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Harnessing the power of questions to build motivation and accountability with online coaching

Written by Lauren Shroyer on 13th July 2020.


Perhaps this sounds familiar to you. Your Thursday 5pm clients comes in and announces, “I need to lose 15 lbs before my vacation.” “No problem,” you say. “It’s more than three months away.” You give him a workout program for the days he doesn’t see you and show him how to track his food on your favorite app.  After a great workout, he’s on his way with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. 

When you see him the following Tuesday, he’s rushed, running late and barely changed for his session on time. You ask, “Let’s take a look at your nutrition app and see how you did!” He stares at you, blank faced, a little guilty. “Uh, I completely forgot about it.”


Of course this is familiar. Something similar has happened to every one of us. A client comes in with a set goal and we pull out our personal trainer bag of tricks to help them … and they don’t follow through. 


It really isn’t their fault and, to tell you the truth, it isn’t our fault either. We’ve done what we are taught to do as personal trainers – provide evidence-based information, recommend new and convenient technology, and give amazing workouts and programming.


The problem is, that isn’t what all clients need. To be more exact, it isn’t all that they need.


What most clients need just as much as the great workouts, convenient technology, and probably more than the new information, is the intrinsic motivation to be responsible for changes to their lifestyle – each day, every day – to move in the direction of their goal … with consistency.


Ask more questions than you have answers.

When a client comes to you with a new goal, resist the urge to start making plans, hold off on the SMART goal setting, and begin asking questions. This is true in any personal training setting, but can be even more important when you are coaching online, where you need to communicate differently to attain a personal connection. 


Your goal is to remain curious and understand your client’s “why” behind the stated goal. By that I mean, really dig deep to understand the desire of your client. In this article we’ll briefly discuss two skill sets blending the communication methods to both understand your client’s motivation and to meet them where they are at to support their goal. 


Motivational Interviewing, developed by William Miller, PhD, and Stephen Rollnick, PhD, applies the use of OARS Skills, an acronym that stands for Open-ended questions, Affirmation, Reflective listening, and Summary reflections, to move people away from ambivalence (the desire for change combined with the fear or reluctance to change). We are going to blend it with the 5 Whys Analysis developed by Sakichi Toyoda at Toyota. The 5 Whys serves as the basis for understanding the nature of problems in order to develop the right solution. 


These are well known tools of the best coaches in the industry. To up your game as a coach, I highly recommend investing in a deeper understanding of these and other behaviour change coaching skills. 

A format you can follow now:

Before offering solutions to your clients, follow these steps. 

  1. Ask Why. Why now? Why this goal? What has you thinking about this today?
  2. Listen. Give your client ample time to consider their answer and listen closely to understand.
  3. Reflect (or repeat) back to them what you understand from their answer and again, ask why.
  4.  Continue to Listen and Reflect at least three more times, for a total of 5 Whys.
  5. Summarise your understanding of the client’s goal and ask if it sounds right.
  6. Now you can begin  your collaborative discussion about what realistic steps to take toward this goal.


The 5 Whys approach is a great set of open-ended questions and an easy to remember process.  An open-ended question is a question where the answer is not a simple yes or no. These types of questions require more thought and more detail to answer.  In its purest sense, the 5 Whys states that you repeat the question “Why?” in response to the answer. For example: Why were you late? I overslept. Why? My alarm didn’t go off. Why? And so on.  As a coach you can incorporate a Reflection statement like, “It sounds like you’re really motivated to lose weight, why now?”


The result of  combining open ended questions and reflections, ensures you proceed with full understanding of the clients needs and wants in mind. It’s not unusual for clients to think they know what they want and why they want it, but once you ask them to reflect more deeply through the 5 Whys questioning, you may find that the answers point you to a different goal entirely. 


It is likewise essential that you use Reflections and Summaries, two other OARS skills, to ensure that you understand your client’s thinking. By reflecting (repeating a statement that you have heard), you give the client an opportunity to clarify. Sometimes, a client may say, “Oh I know that’s what I said, but not exactly what I meant” or will correct your understanding. Within a short time, you can achieve a deeper understanding of how to serve your clients needs.As importantly, you’ll know how to keep them focused and tapped into their intrinsic motivation – that very personal thing that’s going to keep them going on a course for success. 


Seeing the difference if can make.

Now let’s take these skills and apply them to that same weight loss client and see how the new conversation may look.


Client: “I need to lose 15 lbs before my vacation.”

You: “Great! Why did you decide to set this goal?”

Client: “Well, I’m going on vacation and I want to look good on the beach.” 

You: (mental note: look good on the beach) “Ok. Why is it important to you to look good on the beach?”

Client: “I guess it isn’t really, I just… well, I realize my paunch is getting a little more round, but I really want to keep up with my boys. They were talking about learning to surf.”

You: (mental note: keep us with his sons) “I see. Why is learning to surf important to you?”

Client: “It’s not really learning to surf that is important. I don’t want to look like a fool in front of them. They are 15 and 17 now and I want to keep up.”

You: (mental note: keep up) “You’ve said that twice now, that you want to keep up, why is that important to you?”

Client: “Oh, well, you know, I don’t want them thinking their old man’s gone soft. You know how athletic my wife is, if the three of them are off surfing and snorkeling and I’m on the sidelines with a pulled hamstring, I’m really going to miss out on some fun family time.”

You: “I think I see. If you don’t mind, I’d like to summarize for you what I’m hearing. It sounds to me like you’re hoping to have a great vacation with your family and you really want to make sure that you’re in good enough shape to keep up with your kids and your wife while they are surfing and trying out any other activities that are available for you on your beach vacation. Is that an accurate summary?”

Client: “Yeah. That’s exactly what I want. I want to make sure this is a great vacation. The kids are getting older and vacation has always been a great time for us to connect as a family. I just really want to make sure I can keep up.”

You: “Ok. Thanks for explaining that. Why do you think losing 15 pounds is the right way to get there?”

Client: “Huh, well. I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way. I guess I just need to be in shape enough to do it, don’t I?

You: (smiling) “Are you asking for my expert opinion?”

Client: (laughs) “Yes, I guess I am.”

You: “Well, I know that we can build on some of your strengths to make sure that you are successful. You always make your appointments and work really hard while you’re in the gym, so it leads me to think that having a focused plan and maybe increasing the number of workouts per week might be a good path towards meeting your goal of being in great shape for your vacation. Do you think that is something that you’re able to commit to at this time? Do you think it’s realistic to add more workouts each week?”


After this conversation, the focus shifted completely from weight loss to workouts. Nutrition tracking was not at all discussed. Instead, by Affirming and building off a strength, workout dedication, a plan starts to form. Note too that there aren’t any assumptions made. Before you give advice, you ask if the client wants to hear it. And you don’t assume that he is able or willing to increase his weekly workouts, instead you ask if it seems realistic. This method of collaborating with your client ensures that the goals are agreed upon, that the client is really bought into the plan. 


Whether in person or online training, these conversations are essential; however, I would argue that when online training these conversations are even more critical to establishing a unique experience for your client and providing added value to each session. With deeper questioning and active listening, together you can formulate a plan that is realistic and builds upon the client’s strengths. A trainer who’s skilled at asking powerful questions and digging deep to find intrinsic motivation will light a fire in clients, leading them to reach goals and identify strengths, allowing them to build skills that they can capitalize on to improve their livelihood for years to come.


For further coaching tips check out Why we all need a coach