One of the greatest frustrations we can experience as personal trainers (besides not having any clients at all) is to have clients who enthusiastically sign on for our services and then take none of our advice. Later they wonder why they have experienced few of the benefits that were offered.

On the one hand, as caring professionals, we understand how busyness and stress can cause clients to make excuses. We justify their lack of commitment and subsequent results by recognizing that “at least they are doing something.” On the other hand, as professionals with integrity, we know that their behavior is not congruent with the commitment they made.

Rather than concluding that this seeming inability to commit stems from a lack of discipline, we may want to consider that there could be a values conflict. To better understand this type of dilemma, we first have to appreciate the importance of values in our own lives and in the lives of
our clients.

The Role Values
Play in Our Decisions

Stated simply, values are what we move toward or away from in life—those things for which we are willing to work, expend resources or make sacrifices and those things we will work hard to avoid.

For example, many people value their family as a priority. They will sacrifice everything for family. For others, money or the accumulation of wealth usurps all else, including family. In these cases, family and money are examples of Toward Values; things we move toward almost unconsciously through the decisions we make. Away From Values are things we will do almost anything to avoid, such as public speaking. As Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently put it, “Most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.” This kind of ranking of values by choosing the “lesser of two evils” illustrates how people make choices based on avoiding or reducing pain or discomfort.

Rules That
Represent Our Values

Each one of us has a set of rules for experiencing or living our values. For someone who values fitness above all, working out every day might be a rule for living that value. This person might feel out of balance, anxious or incongruent if she has to miss her workouts for a week or two.

By contrast, a person who values making money might have an internal rule that requires working a 16-hour day. For this person, an hour in the gym could represent a waste of time, as it would be an hour away from “the grindstone.” He might cognitively understand the importance or benefits of exercise, yet have an emotional aversion to breaking his “work rule.”

As we learn new skills or gain knowledge, we often find easier ways to live our values. I have learned, for example, that I no longer have to spend 2 hours every day in the gym to experience being fit. Instead, I can train smarter and eat a healthier diet.

Working Within a
Client’s Values System

Knowing how values and rules affect behavior, you can begin to understand better how they come into play with your clients; then you can use this knowledge to influence a values shift that fits. Even the client who believes that “working out” is the opposite of “working toward wealth” can shift to a new approach if given information that fits within the wealth-building value model. (You may want to read Jim Citrin’s article titled “Tapping the Power of Your Morning Routine,” which discusses the advantages of exercise for business leaders [see “Resources” on page 28]. )

Let’s take a look at how the principles might apply. Say a prospective client comes to you and wants to start training “yesterday.” It could be that an acute shift in values created by an emotionally charged or even painful event has brought on this sense of urgency: maybe a loved one insulted the person’s appearance, or perhaps an unforgiving glimpse in the mirror was the cause. It could also have been a simple visit to the doctor.

Whatever happened, the prospect’s values have changed:

Values in Order of Importance Before the Temporary Shift




free time

health and fitness

Values in Order of Importance After the Temporary Shift

losing weight (health and fitness)




free time

This is a perfect example of Away From Values in action, because the client is willing to work out (the less painful choice) as a way to avoid being insulated or shamed (the more painful choice). People will generally step out of their comfort zones and make a change if and when the alternative of not changing is more uncomfortable.

Going to the gym and working out with a trainer may represent the lesser of two pains for this client, but as soon as the pain subsides, her values may, and very likely will, shift back to their previous order. If that happens, adherence to the program will rapidly fall off as the client is pulled in more “important” directions.

Creating the Shift
Toward Fitness

As trainers and coaches we have an opportunity to help our clients create a more permanent and positive shift in values. There are four steps involved in this process, and you must go through them in this order for the change to be effective and lasting:

1. Establish rapport.

2. Elicit values.

3. Facilitate the shift.

4. Visualize results.

Step 1: Establish Rapport. Before you can effectively coach a client, you must establish rapport with the person. This simply means the client knows, likes and trusts you. It can take a week or two for rapport to build; the main point is to work on it before moving on to the next step.

Step 2: Elicit Values. Eliciting, or discovering, the client’s current values is a simple two-step process, but you should always establish the framework first. Let your client know you would like to work for a few minutes on the “inner game” of goal achievement and that it may be as important as the physical part of the training sessions. If you frame the process as “working on the inner game,” your client should be able to see that fitness is about more than just the part he can see. The elicitation step can help your client regard you as a mentoring coach who is showing how time invested now can lead to long-term success.

First, ask, “What are the five or six most important things in your life? What do you spend the most time doing, pursuing or thinking about?” Write the
answers down. Next, find out the order of priority. Sometimes the client’s values will already be listed in order of priority, but often they won’t. So then you ask, “Of these five or six things you’ve just told me, which is the most important? The second most important?” And so on down the list.

Note where, if at all, “health and fitness” falls in order of importance. I had one client who was struggling to lose 100 pounds, and when I elicited his values, health and fitness was not even in the top 15!

Step 3: Facilitate the Shift. The shift will take place when your client understands the importance of health and fitness for the fulfillment of other values. For example, a client who values wealth accumulation can be shown how fitness can affect her energy level and passion for creating and sustaining a successful career. The shift can have even greater impact if you ask your client to come up with examples of how improved health can move her both toward and away from her other top values. It can be as simple as asking, “If your health suddenly took a nosedive, how would that impact your life?” or “If you lost that extra weight you’re talking about, how would your life be better?”

The next step is to ask again if it would be a good idea to shift that value (health and fitness) into a higher position on the values priority list. Ask, “Knowing how important it is to you right now to be healthy and fit, would it be a smart thing to move that value to a higher position, not just for now, but for the rest of your life?” Encourage your client to choose
either the second or third position in the values hierarchy for the switch. (Shifting a new value to the number-one position could create conflict or disharmony, which could cause your client to revert to the old values hierarchy.) Then, have your client physically go through the process of writing the new values list on paper, along with some new rules. This will help the client grasp what the experience will actually be like.

Step 4: Visualize Results. Visualization is a powerful tool for internalizing what we want and creating a model for it. Ask your client to take a moment to imagine and visualize the results. “Looking to the future, how has this new value positively affected your life 1, 2 and even 5 years from now? How has it improved the other areas of your life?” A mental picture gives your client a concrete goal to aim for. With visualization, he can see who he will become; it’s then back to you to show him how to get there. At this point, it’s time to get back in the gym and put this shift in values to work!

In the end, there is no guarantee that a values shift will automatically “take.” What you are doing with this process is helping clients mentally create a new model for success. This model, along with congruent action and your support, will dramatically improve their odds of achieving real change.

As trainers and coaches we have an opportunity to help our clients create a more permanent and positive shift in values.