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Using Coaching Skills to Overcome Client Ambivalence

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Using Coaching Skills to Overcome Client Ambivalence

We have all had clients who come to us wanting to lose weight. Often for health reasons, coaching can assist with nearly every client outcome goal where a trainer may not. This is due to having an understanding of the behavior change process; a well-trained coach has skills to help clients wade through the waters of change – and make the outcome stick.

Aligning Clients With Their Goals

For example, if your client still wanted to lose that coveted “10 more pounds”, a few factors need to be realized to keep your client in alignment with a particular goal – especially one involving weight control. What is the purpose of the newfound desire to continue losing weight? Was has kept them from making the effort it would require up until now? After all, they didn’t need to drop additional weight for health reasons. Plus, they were already sticking with a healthy, balanced diet and were happy enough with how they looked. It was strictly an aesthetic issue. Sarah had a conflict within her about how to move forward. But because she worked with a coach, she was able to discuss this ambivalence and flesh out its roots and meaning.

As a result of good, direct coaching, Sarah’s ambivalence about losing more weight was tracked back to her need to change her eating and drinking habits. This was a new direction for the coach and client because efforts previously were directed at physical activity alone, but this was different. Sarah was still maintaining an exercise routine. She was not, however, moderating her nutritional intake.

It wasn’t until Sarah’s coach helped her understand that her ambivalence was giving her an excuse “not to take action”. After a reality check, Sarah vowed to make a change. “I decided that feeling poorly about myself was reason enough to make some changes.”

What is Ambivalence?

Ambivalence, which essentially means having conflicting feelings about something, makes many people uncomfortable. But it is a normal part of the change, experts say. “With every change, people have some ambivalence, because change means moving out of something familiar and into something that’s not new and less familiar. It can have a disruptive effect on the client and change process. Whatever the client’s goals are, losing weight, changing nutritional intake, exercising more frequently, or cutting back on alcohol or smoking, ambivalence about making a change will probably be part of the equation. Chances are, the ambivalence has less to do with the goal itself and more to do with the hard work and discomfort that may lie on the path to achieving it.

How to Tackle Your Ambivalence

Ambivalence doesn’t have to be completely eliminated – but it does have to be acknowledged, and when it emerges, it needs to be addressed in terms of what’s behind it: Is it that your client really doesn’t want to achieve this goal, or is the issue that it’s too much work for them to feel confident in being successful at it?

Coaching ambivalence means that we work to get our clients able to see various options and possibilities to choose from. In reality, ambivalence represents a process of evaluation, comparing the relative positives and negatives of possible options. If it were this simple, however, a coach could simply try a dose of decisional balance!

By contrast, ignoring ambivalence may result in a decision that is decidedly less of a force as part of the client’s decision-making processes. To be useful, ambivalence has to involve a strong decision that leads to a solid commitment. But ambivalence can also lead a good coach to build a plan that doesn’t address some of the negative pieces their client is acting to avoid. This alone could undermine your client’s goals. It can also put the coach in an unfavorable light because essentially, ambivalence feeds procrastination. Coaches always work clients toward action.

So, if you want to improve your lifestyle habits or make other changes, it’s better to put your ambivalence to good use.

Encourage your client to honor their ambivalence. While considering making a change to one’s lifestyle or health habits, a client may have a reason in mind, as well as a “yes, but” counterargument. For example, your client might want to start exercising regularly to improve health and fitness levels, but might also be saying “But I hate to sweat!” Or, they might really want to lose weight, but their love of food makes them feel as if they should dread what they expect to be feelings of being deprived. Interestingly, it has been found that writing about ambivalence toward an important goal significantly reduces the distress caused by ambivalence. This is why a decisional balance exercise of writing things out will usually help support decisions to change that are wobbly.

We talk of eliciting a solid vision from our clients; we also work to get at their values to determine what matters most to them: autonomy, comfort, health, purpose, or something else. Then, have the client consider how these values fit with their current behaviors and the changed behavior desired. It is here we are likely to find some foundation for making the change. While this ambivalence may seem that we are always in a state of negotiating with ourselves, doing a moral inventory of important values that are connected to this change can help a client gain clarity. It is part of the coaching process, it is our job description to master this for each client, for each change effort.

Specifically for Sarah, eating for emotional reasons or drinking alcohol to try to quell social anxiety or stress, became the driving force for wanting to push through her ambivalence. As coaches, we want to give other people advice on how to make changes and build confidence.

Guide the client to search for authenticity; it may mean that we support our client’s decision to go alcohol-free for a month and increase the awareness of her urges to eat and drink for emotional reasons. We can also use this exploration as a prompt to look closely at what is really bothering our clients or getting in their way.

Decisional balance, motivational interviewing, and even a healthy dose of change talk will help move your client in the right direction. These skills will become the focus of our next blog, where we dive into the actual skills used to foster change.

Where Can You Learn More?

Spencer Institute and NESTA are here to guide each step of the process. Be sure you take advantage of our course, programs, CEUs, and career training opportunities.

Be on the lookout for future articles about more ways to get an endless stream of clients for your training or coaching business. You will also want to search through the archives of our blog because there are many other articles that go into great depth about dozens of other ways to get clients. Here are a few for you to checkout now:

Believe in yourself.

We are here to be your partner in custom designing your highly successful coaching career.

NESTA and Spencer Institute coaching programs are open to anyone with a desire to learn and help others. There are no prerequisites.

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