When most people contemplate health transformation, they imagine the dramatic before and after shots. They think about the finish line, about that ultimate celebration. We as coaches, however, see the full process up close and personal with our clients. We support our clients through the unappreciated phases of hard work and rampant doubt. We’re there when the going gets tough and when the process as a whole just gets going. We witness what goes into even beginning a health journey—the hope, the apprehension, the excitement, the questions, the planning, the problem-solving, the triumphs, the breakdowns, the insights, the courage, the partnership.
And while each and every client moves through a unique experience, we also observe patterns within these stories. We discern common threads in the process of reclaiming health—common needs, experiences and trajectories, no matter what the specific end goal. Here are five such stages we must lead our clients through on the way to their success.
1. Vision and Values: Imagining Their Healthiest Selves
This is the possibilities stage—when a client can imagine a healthier, more vital future self. It’s the stuff of inspiration, motivation and ambition. For clients, it may be a time of high energy and enthusiasm. For some who come to us more defeated and lost, however, this stage can be a stretch.
As coaches we can enjoy encouraging our clients to think about how they would like to feel, what they would like to be able to do, what they would like to accomplish, how they would like to live.
Although we may be hesitant about this stage as we consider the number of people who never get beyond the imaginative phase in their health journeys, it’s important to not give this step short shrift. If clients are going to lose interest and drop out of the process, they will do so regardless of whether they fully invest in this stage.
What the vision and values stage can do, however, is help them root their process in what they themselves want and to expand what they believe is possible for them. So often in our culture, the concept of health feels remote and medicalized within biomarkers, lab tests and expert assessment. Asking a client to envision what he or she wants from the experience of health transforms the entire endeavor. It returns ownership to the client, power to the client, decision to the client.
Within this reclaiming of ownership, not only do we ask clients to create a picture of what they want for their lives, but we help them accept this vision as a key element of their personal value system.
We typically define values as the code we have for our behavior toward others or rules we want to uphold in our lives based on religious belief or philosophical principle. Here, however, we’re letting our clients see that “values” must also include a code that guides our behavior toward ourselves and a principle that encompasses self-interest and self-care. In a society that teaches us to put ourselves last, this can be a revolutionary realization.
2. Focus: Defining Goals and Taking the First Step
Here’s where we help our clients begin to plan their process. They have their vision. They’ve internalized it within their value system. Now it’s a question of imagining what it will take to get there.
When we talk with our clients about what actions they’ll take to move toward their vision, it’s natural to at first hear general ideas (e.g. “Exercise more.”, “Eat better.”, “Lessen my stress load.”) With these statements, clients are targeting the areas of lifestyle change they’ll need to pursue. The next step is to open up the question further.
Apply the inquiry, “What would that look like?” to each of your client’s behavior change ideas. This moves each statement squarely into the realm of his/her everyday life. You could even put it differently: “What would that change look like in a given week for you?” Within this dialogue, you can help clients brainstorm possibilities for schedules and activities as they settle on ideas that feel right for them. From these specifics, you’ll begin to construct the scaffolding of a program they can implement over time.
It’s important to also talk about what these changes can look like not just in a perfect setting and ideal day. What would eating better look like when you’re traveling two nights a week for your child’s team sports? What would stress management look like as we head into the holiday period? What would move more look like on the days you need to work late?
Finally, help your client choose a starting point in this plan. What will be the first change he/she initiates? Depending on the client’s motivation, you may want to talk about the second and third just to give the client a sense of the course ahead. Regardless, help your client set a single, immediate and manageable goal to achieve in a relatively short window.
3. Evaluation: Assessing the Map for Change
One of the most crucial skills we can teach our clients is nonjudgmental evaluation. Can they evaluate the difference between where they are now with a particular behavior and where they’d like to be? This isn’t about evaluating their worth or their capacity. It’s not about making a judgment of their current weight, fitness or health. It’s about simply, honestly and objectively assessing the distance between their present choices and their goal choices.
In examining this space, they will be able to effectively plan a trajectory of specific changes to traverse that distance. While we might worry our clients will be discouraged by this task, we can remember that honesty begets clarity.
Many of our clients have probably lived in vagueness about their health for a long time. Poor habits thrive off of ambiguity. We in part justify unhealthy choices and self-abandonment because we conveniently don’t keep track. Vagueness is the servant of self-delusion. This is why charting behaviors and keeping food/exercise journals—even without any other assigned changes—can be so powerful. Awareness is a critical tool in any health journey.
But it isn’t just awareness of behavior. In the evaluation stage, it’s important to help our clients identify beliefs that undermine their initiative. If a client believes that getting healthy is hard, that they are destined to be overweight, that they aren’t cut out to be strong, they are already predetermining their success or lack thereof. Awareness of these beliefs gives you and your clients the chance to see how much mental distance they will need to traverse to get to the self-concept that will support their physical transformation.
4. Trouble-Shooting: Identifying Obstacles
Now that your client has been doing the work of change for a while, taking on new behaviors, ferreting out self-limiting beliefs, practicing affirmations, and documenting (with your assistance) their progress, they’ve inevitably hit up against some stumbling blocks.
The pursuit of change can hold up a remarkably clear mirror to our weaknesses. We see what kinds of circumstances or moods trip us up. We come to recognize motives we’ve never had the courage to admit before such as eating for comfort and fearing sticking out at the gym. This is why we as coaches should continue to talk with our clients about their inner journeys as we support them through outer change.
5. Prioritizing: Posing Scaling Questions
Finally, we can use scaling questions to keep our clients process-oriented while they move toward their goals. At any point, we can ask our clients to rank their top three wellness goals today. (We can also suggest they ask this of themselves on a daily basis or at times when their motivation is lagging.)
Do they prioritize being pain-free or energetic today? Do they need to break free of guilt? Do they want to feel strong? Do they need to feel valued and appreciated? Do they want to feel free to enjoy an occasion without falling off their plan? Do they most need witness today for their struggles or successes? Modeling this scaling process can offer clients an effective spot check as well as a check-in with themselves.
What many clients don’t anticipate (but we as coaches can) is that they will bring a different mood and/or motivation to each day. What offered incentive yesterday won’t be enough to move them mentally today. What felt like a good priority on a cheerful, easy day won’t buoy their enthusiasm on a low or frazzled afternoon. While we maintain our progress with the same kinds of healthy choices each day, how we find the initiative to do so will naturally shift. Over the long arc of a health transformation, we can best serve our clients by helping them cultivate a flexibility and adaptability that will keep them dedicated to their program along the way every day.
Thanks for reading. There’s much more to these process techniques and to their use with clients. To learn more, subscribe below for regular content on health coaching, and begin your commitment to becoming a Primal Health Coach.
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