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Core ingredients in effective lifestyle wellness coaching

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition, by James Gavin and Madeline Mcbrearty.


Core Ingredients in Effective Coaching

Throughout most of the 20th century, needing help or consulting a therapist was thought to indicate an inherent weakness. Today, we are far less likely to stigmatize requests for help for our human condition. It is okay to seek counsel, to not know, to lack expertise, and to acknowledge the wisdom of getting help when we are in over our heads (Kegan, 1995) or when our behavior resembles that of a dog chasing its tail. In the world of health, wellness, and fitness, we often need expert guidance and support to successfully make changes. As professionals, we need to be concerned when out-of-shape clients begin throwing dumbbells around at the gym without guidance or when people who want to lose weight arbitrarily embark on a new diet because a media star advocated it on a late-night infomercial. Likewise, we are likely to appreciate that expecting people to change simply because they know they should is not very realistic. For the most part, professionals acknowledge that there is a process to overcoming old habits, and that the path of change is not always straightforward or best pursued in a solitary fashion.

In the fitness world, a noteworthy contribution to the evolving perspectives of what people need and how professionals can be helpful may be found in the beginnings of one-to-one or personal training. Many psychologists and psychiatrists who were working in private practice in the 1980s are likely to remember stories of clients quitting therapy after experiencing more tangible progress in their relationships with personal trainers. Pioneers in the field of personal training are also likely to remember those heady days when clients who had been stuck for years began to leap forward through their relationships with trainers. A serious dilemma arose when clients began to generalize the trainer’s expertise and helpfulness to other domains of their lives, however. Clients not only relied on their trainers to get fit, lose weight, and train regularly, but they also wanted to broaden the conversation to include advice on business, relationships, nutrition, and lifestyle. Journalists at the time enjoyed either lionizing or demonizing the helpfulness of this first wave of personal trainers. No matter the press, the more critical dynamic from the early days of the personal training profession concerns its methodology of action planning and goal setting that closely approximated what we now see in the field of coaching.

Perhaps you are currently a personal trainer or perhaps your métier is in other areas of health, nutrition, bodywork, health care, or stress management. To be an effective coach in today’s world means embarking on a steep learning curve whereby you can efficiently sort through your past approaches to helping relationships, extract what is relevant, and then integrate this knowledge with the emerging awareness of what will work now. There are four themes that we want to briefly explore here to create a deeper foundation for lifestyle wellness coaching:

  • Balancing action and analysis for forward movement
  • Understanding the phases of human development
  • Identifying and integrating social support structures
  • Recognizing systemic relationships and the holism of clients

Balancing Action and Analysis for Forward Movement

A caricature of psychotherapeutic models of helping might depict a client lying on a couch while a bearded psychiatrist doodles on a pad. Whatever the client is talking about seems inane and impractical. The impression is that the client interminably analyzes her life, and nothing ever comes of it. In contrast, a caricature of coaching might picture a coach shoving a terrified client in front of her boss to demand a pay raise. The message is one of getting on with it, doing it despite the fear, and certainly not wasting time analyzing the situation. In such images, the risky nature of forwarding the action is laid bare. Imagine this dialogue between a new client and her coach:

Client: I need some help figuring out the next steps in my life.

Coach: Great. What’s your goal?

Client: Well, I want to be happier?

Coach: What’s preventing you from being happier now?

Client: I guess one thing is that my husband doesn’t really “get” me. He wants things the way they are. I want something new . . . I want more excitement.

Coach: What do you want to do about that?

Client: Sometimes, I wonder whether we’re a good match.

Coach: And what do you want to do about that?

Client: I did think the other day that maybe we shouldn’t be together . . . I even had a flash about getting divorced.

Coach: What’s the first step you would need to take to make that happen?

Client: Well, I guess I could talk to a lawyer.

Coach: What would it take for you to get in touch with a lawyer?

Sounds absurd? This is an almost verbatim report of one client’s experience meeting her coach for the first time. And yes, she did get divorced. Later on, she regretted it deeply. This example highlights the danger of leaping into action without sufficient analysis. The caricatures referred to earlier highlight the artificial division of skill sets in coaching versus more in-depth processes such as counseling and therapy: Coaches move clients forward through goal setting and action planning, whereas therapists spin their clients in analysis. Such representations do great disservice to all helping professionals. Psychotherapy clients don’t just stew in their problematic reflections, and coaching clients don’t just leap into action. Just as many therapists might not privilege analysis for the sake of analysis, the best coaches would never advocate action for action’s sake; they would want to probe and explore the topic further.

The elegance of coaching is partly represented in how efficiently coaches unveil critical details and relevant parameters to understand client issues. It is also reflected in how they work with clients to formulate robust action plans. Some clients are impatient—they want change now. Yet, finding the key to facilitate effective change requires insight into clients’ unique histories and dynamics. Analysis is essential to good coaching. It is a distortion to think of analysis as simply delving into a client’s childhood experiences. Rather, it is about gaining appreciation of who your client is and what he desires. It involves seeking sufficient knowledge of history relevant to your client’s topic rather than excavating a broad range of historical information that may be interesting to know but not essential to moving forward. Coaching is not voyeuristic. Some might argue that asking clients about their past is taboo. After all, you wouldn’t want to cross that line into psychotherapy! The fact is that you need to ask about the past; you just don’t want to stay there too long. You need to know what clients have tried in the past, what their success formulas have been, who their greatest supports are, what strengths they have demonstrated over their lifetimes, and why this goal is so important to them at this time.

If you are wondering how this is relevant to the type of coaching you might do, consider some of the seemingly clear-cut issues that health, wellness, and fitness clients may bring to you:

I want to lose weight.

I want to eat better.

I want to get fit and build some muscle.

I want to reduce my stress and feel better.

I want to quit smoking.

I want to be healthy.

I want to prepare for a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

I need to stick to the plan my doctor gave me.

I want to have more positive energy.

I want to have less back pain.

Could you begin working on any of these objectives without asking at least a few pertinent questions? The critical skill here is knowing which questions to ask and whether those questions are meeting your clients’ needs rather than your own. Also, you are probably aware of role boundaries. As a health, wellness, and fitness professional, you may conceive of your role in such a way that precludes you from going too far afield in your questioning. Your notion of relevant knowledge may be limited to questions such as “What’s your time frame?” and “What’s your target weight?” From a coaching perspective, there are at least two sets of necessary questions for all of these agendas. The first has to do with meaning, for instance, “What does ‘losing weight’ mean to you?” And the second has to do with importance, that is, “What is it about this goal that so deeply matters to you at this moment in your life?” Beyond these two questions, there are likely many others that effective coaches will need to ask before embarking on the task of action planning.

A number of coaching texts elevate the quality of curiosity (Coach U, 2005; Whitworth et al., 2007) to a high order. A major point regarding the balance of analysis and action is that appropriate curiosity is not intrusive and is not psychotherapy; rather, it is essential for cocreating meaningful goals and strategies for action.

Understanding the Phases of Human Development

When Gail Sheehy (1976) first published her classic work, Passages, what many of her readers already knew but may not have had the capacity to articulate was that different things assume primary importance over the years of a person’s life. Agendas that were once nonnegotiable surprisingly drop off the list. Sheehy wasn’t the first to talk about stages of life; she was simply more successful in popularizing the ideas. In the early 20th century, thinking about development focused almost exclusively on childhood—to the point of asserting that by our 20s, we are set for life. Erik Erikson was one theorist who definitely had other thoughts about this matter.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, is best known for his theory of psychosocial development, which details eight stages of life (table 2.4). Unlike Freud, Erikson (1959, 1963, 1968) emphasized the social rather than sexual aspects of the life span. He went well beyond the first two decades of life in appreciating the critical themes and issues we need to confront as we age. Erikson believed that at each life stage, we have a pivotal conflict around which our lives revolve. The ways in which these conflicts are eventually resolved inevitably influence our lives and our character. In the successful resolution of stage-specific conflicts, the individual emerges with greater strength and potential for positive development.

You may have encountered Erikson’s theory in your previous studies. There are many other frameworks through which we can appreciate clients who come to us at varying points in their lives. None of the theories of life-span development posit that age is the sole determinant of a stage of life, nor is age thought to guarantee that issues akin to those named by Erikson have been resolved. For instance, many 30-year-olds have been known to say, “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up,” a statement that reflects the identity confusion of adolescence. Nonetheless, knowing someone’s age allows us to bring into question concerns that normatively might be awakened at this time. It also permits us to be sensitive to how we can best enter the conversation with clients.

Identifying and Integrating Social Support Structures

Life is about relationships. It’s as simple as that, according to a number of theorists ranging from the Neo-Freudians previously mentioned to modern-day object relations theorists (Cashdan, 1988) and social constructivists (Vygotsky, 1978). How often have you spun in indecision about some important matter and then, through the gift of a friend’s listening ears, you achieved clarity and resolution? When we voice our opinions to others, they become more real. Evidence on goal setting continually reminds us that making goals public increases the likelihood that we will achieve them (Donatelle & Thompson, 2011).

So much of what we do in life is for and about others. Reality is a social construction. What words mean to you, what you believe is important, even how you understand your own identity have to do with the social context of your life. There is good evidence that people who have stronger friendship networks live longer and are happier (Friedman & Martin, 2011). As the classic Beatles song reminds us, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

There are group support structures for most of the challenges and difficulties of life. People who want to lose weight find added strength to do so through the social fabric of group meetings. Twelve-step programs have developed for anything that resembles an addiction. Within the world of health, wellness, and fitness, the evolution of the personal training profession and other one-to-one services bears strong testimony to the importance of having social support for our intentions. More currently, the field of coaching has grown partly by virtue of its creative ways of being in relation with clients.

What is it, though, that makes social support so critical? Recently, a 43-year-old friend who has her PhD in education scheduled an appointment with a counselor at a community clinic to discuss some issues she had been having with her 11-year-old daughter. This friend walked into the clinic and was introduced to a 25-year-old graduate student who was single and had no children. An hour later she walked out of the counselor’s office feeling relieved and with a clearer sense of direction. She said, “I know the counselor didn’t have a lot of personal experience with my problems, but just being able to talk about them—to get them out of my head—allowed me to think more clearly and—hearing myself talk—I could sense that this wasn’t such a big deal. I felt I could handle it.”

We are strongly influenced by those around us. People we encounter on a daily basis have an impact on us and on our behavior. Politicians, celebrities, and other members of society play a role in shaping our culture, and consequently, in influencing who we are, what we do, what we think, what we value, what we look like, how we take care of our health, and more. For better or worse, we are social creatures! We might seek to emulate our friends, or we may get inspired by our social network to stretch beyond our present limits. Social support is one of the variables that reliably contributes to the ability to change behavior and adopt new and healthier habits (Connor & Norman, 2005).

There is a lot of discussion in professional and private circles about dependency in relationships. In intimate matters, there is talk of codependency. In professional relationships, there is disquiet about dependency on helpers. Some of these concerns are legitimate; however, they might also be traced to our legacy of rugged individualism, particularly in a North American context where we are supposed to be self-reliant. We are expected to just do it. Self-determination and willpower are primary virtues.

From a deeper perspective, however, it would seem that we rarely—if ever—do it alone. We live our lives in a social reality, with people and for people, with the aid of friends, family, and others who figure into our social constructions. Our social character empowers us to reach the unreachable goal—or to believe we can’t. Having good role models, being responsible to others for the goals we set for ourselves, seeing others being successful at what we would like to be doing, and expressing our intentions to others all increase the likelihood that we will be successful in bringing about positive changes in our lives (Bandura, 1997a, 1997b; Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClemente, 2002).

Recognizing Systemic Relationships and the Holism of Clients

We have already established that no man is an island. What is now important to explore is how one alteration in someone changes everything. There is a wonderful concept known as the butterfly effect that posits the question “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” (Lorenz, 1972). Everything in our world is connected. Systems theory, which has become the reigning paradigm for appreciating the interrelationships of all things, can be traced to the early works of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). Present-day expressions of systems theory can be found in the works of people such as Gregory Bateson (1979), Fritjof Capra (1997), and Peter Senge (1990).

Let’s consider the mind–body connection in light of systems theory. When Hans Selye (1956), a medical doctor, began researching the concept of stress in the 1950s, his colleagues viewed him as eccentric. He argued that mental experiences could affect physical health, a premise that most of us would take for granted today. Though evidence concerning the mind–body connection accumulated at an astonishing rate from the 1950s onward, mind–body medicine struggled to gain a foothold within the medical world throughout the second half of the 20th century. Today, we might say that physical scientists generally accept the relationship of mind and body and have come to describe health as the interaction of several dimensions of our personhood (Engel, 1977; Wilber et al., 2008).

What are the most relevant systemic relationships to consider when addressing coaching topics with clients? Beginning with the fact that our thoughts influence our emotions and vice versa, we also know that our thoughts and feelings influence our physical being—and conversely, the way we relate to our bodies affects our mental and emotional health. Moving out from ourselves, how we are influences others. If we happen to be in a great mood, evidence tells us that this influences the moods of those around us. Thus, our personal realities influence our social realities. In the language of causality, our emotional, physical, mental, social, and behavioral experiences influence one another. Touch one part of us and you influence all other parts to a greater or lesser degree. Touch one person and you touch untold numbers of others in a kind of ripple effect—or, if you will, the butterfly effect.

This theme speaks to an important consideration in effective coaching: working with the whole person. Most helping professions are organized to address specific realms of human existence. Lawyers deal with legal issues, accountants with accounting, and so on. When a client hires a health, wellness, or fitness professional, there are likely to be implicit and explicit boundaries to this relationship. The implicit ones guide both the topics brought forward and the questions and methods deemed legitimate. The explicit ones pertain to ethics and professional regulations that delimit the delivery of services for which you are trained and licensed.

If we return to the list of possible topics clients might bring to you in your professional role, how do you function as a systems thinker and yet intervene in ways that are within the boundaries of your profession? Take weight loss as a goal your client deeply desires. You may recognize that eating has emotional triggers for this client. You may learn that family and friends have sabotaged weight reduction plans in the past. There might be a history of obesity in the client’s family, suggesting genetic factors. The client may also have particular beliefs (“I can’t do it”) and knowledge (“A book I just read says . . .”) that will challenge progress. Can you work with this client by handing him an eating plan or putting him on an exercise program without addressing at least some of these other factors?

A coaching approach is holistic in that it encompasses all that might be relevant and builds strategies for each area where there is likelihood of impact. Not only does this require that coaches be exquisite diagnosticians but also that they be able to codesign and then engage clients in multidimensional action plans that increase the probability of lasting change. Moreover, it necessitates the coach’s awareness of potential changes in dimensions of clients’ lives that are not part of the specific coaching agenda.


Read more in Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition edited by James Gavin.



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