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How to Create Meaningful Connection and Build Trust With Person-Focused Coaching

As a health or fitness professional, you may be familiar with the “client-centered” approach to coaching, where the client is the authority on their own lives, and the coach works with the client to build their dignity, autonomy, self-determination, self-efficacy, and self-expertise.

At Girls Gone Strong, we are of course completely on board with empowering clients in this way — and yet we feel that we can further enhance this relationship, by envisioning the people we work with as more than simply “clients.” This is an approach we call person-focused coaching.

There are four main pillars of person-focused coaching:

  1. Making meaningful connections and building trust
  2. Serving people of all different personalities, values, and backgrounds
  3. Making every client feel welcome, included, and safe
  4. Striving to lead with empathy, congruence, and a lifelong commitment to personal growth.

In this article, I’m going to touch on the importance of making meaningful connections and building trust, which are the foundations of person-focused coaching.

These are fantastic goals to have as a coach, but how do you actually go about accomplishing these things with your clients?

Making Meaningful Connections and Building Trust

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” right? Working with someone to improve their health, whether you’re a personal trainer, physiotherapist, nutrition coach, chiropractor, or other health professional is an intimate experience.

Folks seeking your help:

  • Likely experienced a major life event — an injury, a serious diagnosis, or something that made them finally ready to take charge of their health.
  • Will be sharing very personal health information with you.
  • Will be in physically intimate settings with you, often with you touching their body in some capacity.

This is a vulnerable time for most people, and making a meaningful connection and starting to build trust with your client or patient can be the difference in them working with you or choosing to work with another professional.

Making meaningful connection and building trust sounds good — but what does that actually look like in practice? Here are some actionable strategies you can implement right away.

1. Make a Positive First Impression

Has it ever happened that you meet someone for the first time and they seem completely disinterested in meeting you? They don’t smile or make eye contact, their posture is closed off, and they have a totally bored tone of voice? It feels awful, right? It has the ability to make you feel insignificant or diminished, whether or not this person even intends to treat you that way. They could be in a bad mood, or be shy or distracted, but still — the first impression isn’t good, and you certainly wouldn’t want to pay to interact with them on a regular basis.

Remember, the clients or patients you are about to meet may be in particularly challenging or vulnerable places in their lives, and it’s critical that you make them feel important and valued upon meeting them. Here are actionable ways you can do that:

  • Have a big smile on your face.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Adopt a comfortable, relaxed, open posture.
  • Greet them with warmth and enthusiasm.

This body language and tone of voice helps your clients feel seen and heard, and communicates that you are happy to see them.

If greeting someone in the way I detail above feels awkward to you, I highly recommend you practice in the mirror or with a trusted friend or colleague. It’s very possible to hone this skill until it feels like second nature to you.

Remember that these seemingly small details can make a huge difference in the way the client or patient will feel during their work with you.

2. Create Meaningful Connections

Once you’ve made a great first impression and your client is ready to work with you, it’s time to build meaningful connections. One way to do this is to take a sincere interest in your client and what’s important to them.

Are there particular world events they bring up during their sessions?
Do they volunteer their time with a specific charity?
Do they speak often about their beloved children or grandchildren?

You can use their interests to create meaningful connections by:

  • Actively listening when they’re talking about what’s important to them. This looks like using eye contact, nodding your head, and giving verbal cues that you’re listening. Be genuine. People are able to detect when you are faking interest.
  • Asking relevant follow-up questions about what your client is saying to show that you’re listening and understand what they are saying.
  • Asking questions about the same topic at a later date to show continued interest and help your client feel heard and cared for.
  • Finding ways to get involved in their interests if possible, i.e., if you run a charity bootcamp at your gym, maybe the organization they volunteer for can be the recipient of the raised funds one month, or maybe you can organize a group from the gym to participate in a charity walk that benefits the organization.

3. Lay the Building Blocks of Trust

Being a great coach depends a great deal on trust, and in order to lay the building blocks of trust with your client, you must have two things:

  • Knowledge (and the ability to share it in a way that’s well-received)
  • Humanity

To be considered knowledgeable, you don’t have to have decades of school and coaching under your belt. You simply have to be competent enough to help your client reach their goals in a safe way, and be dedicated to ongoing research, learning, and expanding your coaching toolbox.

Clients want to work with someone who knows what they are talking about, and is confident in their knowledge while keeping an open mind. They also value a health professional who can explain complex information about health, fitness, and nutrition in terms they can understand and use.

Your clients will often come to you feeling confused or worried about conflicting information they just read online or in a magazine, and it’s up to you to alleviate concerns, separate sensationalist headlines from facts, and clarify what the research says, without alienating your client, which brings us to our next building block of trust: humanity.

Remember that whole, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care?” Yes. It applies here, too.

If you cannot share your knowledge in a way that conveys compassion, empathy, tolerance, and understanding, your client is less likely to be open to receiving that knowledge.

For example, here’s a fantastic case study example from our GGS-1 Certification.

Knowledge Without Humanity

Client: “I just read that coconut oil is really bad for you, and now I’m worried because I’ve been using it and…”

Coach: “That’s all BS and lies! Don’t believe what the media says!”

In the example above, the coach did not:

  • Practice active listening.
  • Empathize with the client.
  • Address the client’s concern.
  • Do anything to dissipate the client’s worry.
  • Offer data or information to support their reasoning.

Knowledge With Humanity

Client: “I heard about this detox tea which is supposed to work great. My co-worker used it and lost five pounds in one week, and now I’m wondering if I should try it, too.”

Coach: [Smiles, looks curious and engaged.] “That’s really interesting. Tell me, what sounds most attractive to you about using this tea?”

Client: “Well, if it makes me lose five pounds in one week, I’ll take it!”

Coach: “Fair enough. So we could say that what you’re seeking is the weight loss. [Reflecting back to the client what they have said.] OK, great. Now tell me more, for you, would it matter what kind of weight you lost?”

Client: “What do you mean?”

Coach: “Do you remember when we learned about the kinds of weight that the body can lose? Water weight, fat mass, lean mass, and all that?”

Client: [Nods as they remember this lesson] “Oh, right. Yes.”

Coach: [Checks client’s cues that they understand, and are able to move on with the conversation.] “OK, well, in this case, these types of teas work by causing you to lose water weight.”

Client: “Oh, so it’s not body fat.”

Coach: “Right, exactly. You got it. So if you try this tea, you might get this effect. Now, this boils down to your true goals and wishes, since we’re following your agenda: Do you just want to see the scale number move down, even if that number comes back up within a few days? If you’re OK with that, then sure thing, give the tea a try. There’s nothing wrong with that.” [Validating, encouraging exploration and safe experimentation.]

Client: [Disappointed] “Well, no. I don’t want to waste my money. I want real weight loss, I want to slim down.”

Coach: “I can see you’re disappointed. It’s tough when all these products make it sound so easy. I’m sorry.” [Empathizing.]

Client: “I just get so desperate, and all these ideas start sounding good.”

Coach: [Continuing to empathize and validate.]  “I hear you. It sure can feel like a battle, especially when progress moves so slowly. But you’re doing so well, and you have me supporting and cheering for you. You’re doing the right things. Don’t give up! And thank you for trusting me to ask about these things. I really value and appreciate that. I’m always here to answer your questions.

In the above example, the coach:

  • Listened to their client.
  • Embraced the idea.
  • Proposed under which circumstances this idea is a good idea.
  • Included the client as a collaborator in deciding which next steps to take.
  • Empathized with the disappointment their client felt.

Instead of dismissing their client’s idea as something ridiculous, or leading their client to feel foolish, this conversation helped the client feel heard, respected, and understood, and diminished any resistance.

4. Understand Cornerstones of Good Communication

Good communication skills are key in order communicate effectively with your clients, and be a great coach. “Good” communication involves both verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as written communication, and are skills that can be honed over time with practice.

I already covered some of the important non-verbal communication like a big smile, eye contact, and relaxed, open posture, but here are several more important things to do (or avoid) in order to communicate to your client that they’re your top priority during their sessions with you:

DO:

  • Take your time when emailing or sending your client a text message. Sending short, abbreviated responses communicates to your client that you don’t have time for them or they aren’t important to you. (Of course, there’s a flip side to this. Setting boundaries and expectations with clients is important, but that’s an entire blog post in itself).
  • Be thoughtful about your word choice when writing to a client via email, text, or social media. Consider whether your message could be received or misinterpreted by the reader. Pay a little extra attention to ensure that you’re delivering the message you want your client to receive.
  • Spend more time asking questions and listening to your client than you do lecturing, telling, or giving unsolicited advice.

AVOID:

  • Texting or playing on your phone during your client’s training session.
  • Chatting with other trainers or members while your client performs their exercises.
  • Walking away and leaving your client unattended.
  • Starting conversations about topics not directly related to your client’s training.
  • Responding to emails or messages during a session with a client.

Practicing these behaviors will allow you to hone your communication skills and help deepen your relationship with your clients.

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap with the strategies involved in making meaningful connections and building trust with your clients, and many of these strategies can be implemented into your practice immediately.

As with any new habit or skills — even for coaches and health professionals! — it’s important to start slowly. Adopt no more than one to two new habits at any given time to ensure your new habits stick, before trying to adopt more.

Note from GGS: the information contained in this article is adapted from Chapter 2 of our GGS-1 Certification, which is the world’s first interdisciplinary, evidence-based, body positive, women-specific certification for health and fitness professionals, with a curriculum created by 17 of the world’s leading experts in women’s health and fitness.


Healing Body Image
For You and Your Clients

Did you know that in some countries up to 81 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies? Women all over the world struggle with feeling comfortable in their bodies and at peace in their skin, profoundly affecting how they live their lives and show up in the world. The worst part is that they don’t even know it’s possible to feel differently. We are committed to changing that. That’s why this week we’re giving away a FREE copy of our blueprint where you’ll learn:

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Whether you’re woman or a health and fitness professional who works with women, we’ve got you covered. Select from the options below to receive your free blueprint and get started today!

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About The Author: Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and owner of Girls Gone Strong, a global movement that aims to empower women to embrace all that's possible for their lives and for their bodies through body-positive, evidence-based, nutrition, training, and self-care information. She is also the author of The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training. As a former figure competitor who dabbled in powerlifting, Molly understands the more extreme side of training and nutrition, and after years of personal struggle with her own body image and self-worth, Molly is committed to helping women embrace their bodies and fall in love with themselves, and teaching other coaches and trainers how to better understand, connect with, and serve their women clients. Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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