Creating Emotional and Psychological Needs through Client-Centered Communication
Oh dear, not another hackneyed exposition on how to speak efficaciously to your clients! Please, John, spare us your interminable musings on things we already know. What novelty can you possibly offer us, you dingleberry? Well, let’s face it, even if you think you’re Tony Robbins or Oprah Winfrey in the gym with your superfluous motivational quotes and uplifting phrases, there’s always room for improvement when perfecting the art of puissant communication with your clients. In my review of the literature surrounding this field of nascent knowledge, I have found that many articles, advice columns, and personal training manuals have tended to focus solely on the ‘physical’ aspects when writing about proficient communication, such as maintaining eye contact, displaying friendly body language, utilizing appropriate hand gestures, reframing questions, etc. I am not saying that these aren’t useful tips and skills to acquire; in fact, they are important as ever and should be a permanent fixture in your coaching toolkit. However, there is more to this art of communicating with clients than just these overt physical displays. What I am going to narrate in this article, rather, is the psychological/emotional tenets of effective communication, and why this is just as (or maybe even more) important.
For those out of the loop, personal training is essentially a test and outcome of your salesmanship. From the initial encounter on the phone or in person, through the consultation interview, your sales pitch, getting their signatures on the dotted line (ah, relief!), goal setting, and the training that comes after, you are essentially selling yourself and the service on offer – be it injury rehabilitation, nutrition coaching, prenatal and postpartum training, etc. Mind you, the selling does not stop once the prospect becomes part of your existing pool of clientele, because if you are intent on keeping your clients sticking around with you for the long haul, you need to ensure that a positive training experience is created and sustained. Apart from the results that are being delivered and goals being met – such as fat loss or muscle gain (which is part of the sale) – another considerably large part of this constructive training experience and keeping clients around entails a slightly more delicate sales process – client-centered communication
As mentioned previously, I will refrain from elucidating on the overt physical displays of effective communication/listening, as resources espousing these are abundant on the internet. Rather, the focus here is on how you can manifest in your clients the need for you, specifically. This, in my honest opinion, would determine how effective your salesmanship skills are, and whether you can keep clients coming back for more. Think about it this way: when you’re sharing something deeply personal (it may be uplifting or sad news) with a friend or family member, you would obviously be appreciative if they gave you their undiminished attention. You would most definitely not want them to dismiss your feelings, barge in with their own experiences, overshadow your ruminations, judge you for your choices, or just plainly ignore you. When all you wanted was for your friend or family member to hear you out, to empathize with you, or to listen to your rants, being on the receiving end of nonchalance and plain indifference can very often be both emotionally and psychologically damaging.
It is essentially the same concept with your clients. Whether they’re sharing with you their marriage troubles, child’s education woes, challenges of a new job, the overbearing landlord, or a bad purchase, what you need to do is just be patient and listen. Put yourself in your client’s shoes, always. Think about what they need, not what they want. And very often, they almost always need a listening ear. They might have had something lingering on their chest for the whole day, without anyone to talk to. The last thing they would want is to share some deeply personal news only for their coach to belittle it or render it of low importance. Let us partake in some introspection: how many of you can proudly say that you take a genuine and active interest in the lives of other people, or you have people around you that do so? I am going to be bold here and say not many. Therefore, I would suggest letting the conversation revolve around your clients and making them the center of attention. This is what I mean by client-centered communication.
Here’s the secret, and I’m not going to charge a single cent for this unsolicited piece of advice (unless you are feeling charitable at this given moment): You need to create emotional and psychological needs in your clients. What do I mean by this? Simply put, you want to make your clients feel as if they can be open and honest about aspects of their lives they wish to share. Before you get your knickers in a twist, I am not advocating emotional/psychological manipulation, or encroaching boundaries and forcing them to be an open book. Instead, manifest in them the idea that you, the coach, can and will be an important aspect of their lives, especially when discussing certain issues personal to them. There are a few ways in which you can manifest these emotional and psychological needs:
- Establish presence. Sometimes, all you need to do is tell your clients that you are present and available for them. Simple but assuring phrases such as “I’m here if you ever need to talk, we’ll keep it between the both of us”, “if there’s anything on your mind, just speak and I’ll hear you out”, “whatever it is, just know that I’m a text away”, “you don’t have to share if you’re not comfortable right now, but you know where you can always find me” are phrases which can cement your position as a figure of compassion, reason, and trust. When your client hears these phrases, they would most likely feel assured that there is someone out there available to lend a listening ear and that the conversation will most definitely be centered on them. Do not expect your client to come out to you immediately, however; but when they do, you will know that you are slowly establishing in them the need for your presence. Do remember to maintain a certain level of professionalism/decorum and stick to your words. Be genuine; no empty promises!
- Avoid red flags. Eschew judgmental statements, imposing your opinions, moralizing crusades, critical remarks, scoffing at their choices, or being nonchalant towards their emotions. When you abstain from these and a whole host of other red flags, you create a safe space for your client to be raw and vulnerable around you. Sometimes, as a coach, you might be the only person in their social support network they can rant to about their spouses/kids/friends/colleagues/neighbors. Do not do or say anything that can jeopardize your importance to your clients. When they feel that the rapport between you and them can be a no-judgment zone void of criticism and rebuke, this will often create an arena where emotional and psychological needs can be met by your presence. This positive arena of client-centered communication will go a long way in keeping clients happy.
- Remember important details. This requires a fair bit of memory work, so if your client told you about her car’s engine woes the previous week, steer the conversation (no pun intended, I promise) towards that when you see her the next time. Ask her if her mechanic has diagnosed her car’s issues, if she is in the market for a new vehicle, or if she feels anything about the issue. If your client excitedly texts you on the weekend about his daughter receiving a full scholarship to Harvard, build on that positive experience and ask about his daughter’s reactions when you see your client next. Or even how he might be feeling right now. You can see what I’m getting at here: apart from remembering the important and minute details, such as event/names/hobbies/dates, you are also presenting the opportunity for your clients to talk and express their innermost emotions whilst you listen. Remember, your clients want someone who listens perceptively and shows an active interest in their lives, all whilst encouraging them to talk more. How often do we come across people in the quotidian who are explicitly interested in our lives and feelings? If you can show your client that you are one of the few who can develop attentiveness to detail, and center the conversation around them and their emotions, you create the emotional and psychological need for you and your presence.
- Create positive experiences, whilst trying not to redress grievances. Celebrate victories, no matter how small they are. If your client has finally managed to start prepping his meals, give them a high five and reaffirm their actions. Tell them how proud you are and show genuine happiness, without overdoing it of course. If your client sets a new PR on their main lifts, remind them of their success even after the session has long ended. Drop them a text and remind them how amazing they were in the gym that day. We want to build and sustain positivity in our clients’ lives and make the whole experience of victory about them. However, when they walk into the gym and are feeling sluggish or tired from family/work drama, try not to flex your therapist skills and seek to instantly remedy their problems. I know I said to create a need in your clients’ lives, but that does not mean you should take every opportunity to be Dr. Phil and provide solutions for their troubles. You might pass off as impatient and even dismissive of how someone is feeling. The key here? Listen to their grievances, acknowledge their feelings, empathize with their emotions, avoid red flags (see point 1), establish a presence (see point 2), and then go on to create positive experiences during that session in the gym. You will most definitely be an indomitable force in your clients’ daily experiences.
From my experience, these pointers have been effective in creating emotional and psychological needs, through centering communication around your client. Ensure the world revolves around them and not you. And this, weary reader, is one way you can improve on your salesmanship skills in your coaching career; to keep clients coming back for more. Until next time, keep hustling.