We’re skilled listeners. We’re healthy lifestyle, fitness and nutrition experts. We’re professional coordinators for effective behavior change programs. We’re enthusiastic support figures and committed motivators. In the scope of our coaching relationships, we play so many encouraging roles for our clients to promote their success. Yet, we’re also their truth tellers, continually holding up mirrors to our clients’ efforts, helping them learn to be accountable to themselves by fostering and modeling answerability within our working partnerships with them.
We naturally expect our clients to show up for their own process and be responsible for following through on the tasks we give them. As coaches, we keep track of their adherence as well as progress. Offering our clients a means and model for accountability can be one of the most important benefits we provide as coaches. Studies routinely demonstrate that accountability enhances people’s results in their health and weight loss endeavors. In fact, it’s often shown to be the linchpin to their success. (PDF) As a health coach, it pays to know how to expertly and creatively promote accountability within our client interactions.
However, the importance of accountability goes even beyond that central aim of cultivating client success. When we make accountability the foundation of our coaching approach, we ensure appropriate alignment of our professional responsibilities and establish an honest, viable framework for mutual expectations. We make clear that our clients are accountable for the daily behaviors necessary for healthy change, while we as coaches manage the bigger picture of their outcomes.
So, how can we implement accountability methods that properly ground our coaching relationships and maximize success for our clients? Let’s examine some key guidelines and practical strategies we can apply in our practice.
Customize Your Techniques Based on Your Client’s Needs and Personality
As most of us have experienced, some clients simply need more from us than others. A seasoned athlete mainly interested in improving performance may be comfortable operating with little oversight and longer stretches between contact points. Someone who is tackling substantial health issues or has for years neglected themselves physically will usually benefit from additional interaction and structure.
In both cases, we prioritize accountability, but we utilize additional communications and tools for the person who likely needs additional support within an accountability framework.
Examples of varying techniques for accountability can include daily check-ins (not necessarily with extended responses from the coach) examples, daily behavior inventory sheets, healthy living apps (e.g. FitDay, etc.), and other mutually agreed upon tools.
Over time, we can also assign more specialized and specific self-accountability exercises like recording intentions for each meal or workout rather than simply logging the results afterward. We can ask the client to do the same for any other issues he/she wants to work toward (e.g. stress management plan for an upcoming work trip, meditation practice each week). Having recorded their intentions, the client can then compare actual results with those initial targets.
Talk About and Agree on Methods
Whichever means you end up using, mutual clarity is everything when it comes to accountability. Even before you formally begin a working relationship, share what your expectations are of your clients, stressing that your experience shows this level of cooperation is necessary for success.
Discuss the significance and meaning of accountability, and ask them how they want to be held accountable. Offer feedback based on what you’ve done within other coaching relationships. Agree on the frequency and methods of communication involved in accountability frameworks. Respect your client’s needs by offering them a chance to help shape the accountability structure you’ll be implementing together. Likewise, you can honor your limited professional resources by offering flexible fee structures for clients who request supplemental services and communication.
Create a written agreement beyond what you use for a business contract that encompasses and delineates your partnership commitment. In it, lay out the expectations and methods you’ll use. Update it as needed throughout the course of your working relationship.
Keep the Focus on Your Client’s Program Rather Than Your “Authority”
Sometimes clients want to see us as authority figures rather than partners in their health process. Although it might appear to boost their adherence initially, it’s important for them to understand that their compliance is with their own goals rather than their coaches’ “say-so.”
As coaches, we have the responsibility to consistently frame the client’s process as his/her choice. We are support figures for that choice—professionals who can guide that process with expertise. We design a comprehensive program based on the client’s interests, objectives and lifestyle. We offer strategies, trouble-shooting and encouragement. And we can be the accountability partners, in the sense that we’re the ones with whom they share the updates—what they did or did not do to move their program forward that week.
However, we cannot force change. We cannot cajole, pressure, coerce or manipulate anyone into doing anything they’re unwilling to do on their own. We work with the readiness and commitment a client brings.
Sometimes it’s a matter of clients thinking coaches will inspire willingness they don’t currently have. Other times (maybe more often), it’s a matter of the client lacking confidence and downplaying his/her role in creating success. He/she is committed to the process but doesn’t fully appreciate the power of that dedication. As a result, the client places the influence of the coach’s “authority” above his/her own pledge.
In these cases, we can help our clients understand the power of their own resolve. In our language and our celebration of their victories (especially the small steps), we can reflect the force of their efforts, helping them claim their own authority within this transformation process.
Make the Big Picture of Accountability Visible for Your Client
When our clients share their efforts with us, including their stumbles, we acknowledge the power of witnessing. We are witness to the full and honest reality of their process. That role provides both a practical answerability and an inherent comfort. The client feels seen—for all the exertion, for all the investment, for all the missteps, for all the fervor, for all the successes.
One of the most important roles we play in our clients’ health journeys involves holding the full picture for our clients. While they’re the ones doing the daily grind of shifting specific behaviors, we’re following the overall physical trajectory. We’re holding an emotional space expansive enough to encompass the client’s whole experience—excruciating to exhilarating. We’re witnessing the grand unfolding transformation even when they feel bogged down by the details.
As a result, we’re in a position to offer our clients dramatic perspective on their processes. While we can talk about the big picture, even more impactful can be maintaining a visual representation of their commitment over time.
Depending on the predominant mode of our interaction (online coaching versus in-person), we can create a continuous transformation record that demonstrates our client’s story over time. We regularly update this file or binder on behalf of or (even better) with the client. In it, we can include any combination of initial/amended partnership commitments, an ongoing compliance log (noting with stars the weeks of full or nearly full adherence to behavioral goals), measurement and biomarker charts with visual graphs to show progress trajectory, monthly photos, and monthly client reflections and coach observations.
It doesn’t so much matter the exact contents as much as the core purpose—to demonstrate the progress of the client not just in terms of pounds lost or race times but through multiple means that includes their own celebrations of milestones, our perspectives on their progress, and an account of their adherence over time. More than anything, showing the client the weeks and months they adhered to their own program, the ongoing commitment can be an incredibly affirming action.
Detach from Your Client’s Choices
As coaches, we can only be responsible for so much in our coaching relationships. We cannot make a client adhere to the program we design for him/her, nor can we realistically exhaust ourselves adding more and more layers of contact and support for someone who just isn’t ready for meaningful transformation.
There are cases when a client isn’t prepared to take on change. We can lower the threshold again and again making behavior goals more reachable. We can add tools that further promote self-accountability between our contact points like the aforementioned daily inventory sheets. We can try different apps or logs to promote compliance.
At some point, however, we will feel we’ve reasonably exhausted our coaching repertoire. When we understand a client isn’t ready to be accountable to their own process at this time, we owe it to them and to ourselves as professionals to release them from the coaching relationship. We can do this with respect, without judgment or assumption. The client may move into readiness down the road, but we simply understand that it’s not the state of things right now.
Frame Accountability within the Concept of Health Integrity
Ultimately, accountability calls us to a life in which our actions are congruent with our values. How do we want to value our health? Are we living that priority each day with the choices we make? In what ways?
When we’re accountable, we take responsibility for ourselves and for the life and vitality we want. We show up and do our part.
As our clients learn to be accountable for their health related choices through the coaching model, something significant happens. There’s a reclamation of ownership over their health. There’s a coherence between their goals and choices. It’s a deepening, a solidifying of integrity to oneself. It’s a strength that can carry over in ways no one can anticipate.
As coaches, we find that our clients’ inner transformations can often surpass their outer changes as they take on new confidence and self-possession. It’s a potent shift our clients will carry with them long after they’re no longer working with us and perhaps the most impactful legacy of the investment we make in their journeys.
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