Nutrition coaching is often the key reason people come to you, but creating a safe space for your clients is why someone will stay.

The role of a nutrition coach is not to tell a client exactly what to do and demand they do it to a T. It is your job to work with your client to find solutions that best fit their lifestyle by asking questions that help guide them to find what works best for them.

Think of a time when you started on something new. Some clients may come to you never having thought twice about the quality or quantity of the foods they consume. Or, maybe they have no idea which foods fit which macronutrients or what macronutrients are in the first place.

When a client comes to you, you may need to ask basic questions like what kinds of foods they prefer or what their schedule looks like. But there may also come a time when you need to dig into the hard questions which may get uncomfortable. 

Many clients need to alter life-long habits and do things outside their comfort zone. This could include logging and tracking food, eating more than they are used to, uncovering and addressing emotional eating tendencies, carving out time to meal prep, or increasing daily activity. 

These shifts can be uncomfortable and scary for someone who has not done this before. As a coach, you get to be there for your client along the way, providing them guidance, support, and helping them to navigate their journey with you as their trusted advisor. 

When your client trusts you, they are more likely to try the new things you suggest and reach their goals as quickly as possible.

But how do you create this relationship built on trust? Here are five ways to create a safe space for your clients:

1. Ask Questions

Developing a relationship with your clients is one of the most important aspects of being a coach. 

You may not always be face-to-face and with the rise of online coaching, you may even have clients you haven’t met in person! While the client may fill out an initial intake form or questionnaire regarding their health and fitness, you may not get initial information about what is going on in the rest of their life. And, they may not share unless prompted.

One way to work to develop a more personalized relationship with your client is to dig a little deeper into more aspects of their personal life by remembering the acronym: F.O.R.D.

F.O.R.D stands for family, occupation, recreation, and dreams!

This approach builds rapport with your client. It gives you the ability to find out more about them as a person - their lifestyle, support system, and goals. 

Knowing about these areas of their lives will help you work to identify any areas of strength, but also look for any potential obstacles (such as someone working a night shift, or a stay-at-home mom of 4, or someone who travels often).

Using these pieces of information in your check-ins can help to build trust as well. You want your client to know that they aren’t just a number. Asking questions about personal events in their lives or remembering key pieces they have mentioned before can help build trust and create a safe space.

A second way to continue to build on the client/coach relationship is during check-ins. If your clients send short check-ins or you feel you aren’t getting all the information needed to sufficiently help your client, ask more questions! 

It may be hard for a client to open up right away or they may not know what kind of information you’re looking for. 

So, feed them questions to gather the feedback you need. This will help them put their feelings and experiences into their own words. Then, you can build a plan from there together instead of just assuming how they feel.

People feel more trusting and heard when they share their experiences and questions can be a really easy way to break the ice and get them chatting.

If you are using the software we recommend here at WAG, Seismic, as part of the Seismic Business Program, there are great prompts at each check-in to have conversation starters, such as:

  • Where was there room for improvement?
  • Were there any major obstacles you encountered?
  • Is there anything coming up in the future that you may need extra support with?
  • What else would you like me to know about how things are going for you?

2. Validate or Share Your Observations

Once your client answers the questions you ask or shares updates on their own, it can be easy to make assumptions as a coach.

To avoid this, share how you interpreted your client's words to ensure that you are on the same page. If someone has provided a good bit of information, try responding back to them with a summary of their thoughts as you understood them.

If a client only gives short answers, use the other metrics you’re focusing on (macro consistency, hunger, and energy levels, etc.) and your client’s words to make observations and ask if that is what is going on. Try phrases like:

  • “I understand that..”
  • “My perception is..”
  • “It looks like…”
  • “From what I can see…”

Repeating what you see and hear back to your client can help to develop a trusting client/coach relationship and show them you’re taking the time to consider what they shared.

Sometimes you may repeat something back in a way the client hasn’t heard before and help a client express the way they feel more accurately. Remember, a lot of the process is new to your client and you want to ensure that you do the best that you can with the information you have. 

Plus, the more you share new mindsets and ways of thinking with them, the better they’ll be at expressing those thoughts to you in the future.

3. Celebrate Their Wins

Remember when you first started your nutrition journey? It can be tough to notice where things are going well and when a celebration is needed when you’re ONLY focused on one goal (ex: weight loss). 

But, no matter how much detail a client provides during a check-in, there is always something to comment on and point out as a win. 

Every client is different. You may have a client who has never tracked food before or you may be coaching an elite athlete. At any stage in someone’s health or fitness journey, it is important to point out the wins for the week. Affirming a client’s progress can boost their confidence and remind them that there are so many different measures of progress. 

This may be as simple as congratulating someone for logging a full day of eating if it is something they’ve struggled with in the past. Or, maybe they finally hit a hydration goal, nailed their macros every day or achieved a new PR. 

Celebrate everything you can to help build their confidence, strengthen your coach/client relationship and create that safe space.

4. Remind Your Client That You are a Safe Space

There may be a time when a client misses a check-in or provides a bare-bones response when they do their check-in. This doesn’t mean you can skip it and ignore the situation.

If anything, this means they may need a little extra love and support.

This is a perfect time to reply back to remind your client that this is a safe space and a judgment-free zone. Make sure they know that you understand how hard it can be to show up week after week and that habit-building takes time. Let your client know he/she is not alone on this journey.

You could share a similar experience you had in your nutrition journey to really hit the point home. Most clients believe they’re the ONLY ones struggling so humanizing yourself and reminding them that it can be most people goes a long way.

Continue this dialogue week after week to help strengthen your bond and build trust. Sometimes, your client needs someone to believe in them more than they believe in themselves. This is your job as their coach.

5. Thank Your Client for Sharing

You may have clients who love to share what is going on in their personal lives.

The WAG Coach Certification will teach you the ins and outs of nutrition coaching and lifestyle/behavior change which covers much of what clients need. But there may be times when a client shares more than what you are trained to “coach”.

Clients want to be heard, so if something is outside of your realm, you can say something like, “I’m sorry to hear that you are experiencing XYZ, it sounds like you are doing your best to resolve it and it’s still frustrating. That must be really challenging and difficult; thank you for sharing that with me.” And leave it at that. You could also point them to a professional in the area they’re struggling.

While you may not be able to give advice on the particular situation, it allows the client to feel heard, while also staying within your scope of practice.

The Importance Of Building Trust

While your experience with each client is going to vary, it is important to create a safe space not only so that your client trusts you, but also so it enables you to be the best informed to teach your client how to fit the suggestions into their lifestyle (which you’ll know more about, because you asked!).

Most people initially sign up with a nutrition coach to focus on their diet and lifestyle, yet the role of a coach becomes that of a trusted advisor. 

Cultivating a strong relationship with your client can lead to a partnership of lasting results. As a coach, you can only make suggestions or feedback based on the information that you have at any given time so developing trust and creating a safe space is going to cultivate a stronger relationship to be able to maximize the quality of service that you can provide.

By asking questions, validating your observations, celebrating client wins, reminding your client that they are in a safe space, and thanking them for sharing any and all information that comes through, you can work to build a stronger and more trusting relationship, holding them accountable to themselves and reassuring them to trust the process.