the week.
  • No alcohol consumed, and if it is consumed, is factored into macros without coming at the expense of protein or fibre. 

This stark reality may shock the client, and pave the way for you to offer some form of compromise. The compromise should be sufficient to have the client be able to achieve a result that they are happy with while also allowing them to make sacrifices that they are content with living without until the end goal is achieved. 

Is it ok to lie to your clients in order to drive a desired outcome?

As coaches and educators who no doubt hold the truth highly amongst our moral ideals, this statement at first glance may result in an intuitive answer of “no”.

Before we bring our attention back to health and fitness examples, I’d like to draw your consideration to the issue below.

One of the most nuanced discussions of the 21st century is that of climate change. While going down some deep rabbit holes a few months back I came across this extract from Stephen Schneider, who in 1989 was the lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Below is his appraisal of the communication of the truth.  

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So, we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both”

This extract hit home pretty hard, as it illustrates the stark reality that at times, we must choose between being honest and being effective, with there hopefully being a degree of overlap between the two.

This is most apparent when analysing the communication tactics used by the medical realm. The ethos of the medical community is to communicate honestly that which can be comprehended by the patient. Given that sometimes medical practitioners must deal with patients and populations who cannot comprehend the nuance and complexity of the situation, scare tactics and white lies are used in order to drive an outcome. This approach seems to fall under the banner of consequentialism, a class of ethical theories that holds the consequences of ones conduct as the ultimate basis for any judgement surrounding the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. As a result, morally right conduct is one which produces a good consequence, rather than one which follows a set of written edicts or laws.

May you all go forth and use this knowledge to better yourselves and those around you. 

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