Part Three: How to Handle Challenging Client Scenarios

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Welcome to Part 3 of this article series. If you haven’t read Part One or Part Two yet, make sure to head back there first so we’re on the same page as we dive into the next challenging client scenario you are likely to face as a nutrition coach.

As a quick reminder, this 3-part article series examines five common 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.

Just because a situation is challenging doesn’t mean it’s unwantedChallenging client scenarios offer huge opportunities for growth as a coach. They’ll allow you to flex your coaching skills to find a solution.

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.

The five client scenarios we will cover in this series are:

  1. The client that questions or doubts everything you do.
  2. The client that hits a plateau.
  3. The client that provides very little information about how things are going.
  4. The client that undereats because they think this will lead to faster weight loss.
  5. The client who has a tendency to blame people or circumstances for their lack of consistency with their nutrition program.

Today, we’re diving into the last two scenarios.

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 #4 - Your client undereats (assuming it’ll lead to faster progress)

Logically, it makes sense why someone would deliberately undereat. “Calories in vs. calories out” is a huge part of the weight-loss equation. Eating in a large deficit for a long time, however, can be very damaging to the body.

Here are ways you can handle this type of situation with a client:

Validate their feelings.

  • Let them know that you get it. You can even tell them that you’ve felt the same way before (if that is true).

Remind them of the dieting cycle outlined above.

  • Only a small percentage of people who start a diet maintain their success long term. They often cannot maintain their progress because the strategy they chose is unsustainable.
  • The cycle of restriction offers no way to build the skills to deal with the inevitable need for more freedom.
  • We want clients to make progress eating the maximum amount of food possible because we also want them to enjoy their life!

If the client likes evidence-based explanations, explain metabolic adaptations.

  • Adaptations occur in the body to accommodate increased fat loss (in other words, it’s modern-day “starvation”).
  • When calories become low, energy reserves are lowered, and the body reduces the energy exerted throughout the day.
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (the energy expended at rest which makes up around 70 percent of our total daily energy expenditure) declines to accommodate the decline in caloric intake. This is why people need greater and greater caloric deficits while dieting.
  • Your body will start responding negatively to the continued deficit which can lead to frustration—and make it hard to enjoy life!

Tell them that you are uncomfortable with what they are doing and cannot be a part of it.

If the client insists on eating very few calories, and you’ve already expressed how this can damage their health, you can (and should!) take a stronger stance. Explain that you are uncomfortable with the number of calories they are consuming and that in order to continue working together, the two of you will need to reach a different conclusion.

You and the client are on the same team. You have a lot of incentive for them to achieve their goals: you want to do good work, you want their success to encourage others to use your services, and you don’t want to lose them as a client.

Remind the client of your dedication to their success and how you wouldn’t want to steer them in the wrong direction. You can even put a time limit on how long the two of you will commit to trying your strategy so they know it’s not forever.

Challenging Scenario #5 - When your client doesn’t follow the program, they blame external circumstances.

People who take responsibility for their own health and wellness are the most likely to maintain long-term success. Regardless of your circumstances, community or experience, if you can maintain the belief that you have some level of accountability in your own experience, you will be able to make progress, take action and find a way through any obstacle.

You cannot convince someone to take responsibility for themselves—but you can be there for them, support them, ask good questions, and reflect on what you are seeing.

Here are some helpful suggestions for these clients: 

1. Share your own experience.

Relate to them by sharing how you’ve been there before. Perhaps there were times you felt things were hopeless and that you couldn’t get out of your current situation—but then you took the time to recognize where you were accountable. Being as specific as possible is helpful here.

2. Ask them what is within their control—and what’s not.

Encourage your client to differentiate between what they can control and what they cannot. Help them let go of the things they cannot control and take action on the things they can.

It may be helpful to have them write a list of what’s within their control to send to you. It is often a very powerful experience to see things laid out in front of you rather than simply thinking about them. 

3. Reflection

Here is a powerful tool: take the things your client is saying and reflect them back. Working online provides a unique opportunity because you can copy and paste a client’s exact words and send them back so the client can read them again. Many times, clients don’t even have awareness around the way they are speaking to themselves, about themselves or about the obstacles they are facing. It is also a completely different experience speaking or typing your thoughts versus reading your own words sent to you.

Here is a real-life example where I used this tool with a client:

My client was continuously overeating peanut butter (I mean, haven’t we all had that problem at one time or another? Or is it just me?). She checked in after another stressful week where she’d been “stress snacking”, which led to some regression in progress.

I asked her whether removing peanut butter (the major temptation) from the house would be beneficial. She was honestly surprised at the suggestion—after all, she loved peanut butter and didn’t see how it could be hindering her progress!

I took this opportunity to copy and paste all the times she’d mentioned peanut butter in her check-in (including how it was tempting her and leading to overeating). Would you believe that there were 17 (!!) comments about peanut butter?! When I pointed this out, she laughed at how unaware she’d been regarding her peanut butter issue.

This is a light and fun example—but you can see how powerful it is! 

4. Pay attention to language.

The words we choose carry a lot of weight, and this is something important to point out to your clients. When you sign up for the WAG Coach Certification, you’ll get access to over a dozen Advanced Nutrition Coaching Series modules, and one of them is all about language and being careful about the words you choose. In that module we discuss two different kinds of words: toxic words and wonder words.

Toxic Words

These words bring you down, close off opportunities, and increase negative feelings like guilt, shame, and sadness. If you notice your clients using these words, try pointing out how they may be disempowering them. 

Pay specific attention to the list of words below. How do these words make you feel? Do they make you feel capable, or do they bring up tension and resistance?

  • Can’t
  • Try
  • If
  • Could have
  • But
  • Might
  • Would have
  • Should/Shouldn’t
  • Maybe
  • Someday

Wonder Words

On the other hand, Wonder Words open up opportunities, help us see solutions, and give us the feeling that things are within our control.

If you notice clients using Toxic Words, point them in the direction of Wonder Words and show them how changing their language can create a sense of possibility and motivation. 

When you read through the list of words below, what do you feel? What comes up when you use them in sentences?

  • Easily
  • Naturally
  • Aware
  • Experiencing
  • Realizing
  • Unlimited
  • Expanding
  • Before
  • After
  • Because
  • Now
  • Abundant
  • Possibility
  • Create
  • Visualize

5. Turn it around 

If you are stumped as to how to move forward with your client, get curious and ask them what they would say if they were you. Using these strategies can help the client see what they are doing on their own versus you having to tell them. This introspection might be exactly what they need to notice where they are accountable and have the power to move forward.

These are just a few of the common challenging client scenarios you might encounter as a nutrition coach. Your clients are multi-faceted, complex humans, and will inevitably throw you more curveballs as you help them make huge changes to their lifestyle. 

If you enjoyed these tips, consider investing in the WAG Nutrition Coach CertificationThrough this certification, you’ll have extensive practice with more difficult client scenarios, and you’ll receive our best practices and strategies for dealing with them. You’ll also get feedback on your responses from one of our experienced WAG coaches. In addition, you’ll gain access to our private coaching community where you can always ask for advice from fellow coach certification graduates and WAG coaches.

Get WAG Certified

Join the WAG Coach Certification

Use the knowledge you gain to help your clients get the lasting results they want for their physical, mental, and emotional health–while you build the coaching business of your dreams.

  • Understand the science of nutrition
  • One-on-one guidance from a WAG Training Coach
  • Learn how to apply what you learn for future clients
  • Gain marketing insights and build your business
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Posted by Adee Cazayoux
Adee is the founder and CEO of WAG. She has her bachelor’s degree in Honors Psychology, a Master’s in Teaching, and a Master’s in Nutrition & Human Performance. She’s also an athlete, having competed in the National Pro Grid League and winning the Bronze Medal in the 2016 Canadian National Weightlifting Championships.

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