The Fitness Zone

Walk together: Nurturing collaborative relationships with clients

Sep 07, 2020 | by Susy Natal

When clients hit a plateau or engage in unhelpful behaviours, you can assist them in moving on by nurturing a collaborative relationship in which they feel unconditionally supported, writes PT and performance coach Susy Natal.


  • Take responsibility for nurturing trust and rapport with your client and give them your undivided attention 
  • Listen to everything that your client says and watch your client’s nonverbal behaviours when they communicate with you 
  • Pre-emptive coaching mechanisms that can help your client get through the inevitable difficult phases will be very valuable 
  • Teaching your client about goal ownership will empower them to realise that they always have the option to choose differently 
  • Help your client get in the habit of celebrating their victories along the way 
  • Always be mindful of your communication when things are particularly tough: there is never any excuse for unkindness, so if you ever feel out of your depth, referring out is the ethical choice 
  • When a client feels stuck, you can help get them get moving again by reframing a situation in a way that will increase their ability to make objective assessments and decisions about it 
  • Drilling down on the specifics of a problem can help your client pull back from overwhelm, identify the true issue, and work their way out of the problem space. 

This is the second article on the often-overlooked topic of softer coaching skills which will not teach a client how to squat, but can empower them to stop jeopardising their own success. Click here to read the first article in the series, ‘You are not your client’.

Any client that you work with is on a health and fitness journey, and you are on it with them. It is not yours to commandeer, but you are an active part of it, so the ways you engage and relate to your client and their behaviour can seriously impact their success. Your client could be trying to do this alone, but they have chosen to include you in the process, so do everything in your power to help them succeed. \

Make the connection

Rapport and trust are gradually built over time, and as the guide in the client-trainer relationship it is your responsibility to gently and authentically do your part to nurture these.  


In a previous article, You Are Not Your Client, active listening was discussed, but this is something worth revisiting. What your client chooses to tell you, how they phrase what they say, and what they choose to omit can give away a lot about where the client is at. The more effort you have put into building rapport, the more they will feel they can be open and honest with you. The more they feel that you truly care about what they have to say, the more effectively you will be able to help, because they will feel comfortable enough to open up and share personal information. 

Pay attention to nonverbals 

We do not only listen with our ears – we also listen with our eyes. Watch closely whenever your client is talking, as their nonverbal behaviours will also be telling a story. For example, somebody who suddenly starts to sway or shift from foot to foot repeatedly when they were previously quite still might be nervous or stressed about what they have started to speak or think about. Somebody who starts to look away, at their watch or toward the exit might not be comfortable with the current topic of discussion. 

Check whether you are reading the room right

You will not always correctly interpret a client’s body language, but if you spot something, bring it up in a non-confrontational manner to help continue guiding a conversation forward. Even when incorrect, your client may clarify and will at very least see that you are trying to understand and to help, which can also nurture rapport. For example, with the client who starts to sway, you may say something like ‘I notice that you seem a bit more restless than a moment ago – do you feel stressed when you think about this?’. If this is the right interpretation, the client will feel more deeply understood, which may help the conversation progress. It may even help the client have a moment of realisation about how they feel about a topic, that they were not completely in touch with beforehand. 

Check yourself before you wreck the connection

Our own body language says a lot about how we are listening. If you’ve ever spoken to someone who kept looking over your shoulder or at their phone, you’ll know only too well how unimportant it makes you feel. Look at your client and have your body turned towards them. Nothing will make you a better listener than learning to tune out the things happening on your phone and in your surroundings when a client is talking to you. 

This is the point at which many people will bring up the concept of ‘mirroring’ your client’s behaviours, but anything staged is not genuine and a client who is attuned to your body language will immediately lose trust if they realise that you are putting techniques on them. It may sound less fancy, but it is far more authentic to simply give your client your total and undivided attention! 

When the going gets tough

Once you have established a trusting relationship with your client, they will likely reach a moment where they either get stuck or fall off the wagon – to a degree at least. There are many things that you can put in place along the way to help them navigate through the rocky waters when they do hit them. 

Celebrate the little wins

Many people are not well accustomed to seeing, let alone, celebrating their smaller victories on their path to a bigger goal. Health does not really have an endpoint, but rather happens in phases, so it can feel exhausting and relentless if it is just an endless tunnel of work with no victories. Congratulate your client or remind them that they have done something that is worth being proud of, but be careful to keep your language about them: it is their place to be proud of themselves, not yours. Rather, you can congratulate, encourage and be impressed. 

Make sure they know the wins are THEIRS

A client who slips up has no place apologising to you, and a client who is doing well has no place saying that their progress is thanks to you. It is not about you! Absolutely accept thanks for being a helpful guide, but be careful that this boundary does not become blurred into thinking that you have done anything more than that, as it does the client an enormous disservice by taking their power away. We work hard as coaches, but ultimately only the clients who put in the work get the results, so the victory belongs to them. 

Encourage the client to take ownership

It goes a long way to regularly remind the client that they are in charge and that you do not own their goal for them – they will have the autonomy to change their mind about a goal and therefore to also accept responsibility for the positive and negative consequences of that choice, should they arise. If they slip up, they will be more willing to admit responsibility with compassion but ownership. If they make progress, they will also be able to see that they have made that achievement with purpose, not chance. People who are more aware of their autonomy tend to take more ownership and responsibility over their own life, and consequently to achieve more. 

Offer only constructive feedback – no matter how you feel

It is normal to feel frustrated if a client is repeatedly making the same mistakes. It is, however, not fair to make it about you and become combative with the client just because they are not behaving as you would like them to. A client who is struggling is not wasting your time, nor trying to antagonise you. Remember that your outcome is to help the client, and that means working through the struggle together. Keep your feedback constructive, respectful and compassionate. This is how real change occurs. 

When in doubt, refer out

A client who is struggling on a more serious level may very well be working through some mindset demons that are beyond what you are qualified to manage. It then becomes your responsibility to suggest expanding their wellbeing team to include a psychologist or counsellor. As with any other matter, once you notice that something is beyond your scope of practice then your ethical duty of care is to refer out. This does not necessarily mean you need to stop training them, but rather to engage in collaborative teamwork with any other members of their wellbeing team to help the client meet their needs. 

Advanced techniques

There are many involved techniques for that require additional study. However, there are a few that, with practice, you can use to effectively guide your clients through moments of struggle. 

Offer a reframe 

Usually, when a client is struggling to work through a situation it will be because they are becoming overly emotional about it. This can make them struggle to take a step back to view the situation with objectivity. Presenting the same scenario from a different perspective can help to create the distance necessary for the client to feel less emotional and work through the roadblock. A common helpful reframe is to ask a client what they would advise a friend experiencing a similar situation. Where they might beat themselves up for struggling to get all their scheduled workouts in for the week, they would likely reassure a friend in the same situation that they did do some workouts, praise them for that, and encourage them to find resolve and prioritise a time to fit the missing sessions in, where practical.

Drill down to the specifics 

Emotional upset can make the mind operate in generalisations. This is when you are more likely to hear a client say things like ‘I always mess it up’, ‘Nothing ever goes right’, or ‘Everything is terrible’.  These are all examples of ‘globalisations’ in which the perception becomes that the problem has no boundaries and is all-encompassing. Getting specific with a client will not fix the problem, but can at least establish where the boundaries of the problem are and enable them to pull back from total overwhelm about the situation. Then ‘Nothing ever goes right’ can become ‘I’m having a difficult start to the week. I slept poorly on Sunday, so began my Monday tired and disorganised. I got into trouble at work for being late, which was frustrating because I work so hard and was only ten minutes late. In the rush I forgot my lunch and my gym clothes, and I ate junk food for lunch and missed my Monday workout, so am not feeling great’. 

Arrive at action 

Once you have pulled back from the global and managed to drill down to the specifics of the problem, work together with your client to figure out what the next most logical step is. This should be something that the client is willing to do to help start moving them out of the problem space. When multiple options exist, begin with only one single point of action to prevent overwhelm, and choose the easiest available task so that the client feels confident and capable in their ability to move from planning into execution. Remember to ask how you can support them through this shift into action so you can move together into the next phase of the client’s goal.

Susy Natal
Susy is an online strategic mindset and lifestyle coach, fitness coach and wellness writer. She has previously studied a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Certificate IV in Fitness and Diploma in Coaching, and is a Master NLP Practitioner. Because of her varied background, she typically addresses health and wellness goals with an integrated approach. Working online with training clients from around the world, she focuses on lifestyle factors to nurture deeper and long-term change. She also works with fitness professionals in general business coaching and on branding, communication and writing skills.

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