You are not your client

Jun 20, 2020 | by Susy Natal

We must meet our clients where they are and respect the boundaries of being a guide and not a judge, writes PT and performance coach Susy Natal.


  • Active listening will help you connect with your client and understand what they want – not just what you think they want 
  • Open-ended questions will help you obtain more detail by encouraging more elaborate responses 
  • Checking ambiguous pieces of information can help avoid misinterpreting what a client means 
  • Do not use the question ‘why’ to unearth clients deeper motivations, as such direct questioning can stump a client and bring the conversation to a standstill 
  • Do not offer unsolicited advice – always respect the autonomy of the client and seek permission before sharing your thoughts 
  • Be selective with the information that you provide on a discussed topic – only the most relevant 1-3 points will really help the client, and more than that can be overwhelming 
  • Always write everything down – our ability to retain information is not as great as we think it is.

So much of what can make a personal trainer and client relationship powerful happens outside of the workout itself. What is often referred to as the ‘art’ of personal training does not just include the knack that some trainers have of being able to predict that a foot should move over here or that this cue will work for that particular client: it also includes how the trainer communicates with, and therefore positions themselves within the life of, the client. While many people, when envisioning personal trainers, will still conjure up images of order-yelling drill-sergeant types, it is actually a far more collaborative and autonomous model that will create the nurturing environment that maximises the success of your clients. 

Books and covers

When people first meet, massive amounts of information are absorbed and processed, even before either party has the opportunity to say anything. The client’s appearance, how fit they look, and how knowledgeable they appear about health and fitness once they do begin to speak, are just some of the many pieces of information that trainers will receive and interpret from the get-go. 

The mind makes assumptions: the brain is a highly efficient association-making machine that will, by default, seek short-cuts for processing, utilising pre-existing information and biases. There is little utility in trying to undo these processes as they are automatic, and everyone has them. Rather, accept that they are there, and choose to remain engaged with what the client is actually presenting to you, and identify where you might be filling in the gaps with your own expectations about what kind of a person you think your client might be.

Listen, ask, listen again

Active listening will allow you to remain focused on the message that the client is trying to convey, and open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will allow you to drill down further wherever you are uncertain about any of the details. Active listening requires your complete attention. Do not meet a new client when you are in a rush, or when your mind is elsewhere. It also goes without saying that this is an excellent opportunity to bust the ugly stereotype of the unprofessional trainer who’s more focused on their phone than their client. Remove distractions and choose moments when your mind is not preoccupied, so that you may be completely present in the discussion. 

Seeking clarity

A client will not always be entirely clear in their delivery, and as a trainer, it is your responsibility to seek that clarity. Do not make assumptions about what a client meant when they explained something to you, but rather check in to confirm. If a client says something ambiguous you might either mention that you did not follow what their meaning was and ask them to explain further, or you might check in with your assumption to see if you are on the right track or not – ‘I think you are saying… am I following correctly, or did I misunderstand and did you mean something else?’. Open-ended questions, will encourage the client to further elaborate on things you are still unclear on.

“Unsolicited advice can make your client feel intimidated, and strip away their autonomy in the goal-setting and action-planning process”

‘Why’ isn’t always easy

Although every client will have an underlying ‘why’ that brought them to you, they will not necessarily be aware of, or know how to articulate, exactly what it is. There is nothing wrong with just asking why they are there, but more often than not the answers you receive will just be what lies on the surface: to lose weight, get strong, play with the kids. The use of the other ‘w’ and ‘how’ questions, combined with a sense of genuine curiosity, will often reveal much deeper motivations, which when accessed can help create enormous behavioural change in your clients – to feel more confident, to feel more capable, to respect their own body enough to take care of it and therefore practice self-love. More in-depth explanations of these techniques will be provided in a following Network article. 

Let your client drive

Your client is coming to you for your knowledge and expertise, so it can be tempting to provide as much information and advice as possible. While this may seem helpful, it can actually overwhelm a client and, in some cases, damage the bond you are working hard to establish. Unsolicited advice can make your client feel intimidated, and strip away their autonomy in the goal-setting and action-planning process. It places you in the driver’s seat, turning them into the passenger, which can in turn lead to their disengaging with the process, because they don’t own it. It is not wrong to offer advice – it just requires the additional step of seeking permission from your client first so they can decide whether or not they would like to hear it. Their granting permission places them in the decision-making role and therefore makes them the driver and owner of the goals being discussed.

Your prowess as a trainer will become apparent as your client reaps the benefits of your training: as the saying goes ‘show me, don’t tell me’.

Don’t overwhelm

Once permission is granted, however, it does not become a free-for-all. Less is more in this situation, because overwhelming clients with technical or physiological information can make them feel like they might not be capable of understanding the ins and outs of their goals. This tendency to become trigger-happy with excessive details about our knowledge-base, often referred to as the ‘expert trap’, may feel helpful but usually just becomes a wall of information that a client shuts down to. 

This information overload positions you as the expert, whereas you should rather be seeking to empower your client so they feel that they are the expert of their own journey. This can help clients not only engage more with the process, but also feel more capable of achieving their goals. Your prowess as a trainer will become apparent as they reap the benefits of your training: as the saying goes ‘show me, don’t tell me’.

Take notes

The discussion itself is not all that you are responsible for: your ability to access the information that you learn at a later date is equally important. Retention is interesting in that we, as humans, are not particularly good at it, yet generally tend to assume that we are. Relying on your memory can easily lead not only to pieces of information about your client going missing, but also having the previously mentioned mental short-cuts coming in to fill the gaps with assumptions. Furthermore, because you have forgotten, you might not even realise that you are doing this. 

Writing everything important down might seem tedious, but it will help you better serve your clients as your retained information will be more accurate. Writing down what you hear also ties into active listening, as it anchors you to the conversation taking place. Importantly, transparency and permission carries through into this process too: ask your client up-front if it’s alright for you to take notes about your conversation. This will help them feel more comfortable with the silences while you jot things down, and will also reassure them that the writing is part of you engaging with them and not you being distracted by something else. 

A continual practice

These are just some of the pointers to be mindful of when first getting started with a client, but are also applicable to the way you communicate with them on an ongoing basis. As they progress, more information will become relevant, and as the client faces more challenges or has shifts in their goals, more discussions around the higher-level concepts driving the client’s behaviour will need to be discussed. Always seek to remain discerning about the quality of the questions that you ask, the amount and immediate relevance of information that you provide, and your ability to pinpoint the true meaning of your client’s words. Like anything else, these skills will require continual practice, but will vastly improve the quality of the relationships you have with your clients – and the consequential success they achieve. 

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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Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.