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Q&A How do you deal with clients who incessantly talk about personal issues during training?

Clients sometimes become confused as to what a trainer can and cannot
do for them. They may misinterpret a trainer’s ability, or willingness, to listen to them talk about personal issues. If you want your clients to exercise rather than talk, then there are a number of steps you can take:

Create an Exercise Environment Conducive to Movement. If you have chatty clients, put them in an environment that does not facilitate talking. For example, running on a treadmill, sitting on a bike and using weight machines are all activities that allow clients to “tune out” and focus on chatting. Instead, think of activities that provide little or no opportunity for talking, such as doing intervals/sprints on the treadmill or shuttle runs in the group exercise room. Keeping clients moving constantly from one station to another limits the opportunity for chatting.

Make a Lesson Plan. Planning your sessions thoroughly allows you to limit unnecessary rest intervals between exercises. For example, if you’re planning box jumps after push-ups, make sure the box has been set up in advance, etc. Decreasing unnecessary pauses decreases chat time.

Mind Your Own Behavior. Your client’s behavior is often a response to the way you present yourself and your session. Take a good look at how you present yourself. Make sure you are dressed and groomed to look like you mean business. Also, consider your nonverbal communication, such as body behavior. Are you standing upright, engaged in your client’s exercise, spotting actively and so on? Last but not least, how is your verbal communication? Are you initiating talking by asking nonexercise-related questions? How is your voice projection? Do you sound like you mean business, or do you sound as if you want to chat? Often we are not aware of how we present ourselves. One way you can help yourself is by asking a colleague to critique you or by videotaping segments of your sessions.

Marcel Daane, CSCS, ACE-AFS
Senior Performance Coach,

I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about personal issues with my clients as long as the issues are relevant to their health or fitness programs. After all, many personal issues—like work stress, family problems and holiday plans—can impact their exercise programs. So I think it’s important to know, and I’m interested in knowing, what’s happening in their lives.

However, when I first started personal training 13 years ago, I wasn’t quite sure how to politely manage these conversations. As a new trainer, I found that some chatty clients’ workouts could come to a complete standstill as they ranted about their spouse, crazy neighbor or nanny situation or told long tales about their recent surgery or business trip. I found it difficult to interrupt these kinds of stories, especially the emotional ones. The result was sessions that went over the allotted time period or didn’t include all of the exercises.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I had to take control; otherwise, clients wouldn’t reach their fitness goals and/or they’d feel they weren’t getting value for their money. (When I’m sorting out issues like these, I often put myself in a client’s position. For example, if I hired a $75-an-hour interior designer and she let me ramble on, I’d be disappointed. I’d want her to take charge, lead the conversation and give me lots of solid advice within the allotted time.)

Now I’ve learned how to manage my clients’ stories without sacrificing any of their workout time. Here are a few techniques I use:

1. If clients start a long story between sets, I’ll interrupt and say something like, “Hold that thought, and let’s do the next set.” After the set, they may continue the story, but sometimes
they forget, and we just carry on.

2.  I keep moving all the time. I may be nodding my head and commenting on the story, but I’m also picking up dumbbells, arranging an exercise mat, changing the seat height on a piece of equipment, etc. I keep clients active, too. Even if they’re talking, once I have the mat in place I’ll gesture to it so that they walk over, lie down and start the next exercise.

3. I don’t always make eye contact when clients are talking. I’m more likely arranging equipment or looking at their body position as they set up for an exercise. I may nod and smile or comment as they talk. I don’t want to appear rude, but the message is that the workout takes precedence over the story.

4. We have time for a bit of talking when clients arrive, while we’re walking toward the equipment and while I’m setting up the first exercise. At the end of the workout, when we’re wrapping up or stretching, we can quickly converse as well.

5. I often e-mail and telephone clients regarding upcoming appointments. During these exchanges, I can learn what’s happening in their lives without cutting into valuable workout time.

Despite a lack of long, detailed conversations, I still manage to find out what’s going on in my clients’ lives. I find that really talkative people instinctively learn to make their comments shorter and more succinct. They’ll tell me the highlights, and they know that I won’t let them just stand there and babble on.

Barb Gormley
Owner, CustomFit Personal Training
Toronto, Ontario

As trainers we need to establish boundaries right from the first session. If clients are talking, they are probably not concentrating as much on the exercise. If the conversation topic is negative, they might go into a negative spiral. It is our job to motivate, educate and make the session positive.

However, I usually allow chatter during the warm-up; then we get down to business. I also encourage working with the breath during resistance training, so there is not much time for chatting.

Theresa Merz, MES
Owner and Personal Trainer,
Fitness Works
Penn Valley, California

We are in a field where we get to know our clients not only from a fitness perspective but at times from a personal perspective. Since we also get to know—albeit not in person—family members, friends and colleagues, some clients use their time with us to dish, let it out, get a problem off their chest or just plain vent.

As an exercise physiologist and president of Solo Fitness since 1990, I have come across many a time that I’ve had to say, “Hold on. I hear what you’re saying, but I want to get the next exercise in before any more conversation.” I am subtly saying to my client, “I value what you are saying, but I do want to get some work done here to benefit your core, back, stress level, endurance, etc.” Clients are paying us to be personal trainers, not shrinks. I do want to stress that you need to engage in active listening, in which you are not judgmental and don’t express an opinion. If a client is venting and wants to be validated, you might say, “I hear what you are saying, and I empathize with you. Now please focus on the next exercise because we’re going to do it differently today, and I need your full attention.”

I have also found that when you keep your clients moving, they talk less. Talk time seems to happen more during a
cardio warm-up, continuous cardio or stretch time (not during active stretches). This is where circuit training can come
in handy!

It is up to us to keep the sessions on track. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to do this without seeming rude, but we want to give the best personalized exercise program we can each session.

Lisa Hoffman, MA
President, Solo Fitness Inc.
New York, New York

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