Client-Centric Coaching and the Power of Motivational Interviewing

One of the biggest mistakes nutrition coaches make is taking a coach-centric approach to coaching.

What does that mean?

As a coach, it’s easy to look at a client whose stated goal is to lose 50 pounds, and be tempted to prescribe them specific macronutrients, or a meal plan, or simply to tell them to cut out sugar, or whatever strategy you know will help them lose 50 pounds. 

So with the best of intentions, you explain to them how tracking their macros will help them reach their goals and you give them homework to download MyFitnessPal before your next session, all the while never bothering to ask them if they’re ready, willing and able to begin diligently monitoring their daily carbohydrate, protein and fat intake.

Generally what happens next is the client has a certain amount of compliance, and maybe some small success, for a certain period of time, but sooner rather than later they realize they’re just not willing to continue tracking their macros or to avoid sugar completely. 

You lose them as a client and they continue their search for a solution to their problem…

Client-centric coaching is just the opposite of this. And it’s at the heart of the Two-Brain Coaching Nutrition Course.

Client-Centric Coaching

As course creator Jen Broxterman explains, client-centric coaching puts the client in the driver’s seat and asks them to be the dictator of their own journey. It means the client decides what they’re ready, willing and able to do in order to reach the goals they determine are important to them. 

  • Client-centric coaching means the client is the expert decision-maker, not the coach, and as a coach your job is to defer to their expertise and offer appropriate guidance. In other words, you’re not the annoying backseat driver; you’re the supportive travel companion helping them navigate the GPS to get to their intended location. 

Client-centric coaching:

  • understands and respects the client’s priorities, values and goals,
  • seeks to build rapport and a strong relationship with the client,
  • understands and empathizes when the client is facing a challenge or obstacle,
  • makes decisions based on reality, not on what the coach thinks should happen.

Here’s the problem, though: Often clients aren’t even quite sure what they’re willing and able to do to reach their goals. Sometimes they don’t even know what a reasonable goal is for them to have. This is where motivational interviewing comes in.

  • Motivational interviewing involves helping your clients uncover their own motivation to change behaviours that support the goals that are relevant to them. And then to help them find the confidence they need to take the appropriate actions to help them achieve their goals.

Three steps the coach must take in the process include:

  1. Listen without judgment: Be kind, compassionate, yet honest when listening to what the client wants.  
  1. Ask powerful questions: Don’t mistake being the supportive passenger with being passive. You’re still going to have to ask tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions, to help clients figure out their path.
  1. Support, rather than persuade: As the supportive passenger, remember your role: The client is dictating the speed with which the car is travelling, and whether they want to stop and sightsee, stay in the car but take the scenic route, or race to their destination as fast as possible. Your job is to support and offer guidance without pushing too hard in one direction.

Putting Motivational Interviewing in Practice

1. Motivational Interviewing During the Assessment

Motivational interviewing should start during the first assessment/consultation session with the client. The goal here is to ask powerful questions and listen to the clients answers before coming up with a game plan together, but led by the client. 

Tip: A great place to start is with the past. Ask them about what has happened in their past that has worked or hasn’t worked and what led them to you today. As the saying goes, the best predictor of the future is the past.

  • From there, it’s important to ask them what their expectations of the consultation are: What would make this the perfect consultation? What are they hoping to get out of working with you, and what will make this experience a success for them? And then use that information to make it the perfect consultation.

2. Motivational Interviewing to Uncover What they’re Willing, Ready and Able to do

The next step is to help the client figure out what their realistic goals are and what they’re ready, willing and able to do right now. This will go a long way in figuring out a realistic action plan. 

Some powerful questions you can ask here include:

  • What might be the first step?
  • How do we make this easier?
  • What brought you here today?
  • How would you like things to be different?
  • What’s scary about this?

If you need help coming up with more powerful motivational interviewing questions, there’s a full downloadable resource inside the Two-Brain Nutrition Coaching Course that nutrition coaches can use to help guide their questions using motivational interviewing.

Remember: The ultimate goal here is to come up with an action plan they’re confident will lead to success. It’s not about a perfect plan; it’s about building the foundation for baby step-by-step change that will lead to habits they can execute well.

Tip: Goal setting is its own beast, and one of the common mistakes is coming up with what are known as “AVOID goals”, such as I want to eliminate sugar, rather than “APPROACH goals”, such as I want to eat four servings of vegetables a day. Avoid goals focus on having the client avoid doing “bad things” (another common coaching error around language and the way we talk about their relationship with food), whereas approach goals put the focus on stacking up positive wins that make the client feel good about their choices. And long-term, the research shows that approach-based goal setting keeps people excited, motivated, and more consistent with positive health habits than any other form of goal setting to change behaviour.

  • As a coach, it’s important to use motivational interviewing tactics to lead clients to select approach goals (things we want to do more of) rather than avoid goals. 

We’ll leave you with a book recommendation to help you master your motivational interviewing skills: Motivational Interviewing for Nutrition and Fitness by Dawn Clifford and Laura Curtis.

Check out: Best Books for Nutrition Coaches

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