Transformational Coaching

By using highly focused dialogue during training sessions, you can help your clients create sustainable change.

Start with a simple, if discouraging, fact: On average, people pursuing health-behavior change relapse six to eight times before they reliably adhere to their action plans (Grant 2006). And, of course, that’s only the story of those who are successful! No wonder, then, that seasoned fitness professionals are flocking to coach-training programs to learn new skill sets in an effort to help clients align their actions with their goals.

Simply switching from a personal training model to a coaching paradigm won’t necessarily translate into clients who are successful the first time around. But coach training could help you develop a deeper understanding of what clients need in order to change. As a personal trainer, you are probably accustomed to taking clients step by step through a program you have designed. Although you and your clients may discuss what they do between training sessions, the subject is probably not a large focus of your time together. In contrast, coaches challenge clients, not so much through what they do in the gym, but through verbal interactions (Gavin 2005; Gavin & Mcbrearty 2005). Coaches “forward the action” through highly focused conversations that enable clients to generate meaningful choices, robust plans and conscious commitments (Anderson & Anderson 2005; Martin 2001; Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl 1998). Clients come away with an increased ability to follow through on planned actions between sessions. Let’s take a closer look at how coaching can make a remarkable difference in your clients’ lives.

A World of Mirrors

Imagine a world of magical mirrors where a client can see his past and present clearly. These mirrors are “magical” because they are free of distortions, denial and judgment. A coach asks the client to envision his desired future and build a bridge that connects his current reality with that future. Gradually a new mirror emerges that shows the steps from where the client currently is to his goal—and the coach asks him to take the first step.

If the client is creating all these visions, what is the coach’s role? Clients often lack perspective. They may not recognize their own strengths or opportunities. When telling the stories that reveal their values and the explanations for their behavior, they sometimes build cases against themselves. They may even design images of their desired future in a way that makes it seem unreachable. Coaches listen to clients with an appreciative stance (Bergquist, Merritt & Phillips 1999), identifying and acknowledging strengths embedded in their stories. Coaches help clients remove distortions from the mirrors to clarify the images, and empower clients to start a dialogue that enables them to access their dreams, motivations and options for constructing an achievable future vision.

Through skillful questioning and support, coaches encourage clients to move beyond self-limiting views and take immediate action to build bridges to the future. What clients may have perceived as a giant leap into the unknown takes form as a sequence of manageable steps.

Seem simple? In theory, it is; in practice, it may not be. Helping clients create this world of mirrors without unduly influencing the images takes dexterous guidance. Coaches do not create the images; they only help clarify them and reveal their inner brilliance. And coaches do not construct the bridges; rather, they empower their clients’ architectural wisdom and construction skills.

Comfort Zones and Set Points

Fitness clients typically present straightforward agendas: losing weight; exercising regularly; or pursuing a long-held dream, like running a marathon. Of course, achieving such goals is not always straightforward. Take weight loss, for example. Logic would suggest that if a client takes in fewer daily calories than she expends, she will lose weight—and sometimes this is true. But at other times, factors like biological “set points” may come into play (Vasselli & Maggio 1997). Modern-day set-point theorists believe that, in addition to biological set points, people may have behavioral or psychological set points, which define an internalized range of behavior or emotion that determines how they live (Diener 2000; Fujita & Diener 2005). This concept is similar to the notion of the “comfort zone” that was popularized in the 1990s (McWilliams 1991). Comfort zones refer to habits, patterns and lifestyles to which people get so attached that they resist even beneficial changes.

One type of set point that has been studied extensively is happiness (Seligman 2002). Some people always seem happy, while others are typically glum. The glum people can usually cite reasons for their moodiness. “If only I had more money,” a man might proclaim, “I’d be happier.” But research suggests that even if such a person were to win the lottery, he would still not be happy (Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman 1978). Why? Theorists argue that an emotional set point has locked the unhappy person into a set of reinforcing patterns and beliefs. This does not necessarily mean he couldn’t be happier. Assuming he is committed to change, he would benefit substantially from a process such as coaching that would enable him to challenge his internalized limits.

The concept of set points may help you understand why a client who is making great progress “suddenly” slacks off and begins to slide back to where she started. She may have moved too far from her set point (or comfort zone) and so, unknowingly, have created the conditions for backsliding. As a fitness professional, you may feel like Sisyphus, a character in Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to forever repeat the same task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. Such is the nature of set points—unless you approach clients with different tactics.

Change and Transformation

Clients change all the time. They lose weight; they gain weight. They train; they don’t train. They eat well; they eat poorly. Change is easy—altering set points can be far more unwieldy. This brings us to an all-important distinction between the terms change and transformation.

Change is mostly about surface shifts. Transformation is deep-level change that involves an internal reorganization of perspectives, self-understanding and one’s way of interpreting reality (Mezirow 1990, 1991). When clients change without appreciating and internalizing the meaning of what is happening, they reach the outer limits of their set points, where they meet resistance. They regress or yo-yo, and often they can’t explain why. Fitness professionals may design new programs, use more motivational language and employ a few tricks; meanwhile, these clients continue to disengage. This is when coaching techniques prove especially valuable.

Clients who hire coaches rarely set out to have their worldviews turned topsy-turvy. They just want to lose weight, adhere to exercise, eat better and so on. And coaches don’t take clients on so they can transform their thinking. Yet coaches realize that sustainable change often reorients clients’ basic assumptions and ways of perceiving themselves in the world.

Change and transformation, while different, are inextricably linked. When clients change their behaviors and sustain the change, inner transformations are in parallel motion. A 300-pound man who loses 120 pounds and sustains that loss has not just changed his weight. He has likely developed a different self-concept, a new way of relating to food, a more profound body-mind connection and, usually, a deep understanding of his own dynamics in relation to his weight and body image. And here’s the punch line: The coach who helped that man lose weight did not focus on the man’s self-perceptions, attitudes or beliefs. The coach partnered with the client to set mini goals, make small changes and cocreate bulletproof plans. As the client repeatedly met his goals, modified his behavior and learned more about himself through reflection and the continuous feedback loops built into coaching, he gradually shifted significant aspects of self-understanding and behavioral patterns. He transformed.

The Simultaneous Conversations of Coaching

Three conversations take place simultaneously in a coaching session. First and most obvious is the all-important conversation between coach and client, where learning and meaning are created, where clients clarify and discover, and where action is planned and wholeheartedly embraced.

Second is the client’s internal conversation, which is based on his or her history, personality, mental perspectives and experience. Clients have goals they want to pursue, and they have stories that reveal their values and the explanations for their behavior. Yet, like all of us, they also have conversations in their heads that never make it past their lips. What clients think and what they say are sometimes vastly different.

Third is the coach’s internal conversation. Coaches, too, have goals—for themselves and their clients—and their own stories. They also have internal scripts that guide the coach-client dialogue.

In the coaching conversation, clients choose what to say and coaches decide how to respond. Whatever clients put forth into the shared space becomes a rich source of data for coaching. The way coaches respond to what clients say impacts how clients continue the conversation. (See “The Simultaneous Conversations in Action” on pages 67–70.) The arena of the coaching conversation is the most fertile ground for change and transformation, since it impacts the internal conversations of both clients and coaches.

The Three Phases of the Conversation

Whether we examine what goes on in a single coaching session or the entire course of the relationship, we can identify three major phases: initiation, discovery and transformation.

Initiation. Initiation encompasses the chemistry between coach and client, including how their two personalities and behavior patterns mix to create something quite new. At the beginning of the relationship, this phase is manifested in a “go or no-go” decision based on the client’s “coachability,” the objectives the client wants to pursue, and agreement on the terms of the relationship. If the relationship continues, initiation includes the way each session begins, how coach and client connect, and the facility with which they move into crucial conversations that lead to action and change (Patterson et al. 2002).

Discovery. In the discovery phase, coach and client dialogue to unfold the client’s goals, patterns, resources and opportunities. The client reveals various facets of the story in her head, providing clues to motivation and action. Each client statement merges with the coach’s supportive statements or probing questions, which are inspired by both the content of what the client says and the coach’s intuitive hunches. None of this is scripted or formulaic. The discovery phase is a creative process—the antithesis of a dry recitation of events by the client and stock questions from the coach. What emerges is something new: unforeseen avenues to change that neither the client nor the coach had fully known before.

Transformation and Change. Transformation results from all the tiny insights and small changes that occur over time. Within a session, a client may have a shift in perspective that allows him to commit to a minor behavioral change. This change feeds awareness. As the client returns to the following session, a dialogue of discovery moves this awareness toward other actions. Over time, a kind of “tipping point” is reached, and the client experiences a transformation into qualitatively different modes of thinking, feeling and acting (Gladwell 2000).

This third phase is accurately labeled “transformation” in regard to the overall coaching process, but in individual sessions, describing it as “change” would be more accurate. The coach works with the client in each session to define a challenging action that advances the client’s agenda. These small changes and their accompanying learning result in transformation in the long run.

The Power of Coaching

Coaches are experts in communications and change. They use positive psychology, insightful questions and the power of commitment to

  • challenge clients’ self-limiting beliefs and habitual set points;
  • enable clients to appreciate their inherent strengths;
  • empower clients to access resources that turn dreams into reality; and
  • transform clients’ hopes into robust action strategies.
By acquiring coaching skills and reorienting the nature of your dialogue, you can activate clients’ inherent capacities to create bridges to sustainable transformation. Moreover, through coaching you will accelerate the realization of your own professional potential.

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Jim Gavin, PhD

IDEA Author/Presenter
Jim Gavin, PhD, is a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University and has been involv... more less

Madeleine McBrearty, PhD (candidate)

IDEA Author/Presenter
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Vasselli, J.R., & Maggio, C.A. 1997. Mechanisms of appetite and body weight regulation. In S. Dalton (Ed.), Overweight and Weight Management: The Health Professional’s Guide to Understanding and Practice (pp. 187–208). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. 1998. Co-active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.
June 2007

© 2007 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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