Part One: How to Handle Challenging Client Scenarios
As a nutrition coach, the reality is: you will encounter challenging client scenarios. There is no way around it. Fortunately, that’s a good thing (I’ll explain why below!). I want to help you tackle these scenarios and increase your coaching prowess along the way.
In this 3-part article series, we’re examining five different challenging client scenarios. We didn’t pull these out of thin air — they came from our community of WAG Coach Certification graduates and those who are in the WAG Business Program. We asked these coaches where they needed support with their clients and ended up with a list of common client situations that coaches struggle with.
What We Mean By “Challenging”
Before diving into the first scenario, let’s clarify exactly what we mean by “challenging.” Just because a situation is challenging doesn’t mean it’s unwanted. These particular scenarios are challenging because there’s no obvious or clear-cut solution for any of them. They are nuanced and require creativity and flexibility on the coach’s part.
Here’s the positive thing: challenging client scenarios offer huge opportunities for growth as a coach. After working your way through them and ending up with your client on the other side, you'll have more confidence in your abilities—and a deep sense of fulfillment!
Personally, I really enjoy moments in coaching where I’m stumped because I have to “flex my coaching skills” to find a solution. The toughest scenarios make me a better coach, and the same thing will happen for you!
At the same time, client scenarios definitely come with frustration and doubt. If you encounter a client like those below, you may feel stuck and unsure of what steps to take. And because there are so many different possible routes to take, there are many opportunities for failure. Here is the truth: you are likely to get it “wrong” more often than you’ll get it “right.”
But here’s the thing: if you, as the coach, are feeling frustrated and uncertain, think about how your client must be feeling! It’s critical to remember that this kind of coaching should be attended to with care and compassion—for ourselves and our clients.
Here are key points to remember when it comes to any challenging client scenario:
- Changing your nutrition is hard and vulnerable work.
- These are real people with real feelings.
- Remain connected to what it was like being a beginner.
- Don’t take things personally. Clients will get upset, frustrated or even angry with their circumstances, and they may direct this energy toward you. This probably has nothing to do with you (and it’s definitely not about your worth as a human or coach).
- Some people need tough love and we encourage this. You can give tough love, however, while allowing clients to maintain their dignity.
- Now that we are on the same page, let’s get started!
The five client scenarios we will cover in this series are:
- The client that questions or doubts everything you do.
- The client that hits a plateau.
- The client that provides very little information about how things are going.
- The client that undereats because they think this will lead to faster weight loss.
- The client who has a tendency to blame people or circumstances for their lack of consistency with their nutrition program.
We’re diving into #1 today.
If you find this kind of information helpful and have yet to take our WAG Coach Certification, I highly recommend it. Our certification teaches you nutrition science, of course, but also the art of coaching. You will get many opportunities to practice your coaching skills, and you’ll get direct feedback from our team (consider it a digital mentorship!).
Challenging Scenario #1 – Your client questions or doubts everything you do.
There will be times when a client signs up to work with you on their nutrition, but you will quickly realize they’re not ready to let go of their skepticism.
Perhaps they had past experiences with coaches that left them unsatisfied. Or maybe they have a lot of knowledge and experience—maybe they are also a nutrition coach or have a degree in nutrition science which can lead them to analyze your choices with more discernment.
These clients are likely to ask a lot of questions. Of course, questions are always welcome, but it can be challenging as a coach when a client is questioning every move you make.
When our WAG Coach Certification graduates work with a client like this, they often ask, “How do you convince a client to listen to you?”
The honest answer is: you can’t.
So while I will go over a few examples and useful strategies, it’s important to keep this in mind: at the end of the day, it is up to each person to take responsibility for changing their nutrition and fitness. If a client isn’t ready to take responsibility, there is nothing you say or do to change that.
To illustrate ways to work through this kind of scenario, I am going to share an example. This is one of my real clients who challenged and doubted my suggestions week after week (their name has been changed in order to maintain anonymity).
I had been working with Josh, a very busy businessman, for nearly 10 months. Throughout that time, he would go through phases where he followed our plan closely, made progress—and then would get sidetracked by weekend events, eating out at restaurants and the overwhelming urge to snack.
It was clear to me that long-term consistency was our biggest hurdle. When Josh stuck to our plan, we’d see consistent progress. But then when temptations took over, we’d go backward.
Over the course of our 10 months together, we were down a few pounds overall, and Josh had learned a lot in terms of habits and behavior. Still, he was frustrated. He wanted more change on the scale and in the mirror.
This led to a consistent line of questioning about what we were doing. It looked like this:
- “Should we have more fat? More carbs? More calories?”
- “I read in [x] magazine that I should be eating this.”
- “My friends told me [x].”
- “Do you think that [x] food is making it harder to lose weight?”
As a coach, my job is to work with Josh to find the habits and behaviors that he can stick to—even if it’s not the exact plan I am hoping he will follow. His questioning each week led to some friction between us because it felt as though he would never fully buy into our plan.
As a coach, what could I do? Well, step 1 was:
I didn’t take it personally.
If you have explained the plan (including the “why” behind it), encouraged consistency, and been flexible in helping your client adapt to new situations, then you are doing the best you can.
I knew Josh’s doubts were not an indication of my value as a coach. If you take things personally, you are much less likely to remain open and receptive, and these qualities are essential in continuing to find new, creative ideas to motivate and encourage your client.
If you notice yourself tensing up and feeling defensive, take a breather and come back to work when you can be less emotional.
The next step: be upfront with what you are noticing.
One of the best things about having a coach is that you can view your client’s data from an objective point of view. In a situation like this, a client may not notice the patterns that you see because they are more personally and emotionally invested in their own progress.
You can help your client by pointing out patterns and trends you notice that could be slowing down progress. These can include (but are not limited to):
- Do you notice that when the client is consistent for a certain period of time, they see progress?
- Do you notice behaviors or events that seem to be paired with progress? (For example, when the client works out regularly, they tend to make better nutrition choices. Or when they cook their own food, they see more progress.)
- Are there events or moments that seem to directly precede a regression in progress? (For example, the more often they travel, eat out at restaurants, or attend social events, the slower progress moves.)
- Does this client have community support? Is their partner on board?
If you are going to point out any of these trends or patterns, it is helpful to be very specific. Tell them the exact days where you notice things got off-track. Use as much hard data as you can and be very clear. This ensures there is no confusion or morality being placed on what you are showing them, so they can view it with a clear head.
Consider trying what they are asking for.
In this case, Josh was consistently asking to try new and different things. After initially explaining our current plan and why I believed it would work, I decided to give his curiosities a chance. When you do this, it is important to explain what you would like to do and then agree that you will give their strategy a shot.
For example, Josh asked if increasing calories would stimulate progress. I did not think this would be the case and pointed out the data we had showing that when he was consistent with our current calorie intake, weight loss occurred—then a weekend eating out at restaurants would erase our progress.
When Josh persisted, however, I decided it was time to give his idea a shot. Why?
It is possible it could work! If the client participates in the creation of their own plan they will naturally be more motivated and opt into the work required.
In this case, increasing calories may have given Josh more flexibility during the week that potentially could lead to less overeating on the weekends, paired with the increased buy-in.
- If it doesn’t work, failure based on your own choices versus the choices that someone else makes for you feels very different.
In order to really learn and understand a lesson, sometimes it needs to come from within. If we tried Josh’s strategy and continued to be frustrated with progress, he would be forced to look at his own choices and behaviors because he took the lead with our strategy. This can push a client to let go of their doubt and become more open to your advice.
Give some tough love with a layer of kindness (that is our style).
Sometimes clients need some tough love. They might need you to tell them, straight-up, how you are perceiving the situation—which can create an “a-ha!” moment for them.
Just make sure you do this in a way that allows the client to maintain their dignity. You can be honest and clear—but also kind. This is especially important when communicating with clients in a written format, as it can be easy to misinterpret or take your words out of context.
Returning to our example with Josh, I’ll share a sample of some of our communications where I was upfront and honest but also kind and compassionate.
After a check-in where Josh doubted/questioned our plan again, I felt it was time to be a little tougher.
I know we have talked about this a number of times—I am going to let you in on what I am observing. Feel free to take it or leave it. This is just what I am noticing from an outside perspective, and I would love you to let me know what you think.
Keep in mind that I am 100% dedicated to your success, I think you are a total badass and I know you can achieve your goals.
I have noticed a pattern of being consistent for a small period of time, and then if the results are not happening quickly enough or we hit a bump in the road, you start searching—maybe it’s asking around, Googling, using calculators, etc.
Then you start asking about making changes. Sometimes you say, “Do you think we should try more fat?” or something else. I do not take this personally—we are a TEAM and I want to know what you are feeling and how you are thinking. However, after doing this for six years with thousands of people, one thing I know for sure is that there is no “secret” set of numbers or ratio.
What is the secret is some level of consistency—with all things in life, not just this. If increasing your macros to 2,400 calories will lead to greater compliance across the months it will require to make the progress you are looking for, then I am ALL for it. I just want to be clear that is the goal—compliance, and consistency.
It is possible that more food might leave you feeling fuller for longer, and therefore you would be less likely to overeat on a random Saturday or night out. Then, the number switch would make sense. I also know that when you have had a full week of being consistent here (almost 2,100 calories), you have made really good progress!
Over this past week, you had a huge weight jump from eating out and drinking alcohol—it took some time to come back down. We have been working together for well over a year, and I am seeing some patterns that a calculator just is not going to be able to see.
If we look at your logs from May 5–14, you were super consistent for nine days straight and your weight dropped from 180.8 to 178.2 on average. That is 2.6 lbs in 9 days! That is HUGE! Even more than I would hope for in most people. What we are looking for is a healthy 1–2 lb. weight loss, on average, per week. Some weeks it will be a little less and some a little more.
All this is to say that my hope is for you is to commit—commit to any set of numbers, any ratio and then try to notice when you start to question it. It has happened roughly every three to four weeks, and then we have a chat like this and you get back after it.
Also, if I am totally off-base, feel free to tell me that too!
Let me know what you think.”
I think I get frustrated and discouraged when my weight jumps or I don’t see the weight loss I expected, so I start researching macros and weight loss strategies. I also have random people telling me I should eat more, especially when I talk about my macros. I also have a lot of people tell me that it’s “weird” that I’m not losing weight blah blah blah. I know I’ve made a lot of progress in the gym, but I did think I would have been leaner at this point.
It’s just frustrating because overall I feel like I’m pretty good about being consistent, especially during the week, but my weight keeps going up.”
This conversation opens an opportunity to dive in deeper and talk about commitment and the best next steps. I was clear with Josh about exactly what I was seeing, used the data to corroborate my observations, and continued to remind him that I was on his team. This led to building a deeper relationship and ultimately more trust.
Will this lead to progress? Maybe, or maybe not. Josh is still responsible for doing the work required to achieve his goals. The key as a coach is to focus on your side of the street.
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