Things are going really well with your client and you’re both feeling like there’s nothing that’ll stop you now. Then, suddenly it seems, your client’s entire outlook takes a discouraging turn.
They say to you, “This will never work. I’m terrible at sticking with my goals. I always do this eventually. It’s all just too much. I feel like I don’t even care anymore.” They’re falling behind at their job, they’re lonely and overworked, and they’ve started eating their feelings again.
First of all, it’s great that they’re talking to you at all. There’s nothing worse than when a client drops off the face of the Earth and stops answering your emails or showing up for sessions. Yes, that happens. And 99 times out of 100, it’s them—not you—because life gets too overwhelming. In this case, their wellness goals are no longer a priority, and they imagine they’ll feel better if they hide from their commitment to health.
Second of all, wouldn’t it be great if you could reach into your back pocket and pull out a thoughtful response that could help restore motivation in this client—or at least lift them out of that doom and gloom mindset?
There are dozens of motivational strategies that coaches should experiment with regularly, but there’s one in particular that many coaches overlook or undervalue.
When your client hits a rough patch, or enters into a pessimistic, faithless outlook, here’s a simple strategy:
Remind them of the words they spoke when things were going well.
What’s important here is that you’re reminding them of something they, themselves, said. You’re practically quoting them.
It’s a simple concept that takes a little organization and foresight in order to execute it spontaneously, as needed. But the impact it can have on your client makes it worth it.
Why They Need It
People lose motivation when times get tough, obviously. What’s not so obvious is that they often forget how they felt before. They’ll unintentionally blank out a previous success and the associated state of mind they possessed while things were going well.
This experience can be explained by a few common tendencies we adopt in our minds. Psychology classifies these tendencies as cognitive distortions. These distortions happen when our minds play tricks on us, making us believe something that we think or feel, regardless of whether it’s true or not. And they’re usually thoughts that reinforce negative thinking or negative emotions.
The two particular distortions that come up often are Negative Filtering and Overgeneralization. Negative filtering is when one’s mind takes the negative details and magnifies them, while filtering out the positive aspects, so that their vision of reality is exclusively based on negative perceptions.
Here’s an example of negative filtering:
Your client was doing well at first but, suddenly, they fell back into their old ways of eating. They say something to you like, “I’ve been eating all of the same old junk I used to eat. I’m so disappointed in myself. I gained three pounds in three days. I ate more calories than I can ever lose.” Even though your client was doing well last week, they are now discounting everything positive and focusing only on the negative.
Overgeneralization is when a person’s mind makes a general conclusion based on a single occurrence or experience. It can turn one negative event into an assumed pattern of never-ending defeat or hopelessness. For example:
“I don’t know why I even tried. I never finish anything I start. I was born with a sweet tooth and nothing will ever change that. I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
Sound familiar? If you haven’t been there yourself, you’re lucky. But odds are you’ve had clients walking down this overgeneralization path before—because it’s that common.
Taking things just a bit deeper, it’s good to be aware that there’s a growing number of people with a tendency to fall into the habit of Emotional Reasoning, another cognitive distortion. Anyone’s mind can adopt this tendency, but it’s especially common in individuals with bipolar disorder, ADD and ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and individuals who are prone to depression.
Emotional Reasoning is when emotions take over someone’s mind and ability to reason. It can lead someone to conclude that they are a failure or a lost cause. It can even lead to procrastination or the inability to restart because the emotions are strong enough to decrease the desire to change, and to convince one’s mind that it’s not even possible to try. They might think, “I feel guilty for eating junk, therefore I am guilty,” or “I get overwhelmed when I think about what I should be eating, so it’s impossible to even try.”
Putting This to Work
Back to the opening example. What if you made note of a positive phrase your client expressed at a time when things were going well? They said, “I have never felt so good. I am really sticking with it, and I’m doing it because I WANT to this time. It just feels right!” Wouldn’t that be the perfect thing to share with them to help combat those feelings of defeat and hopelessness?
There’s some nuance to this. Your client must feel heard, and they need their feelings validated before you come in with all of that sunshine. First, you’ll empathize with the client. Validate their doubts and sympathize with their fears.
“It sounds like you’re going through a really tough time. I understand how terrible it feels to have so much on your plate and so many things causing you stress. It’s only natural to feel like your health goals don’t matter anymore and to turn to foods that offer you some emotional relief.”
Pause, and take time to listen to their reply.
Next, as if you’re talking to the 9-year old inside of them, reassure your client that this emotional state does not define them or predict their outcome. Ask them, “Do you remember a few weeks ago when you were feeling so great? I heard the pride in your voice when you said this to me. You said, ‘I have never felt so good. I am really sticking with it, and I’m doing it because I WANT to this time. It just feels right!”’
You client replies, “Wow. I can hardly even remember what that felt like,” and they take a deep breath, feeling as though they were on the receiving end of a soothing scalp massage.
How will you prepare yourself for the next time a client gets into a slump?
Ideally, you’ll have a system or habit of capturing you client’s successes in your notes. It starts with the intention of saving quotes and phrases they said during your sessions, or you can screenshot messages they send to you.
If you highlight the quotes at the top of your notes, or name the photo files and save them in a designated folder, you’ll find them more easily when you need to.
In cases when clients are still rather new and haven’t experienced any high points yet, you can ask them to make a value statement or affirmation about their overarching goals—as it relates to their health and their identity.
Here’s an example from someone I coached: “I am someone who honors my body, and I will care for it out of integrity and respect for myself.” When I reminded her of this value statement, it gave her comfort whenever she began to doubt herself again.
As health coaches, we are professional guides. Although we are very passionate about health, it is our skills in cognitive empathy and motivation that foster lifestyle and behavior changes in others. In the end, that is how we support someone on their journey to optimal well-being.