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Using Curiosity to Help Clients Get Unstuck

Learn why piquing your interest—and theirs—is the key to success.

Question marks representing curiosity

People seek out fitness and wellness professionals because they want things to be different. While the how our clients arrive at and the what they seek varies (sometimes dramatically), they all share one thing: They have the desire—and sometimes a desperate need—for sustainable behavior change. We, the well-qualified fitness and wellness professionals, have the knowledge and experience to design a program to help them. Yet behavior change is elusive, which often leads people to switch plans, places and pros like they are buying lottery tickets, hoping to finally hit the behavior-change jackpot.

Although they want to move forward, sometimes clients just seem to get stuck!

To help our clients stay with us long enough to improve, we have to first help them get unstuck. For that, we must understand just how elusive behavior change can be, why clients’ best efforts only serve to make them more stuck, and how we can use the power of curiosity to help them unlock and swing open the door to the behavior change they seek.

The Essence of Being Stuck

To help our clients become unstuck, we must understand the sticking point. The sticking point is not only knowledge acquisition and understanding but, rather, the application of the knowledge in their lives.

Yet clients look to fitness and wellness professionals—implore us even—to just “tell me what to do,” invoking us to “hold me accountable.” This only sinks them deeper into the quicksand of misery; the more they struggle, the more stuck they become.

At the heart of the sticking point is the paradox that the more harshly demanding a person is of themselves—and the more they request experts like us to direct their efforts—the less likely they are to achieve change. Self-determination theory and self-efficacy theory reveal that the key characteristics of becoming unstuck and achieving behavior change are autonomy, self-efficacy and competence (Bandura 1977; Deci & Ryan 2004).

Thus, we must focus our expertise and effort on empowering our clients to discover, uncover and deploy their strengths and values, increasing their self-efficacy, autonomy and competence—thereby becoming unstuck.

The Power of Curiosity

We have all heard, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” but that’s not entirely true. Create thirst, and the horse will drink. So rather than focusing on ways to force the horse to drink, become the salt that triggers thirst. Curiosity is that salt.

Leveraging curiosity and facilitating our clients toward embracing a curious approach is foundational to successful behavior change. Miller and Rollnick—the creators of motivational interviewing, the gold standard for helping people get unstuck—state that retaining genuine curiosity and compassion is the raft upon which all else floats (Miller & Rollnick 2013).

Curiosity is inherently about exploration—deepening and growing knowledge to expand understanding. It’s not about proving a point or evangelizing a specific methodology. Cultivating curiosity with and in our clients provides them a “place” where they can navigate rather than be stuck in the change process.

Neuroscience supports this path for change. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the region of the brain that sorts through decisions and consequences, determining the best path forward. It orchestrates thoughts aligned with goals, and it manages, redirects and suppresses urges that may not be socially acceptable or desirable. The PFC is sometimes referred to as the CEO or “the adult in the room” of our brain.

For people trying to change their behavior, especially habits that have been wired into place after years, it’s imperative the PFC is fully engaged. However, during times of stress, regions of the prefrontal cortex go “offline,” impacting self-regulatory regions of the brain (Arnsten 2015; Milyavskaya & Inzlicht 2017). However, reactivating curiosity helps the PFC get going again.

What’s more, when we demonstrate our curiosity to clients, we can trigger a brain response that awakens their own. Meeting clients where they are, and asking open-ended questions with curiosity and nonjudgment, cultivates a collaborative relationship of safety and trust. This, in turn, activates parts of the brain that trigger the release of hormones engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with emotions such as awe, joy, gratitude and curiosity (Boyatzis, Smith & Van Oosten 2019).

See also: Behavior Change: What the Research Tells Us

3 Ways to Cultivate Curiosity

Michael Scholtz, MA, PCC, NBC-HWC, owner of Vistas Life Coaching, has more than 30 years in the healthcare field, including 10 years at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. He echoes and exemplifies the science mentioned above. “My attitude is curiosity, nonjudgment and grace with which I create a space of trust,” he says. “When I set a place of grace, my voice is warmer; my tone and cadence convey and signal to my client trust exists.”

With this in mind, here are some ways fitness and wellness professionals can adjust their approach and set their own place of grace:

  1. Replace education with exploration. Become intentional about asking and exploring with your client rather than telling and explaining to your client. As opportunities come up to educate your client, remind yourself that this is not a teaching moment—this is an asking moment.Use open-ended questions fueled by curiosity and nonjudgment to help clients lead in the discovery and formulation of their plans. When that happens, they will be more committed to the plan execution. This is how we help clients increase self-efficacy, autonomy and competency, the key characteristics to achieving change.
  1. Rebrand goals as experiments. Introduce the “experiment approach” when working toward behavior changes. Where goals are intrinsically aligned with dichotomous evaluation (you made it or you didn’t), experiments are simply opportunities to learn and then iterate, using what was learned.Curiosity expands the desire to experience and acquire knowledge that can be changed, developed and reframed over time (Bae 2018). This creates an environment where learning and growing is valued and failure no longer exists.
  1. Give yourself grace. Lean-ing away from the expert approach and into the space of artful asking may feel uncomfortable at first. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be right; you just have to be curious. Provide yourself some ease and grace as you embrace this new style of coaching.

Reach for the Salt

As passionate, caring people, we are drawn to help those experiencing a crisis of health as they are trapped, stuck, unable to sustain the healthful actions and choices they desperately desire. We empathize with their plight and pour into them our deep expertise, designing and directing evidence-based paths forward. For those clients that seem inextricably stuck, unable to drink from the cool water of wellness you have provided, take a cleansing breath and reach for the salt: curiosity power.

See also: Training Happy for Positive Behavioral Change

How Elusive is Behavior Change?

The chronic disease burden in the United States largely results from a short list of prevalent, modifiable risk factors, including tobacco use, poor diet and physical inactivity (Bauer et al. 2014). Yet, chronic (noncommunicable) diseases are the leading cause of death and disability in America and the leading drivers of the $3.8 trillion in annual healthcare costs. Six in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease, and four in 10 adults have two or more (Buttorff, Ruder & Bauman 2017; Martin et al. 2021).

Measuring behavior change, which is not an easy thing to quantify, is done most effectively when examining medication adherence rates for this group. People who are prescribed self-administered medications for a chronic disease typically take only about half their prescribed doses (Nieuwlaat et al. 2014). No evidence exists that adherence rates will change, as they have averaged approximately 50% over the past 50 years (Naderi, Bestwick & Wald 2012; Sackett et al. 1975).

If simply taking a pill—even in the face of a life-shortening chronic disease—is at best a 50-50 proposition, then how much more difficult must it be to enact change involving tobacco use, dietary patterns and physical activity?

Perhaps a wake-up call is needed. After all, chronic diseases are insidious, as a person’s decline is often almost imperceptible. Might an acute health event, such as a heart attack, drive a person to enact behavior change to save their life?

Sadly, the evidence points toward “no.” Evidence reveals that almost four out of five myocardial infarctions in men may be preventable through a combination of risk-lowering modifications, including changes in dietary pattern, physical activity and tobacco use (Akesson et al. 2014). Yet, every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack, and 210,000 of them happen in people who have already had a heart attack (Rawat 2019). Thus, even people who have exceptionally high motivation still cannot change. They are stuck.

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