What do I do if a class participant does not appreciate the fact that I have set boundaries around my personal life? Most of my participants understand I am their instructor, not their counselor, best friend or mom. But every so often someone comes along who asks intimate questions, waylays me when I work out, comes early and stays late to chat about personal troubles, or queries other staff and members about me. In one extreme case I even had a client who developed an obvious crush on me and became a major nuisance. What do I have to do to make it clear that “no nosy questions are allowed. My personal details are none of your business!”?

Coco Bennett, Tecate, Mexico

If class participants are exceeding professional boundaries, you need to look inside yourself for the answer. Are you unconsciously encouraging this behavior in some way? Perhaps you are more codependent than you realize. In my experience, women are more likely to be overly inquisitive than men. Often, we women tend to overextend ourselves in an effort to be liked. I believe that if you maintain a professional demeanor and are friendly yet firm about establishing boundaries, most people are very respectful.

Of course, some people do not recognize subtle messages. When confronted by someone who persists in posing nosy questions, I answer as follows: “That is a very personal question. Why do you ask?” Then I change the subject. If the intrusiveness continues, I turn the tables and repeat the original question right back. Once the client hears how the question sounds, he or she will usually back off and may think twice before getting too personal in the future.
In most cases, looking inside and being true to yourself will guide others to respect your boundaries before problems develop.

Todd Edwards, Santa Barbara, California

I have had some extreme situations happen. And believe me, they were uncomfortable and very stressful. As a rule, I never pursue one-to-one relationships with class participants. Nevertheless, over the years, three women in particular offered and wanted attention that went way beyond professional boundaries. In fact, all three women escalated their attention to the point where they were stalking me. Management had to step in and revoke their memberships.

Did I do anything to encourage their behavior? I don’t think so. But I did not do enough early on to discourage it either. Looking back at these incidents, I definitely should have handled them differently, more forcefully and sooner. Unfortunately, it’s hard to understand the emotional state of the intruding person until it’s too late. With the 20/20 hindsight of experience, I have some suggestions that would have served me (and them) better. Maybe what I learned will help you avoid anything similar.

Step 1. Be aware of early signs and give them credence. If someone starts hanging around after class or “coincidentally” is nearby whenever you are in the gym, heed this as a warning signal. Do not give this person extra attention! Minimize all contact except normal cuing and correction in class. It can be difficult to distinguish between someone with a legitimate question or comment and someone who wants more than professional advice. Does the person talk to you only when no one else is around? Is the conversation fitness related or personal? And (a big clue I initially ignored) are you being offered little presents and constant compliments?

My suggestion is to nip interaction in the bud. You may even need to curb any “after class” compliments. If you suspect the motive, tell the person: “Thanks for the compliment. Instead of telling me, write it down and put it in the club’s suggestion box, or tell the front desk or my director. That will be much more effective.”

Step 2. Refuse to accept notes, poems, gifts, telephone numbers and physical contact, such as a hand on the arm or a good-bye hug. If you’ve already accepted something, such as a holiday or “teacher appreciation” gift, return it! State in no uncertain terms: “I made a mistake accepting this as it crosses my boundaries between personal and professional and we have no personal relationship.” No matter how much the other person tries to talk you into keeping the gift (and regardless of what it is), repeat your statement and return the gift immediately. You need to sever all ties that indicate any special connection with this person.

Step 3. Involve facility management. Tell your director or manager about the problem. Get witnesses and keep a documented record of escalating behavior. Ask other instructors to walk with you from class to your car. Make it clear to the bothersome participant that you will do whatever it takes to prevent any one-to-one contact. Find out if management feels the situation warrants revoking the person’s membership.

The bottom line is you have to make a judgment call. I learned the hard way that it is better to confront extra attention too soon, rather than too late.

Beate Lemm, Berlin

It is difficult to find a balance point for being a nice, caring instructor who also sets clear professional boundaries. Especially in our field, people misconstrue our interest in their fitness well-being with interest in their personal life. Their perceptions may lead them to ask personal questions or to believe that the push to become closer “friends” comes from us.

I’ve learned that our attitude and authority will set the limits. If you have a concern about a person or group not respecting boundaries, refrain from telling stories or details about your personal life during class. Always retain some professional distance; show authority in conversation with participants; establish clear objectives; and focus on why your job is to help people achieve their fitness goals. When participants start talking about their troubles or asking personal questions, stop them politely and change the subject.

If you are being approached before class, curtail conversations with, “I am really sorry, but I need to prepare for class” or, “If you have a fitness-related question I can help you with, please ask me in the next minute or two before I need to review choreography.” You can get across the idea that they need to focus on their point and that coming very early to “catch” you does not mean you have more time to give. If you are being approached after class and the conversation turns in a direction you don’t want, interrupt the conversation. State simply and forcefully that you need to leave in one minute in order to get to your next activity.

During the workout you need to head off anyone wanting to waylay you. Prepare the group for what will happen after class. “If you have any fitness or workout questions, please start thinking of them now. Once class is over, I have just enough time to address any immediate fitness concerns, then I need to be on my way.” Or if you do your own workout after class, again prepare the group during class: “I’ll be focusing on my own workout when we’re done today, so if you have any questions for me, now is the time to send them my way. Just like many of you, I really appreciate working out privately.” I suggest trying to say all this politely and with a smile so they know you are happy to help, but do not want to give unlimited time or access. Most people will understand these signs. If someone is still not catching on, you will have to be more direct: “I don’t discuss personal matters—mine or yours.” Make direct eye contact and be clear.