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Health Coach Pro Tip: Ask the Right Questions (with 10 to Consider!)

by: Jennifer Wannen
Published: July 13, 2016
Updated: June 23, 2022

Ask The Right Questions, message on note paper, computer and cof

We can come to health coaching with an impressive store of knowledge. Maybe we have multiple degrees in the health sciences or a string of certifications following our names. That said, many of us are surprised to learn that this knowledge often isn’t the most important contributor to our success with clients. Our expertise in areas like nutrition, fitness, sleep and stress undoubtedly serve as necessary qualifications for our coaching business and critical strategies for our clients’ progress. And yet, our ability to uncover and attune to our clients’ experiences will perhaps more naturally influence the trajectory of their process. If we were writing a textbook, the scenario would be much different; however, coaching is as much (if not much more) about people as it is about science.

How we interact with our clients isn’t just about what information we give them. It’s about how we listen to their stories, how we consider their motivations, and how we respect their needs as we design and deliver uniquely shaped guidance that will speak to them as well as move them forward. This isn’t our process after all, but theirs. The more we do to personalize it, the more our clients will identify with and feel empowered within that process. To that end, we can offer fewer directives and more questions.

Smart questions encourage our clients to emotionally as well as logistically and financially invest in reclaiming their health. As we know, a person can have all the tools and tactics, but if their mental motivation wanes, that can be the death of their efforts. When we put the emphasis on guiding a client’s process with strategic questions, we put the client’s ownership of his/her endeavor at the center of the coaching relationship. Finally, good questions ask clients to honestly assess their commitment, to learn from previous attempts, and to venture realistic goals.

As we gain coaching experience, we inevitably compile (mentally or officially) a list of go-to questions that we find spur key insights, self-reflection and buy in throughout our work with clients. While the potential options are virtually inexhaustible and often related to a client’s particular situation, let’s look at 10 beginning possibilities focused mostly, but not exclusively, on the beginning of the coaching relationship.

1. How would you describe your health journey up until this point?

A standard entry point question, it invites clients to share about issues as far-ranging as past weight loss efforts, personal athletic endeavors, physical injuries, past and current health conditions, everyday routines, and self perception. In fact, it opens the door to reflecting on health as an issue of self-identity as well as medical labels or daily practices. See how your client initially responds, and expand the conversation with relevant follow-up inquiries.

2. Are you interested in a shorter-term goal or a long-term transformation?

It’s important for both people, coach and client, to get objectives on the table from the start—even before agreeing to work together.

Some of the people who come to us might be primarily or solely concerned with losing weight or looking good for a particular season or event. Others may want to just get better “enough” to stop the use of a specific medication or (in their minds at least) dial back a problematic diagnosis. It’s also possible that some clients come to us who are already in good health but who have a specific, shorter-term performance goal in mind.

This question promotes honesty and transparency from the beginning and helps define the scope of the coaching relationship, if we find the client’s goals in keeping with our professional interests and standards. No matter what the client’s response the query definitely paves the way for us to share our belief that health (and healthy weight management) are genuinely ongoing, lifelong commitments.

3. What do you hope for in a coaching relationship?

I find this is a great follow up for the previous questions. It’s first helpful to get a clear sense of what the client’s health objectives are but then to ask them their expectations of how a coaching relationship will support those goals. Their response can offer a useful segue into your own explanation of your role. Having heard their impressions first, you’ll understand what is important to detail or to clarify. This conversation is a crucial dialogue that will first and foremost tell you if their desires and your philosophy can be bridged for a working relationship.

4. What is motivating you to be healthy today?

I consider this question critical. It’s certainly one to ask as you begin a coaching relationship, but it’s also one I’d consider relevant and impactful each and every day. In fact, it’s one I’d suggest each client answer every single day either in a journal or in a text/email check-in with you.

It’s important to realize that this answer will shift. Some days it will be only one thing, and it may even be (on the hardest of days for our clients) “because I know you believe in me.” That said, it’s worth initially naming and continually asking what specific motivations our clients are relying on in a given day. And it’s critical for them to keep in touch with these answers. The reality of human psychology just doesn’t support making a list one day and forgetting about it while working toward a transformation over weeks and months or even years. Each morning we renew our commitment and define it for today.

5. Does this motivation differ from what you’ve felt in past attempts to change your health? How so?

For clients who have tried and failed to reach health goals in the past, it can be instructive and at times empowering to compare past attempts to their current commitment. Many times there’s a sabotaging belief (or passing “mood” for even the most positive clients) that this time will end up like all the other times. When that false message gets its hooks into your client’s mindset, the results can take down your client’s entire process.

It’s critical to define and reaffirm a clear difference (or, better yet, differences) in the motivational and practical dimensions of this journey. Different road, different destination…

6. What’s one activity you want to be able to do in one month’s time?

Even if someone comes to a coach with an interest in losing weight, I still advise you have them thoughtfully select a series (one at a time) of measurable, non-endgame targets. Working continually toward a significant end goal is great, but in my experience people have a hard time sustaining motivation with only the long view in mind.

Whether or not someone would put fitness at their the top of their priority list (e.g. You’re a life coach with health coaching training to assist clients with stress management.), an ideally active goal with a clear finish line can go a long way in giving your client a solid “win,” and a short-term window of one month can make an event feel pressing enough to prep for.

These sub-victories continually boost your client’s self-efficacy with concrete results, which hold more motivational weight than any pep talk ever could.

7. What’s one activity you want to be able to do in three month’s time?

As clients get further into their process and gain confidence, you can encourage them to set a more ambitious aim for three months out. As coaches we’re not only trying to help clients meet a particular goal, we’re out to embolden their sense of possibility.

We’re out to convince them how deep their capacity for behavior change really is—because the ultimate service we can offer our clients will be proving to them (by their own works) that they are capable of transforming their lives.

8. What do you feel good about in your life right now?

Maybe you did a double take with this one, and that’s okay. But here’s the truth I’ve found: people who are completely discouraged tend to burn out or give up pretty easily. Being “fed up” with being unhealthy is a fiery energy, and it can be fuel for beginning a new program. The problem is, it’s too often a flash in the pan phenomenon if there’s not upbeat energy in the mix. The hard fact is, anger can’t sustain enthusiasm without exacting its own emotional toll over time.

Resilience takes positivity on some level. That doesn’t mean anyone should adopt a Pollyanna view of their latest diagnosis, poor eating, or low level fitness. Their positivity doesn’t even need to have anything to do with their health. For most people at first, it probably won’t.

But it does mean having positive, hopeful relationships and experiences in one’s life that fill the emotional well. This could be supportive family or friends, exciting travel, meaningful creative work, fulfilling hobbies, or indulgent self-care.

If a client can’t name at least a few significant good things, that’s a likely warning they’ll struggle without addressing the life as well as the lifestyle issues keeping them down. It may be appropriate to refer them for other kinds of broader psychological/emotional support. As far as your own role in their wellness picture, you can agree to prioritize personal (healthy) enjoyment, ongoing gratitude and/or self-care investment as part of your work with clients if that fits your professional scope and style. Bolstering their overall satisfaction in life means there will be more emotional energy and better mental resilience for their physical health efforts.

9. How much are you willing to work for your health goals?

Some people when ask this question immediately jump in and claim they’ll give it everything they’ve got. Others go quiet with a deer in the headlights look that suggests they’re rethinking the entire venture.

The fact is, the bounds of a client’s dedication will only reveal itself over time. The more that person has devoted to his/her health in the past, the better the chances they have developed the self-discipline for the current undertaking, but there are never any absolutes, and the client who looks the most rattled by the question may end up being the biggest surprise.

I see this as more of a shot across the bow than a literal inquiry. It says, “This will be work. It will challenge you and ask a lot of you. And by the way, don’t count on being too comfortable.”

Finally, like the “What’s motivating you to live healthily today?” question, it’s one you can ask your client every day point blank: “How much are you willing to work for your health today?” It’s simultaneously pushes for clarity and issues a challenge.

10. What do you do when things get tough and you feel discouraged?

There will be down times after all. We know that, and we hope that our clients know that. Most do, in fact. But most of them also don’t want to think about the prospect of their motivation going south, of their weight loss or fitness performance hitting an extended plateau, of their healthy routine being challenged by the stresses of a personal crisis.

We can psychologically prepare our clients for what will realistically be a long and varied path. Clearly, their overall trajectories will arc toward transformation, but the day-to-day, even week-to-week perceptions won’t always impress our clients. Progress comes in many ways, sometimes subtly and slowly.

What reserves of motivation or perspective will they rely on then? Do they understand the importance of open-minded in these times, when we need the flexibility to pivot our immediate approaches or goals—but also the basic resilience to keep faith when the positive impacts of healthy choices aren’t immediately obvious. In this case, an hour of preemptive brainstorming may be worth a month of motivational rehabilitation.

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