True or False: The health coach is a trained expert who provides solutions to others who are seeking healthy lifestyle changes.

I’d say it’s both true and false. Sure, we’re trained experts who assist others in navigating towards solutions for healthy lifestyle changes. But there’s a clear line between coaching and consulting, and our goal should be to spend most of our time in the coaching lane.

Instead of instructing our clients, telling them exactly what to do and in which direction to go, we’re supporting them, collaborating with our clients to find solutions as we discover, together, their dynamic insights and aspirations.

Effective health coaching sessions are comprised of thoughtful, trusting conversations that are led by the client and simultaneously guided by the coach.

See the difference there? The words “guide” and “lead” have nearly identical definitions in the English language, but it’s important for coaches to understand the distinction.

Here’s an analogy to better illustrate this nuance:

When someone in Chicago asks for directions, it’s common for a native to say, “Go East, towards the lake. We use the lake as a guide. The lake isn’t the map. It is a trusting guide that, no matter where you wind up, it can always guide you back. Coaches are like the lake.

Throughout the duration of a coach-client relationship, the client’s immediate goals and motivations can twist and turn as they experience things along the way. Even in one session, the client may take the conversation in unpredictable directions. A coach uses skills like active listening, asking open-ended questions, and motivational interviewing to guide the client in a direction that feels clear and meaningful.

The Primary Benefits of a Client-Led Health Coaching Conversation

  1. Playing an active role in the coaching conversation helps build the client’s confidence and self-efficacy.
  2. The client regularly experiences lessons in self-discovery.
  3. Thanks to the active role your client plays in the behavior-change process, they are more likely to continue healthy behavior changes long after the coaching agreement has ended.
  4. Just participating in a solution-generating dialogue helps to increase the client’s motivation and self-determination.
  5. By coaching instead of teaching, the client is more fully engaged, finding genuine interest and fulfillment in each coaching conversation.
  6. By collaborating together, side by side, the coach is able to establish a more trusting, rewarding coach-client bond.

Coaching Skills to Master for Guiding Client-Led Conversations

  1. Ask powerful, open-ended questions. Instead of asking questions with a yes or no answer, ask questions that make your client think more deeply.
  2. Practice reflective and active listening. It’s natural for clients to talk and vent without truly realizing the things they’ve said. Reflective listening helps the client become more aware of their statements, and it also helps you confirm that your perception is correct.
  3. Consistently guide clients to participate in goal-setting, decision making, and strategizing. This can be done by asking them open-ended questions that help form their own solutions, or by giving them a few options to choose from, brainstorming together, or asking them to think on it and get back to you.
  4. Learn to connect goals back to client values and true desires because it fosters your client’s self-determination and strengthens their resolve.
  5. Recognize cognitive dissonance or conflicting motivations in your clients, and work through it together by using motivational interviewing, cost-benefit analysis, and by asking leading-questions.

Successful Coaching Sessions

Successful sessions always include an element of self-discovery for the client. When there’s space for them to share openly and explore fearlessly, a coach’s gentle guidance helps them to arrive at their own solutions for their problems. And because they were part of the solution, you’ll see your client’s confidence grow, building self-efficacy with every conversation that you share. This equips the client with impactful lessons that they will carry forward long after your coaching agreement has ended.

Take, for example, this conversation I had with a client who’s an endurance runner and wants to implement intermittent fasting into her life:

Client: “I started practicing intermittent fasting 16 hours a day this week, and I need to lose weight. But my naturopathic doctor says my cortisol (stress hormone) is too high, and that I should start back at 12 hours and work my way up. What should I do? Everything I read says I need to be fasting for 16 or 18 hours at least.”

Coach: “Great question. I understand you want to do it right. Let me ask you this: If I wanted to run a half-marathon, and I’ve never done that before, how far out would you suggest that I schedule the half-marathon, and why?”

Client: “At least 6 months, and even that can be a stretch depending on how much time you have to train and if you run at all yet. You need to give your body time to adapt to the distance and build endurance.”

Coach: “I see! Fasting works the same way. The body is taking on an entirely new challenge that requires adaptation over time in order to work and minimize the stress response in your body. Knowing this, and knowing what you know about endurance training, what do you think you should do about your fasting routine?”

Client: “Ohhh, I see. So it’s good to take your time and not jump into it. Maybe I should go back down to 13 hours since I just started at 12 hours a couple of weeks ago. I can do that!”

As you can see from this example, the client’s previous experience helped her answer her own question. As the coach, I was able to guide her there and even add a few teaching points in the conversation. In the end, the client came to her own decision (which helps build her confidence and self-determination).

Practice these skills regularly and you’ll naturally avoid the most common mistakes new health coaches make, such as lecturing and telling clients what to do, or listening half-heartedly as they imagine which brainy thing to say next. Our clients bring to the sessions a lifetime of experience living in their body and mind, so what they need most from us is support, guidance, and autonomy.

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