How to Effectively Coach a Non-Compliant Client

When coaching clients through online nutrition counseling, we’ve all had those clients where no matter how much you coach them, they just can’t seem to stop with the self-sabotage. 

While this can be frustrating, as dietitian business owners, we have to remember that we are NOT our clients. We can’t assume that they know everything that we do. It is our responsibility to understand the WHY behind behaviors and work to develop strategies together in order to overcome them.

I get it. We’ve all worked with clients who seem VERY self-motivated in the beginning, but soon we find out that while they may want to change, self-sabotage seems to kick in.

Their goals may not align with their actions, and this is where online nutrition counseling comes into play. 

In order to EFFECTIVELY coach clients, we must UNDERSTAND the WHY behind their actions, and THEN coach. Your client’s actions or self-sabotage could be their own way of solving an even bigger problem that lies much deeper than the extra pounds they keep complaining about. 

Your client could be turning to that pint of Ben and Jerry’s to cope with the loss of someone close to them. They could be drinking 4 glasses of wine each night to help escape the stress of their job or could be skipping their workouts because they’re going through a breakup.

We cannot assume that we know everything about those that we work with. We also shouldn’t believe that they’re just blatantly ignoring all of the nutrition counseling that you’ve provided. When you begin to understand the WHY behind every decision that is made, as a coach you will begin to grow. This helps us to gain more empathy, build a trusting foundation, and helps to set realistic goals and strategies together as a team. 

But how can you actually create solutions that will work for your clients? I ALWAYS utilize this stepwise approach as a dietitian tool to address the root cause behind a behavior. 

Step 1: During Online Nutrition Counseling, Ask Questions

Be willing to ask questions to dig a bit deeper into the causation behind their actions. Asking questions will also help to prompt clients into connecting their ‘why’ back to their actions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like…

Before heading to the snack drawer, what are you thinking about? 

Before, during and after you eat a pint of ice cream, how do you physically feel?

When you turn to the bag of chips, what are you usually doing? 

After you skip a workout, how do you feel emotionally? 

Asking open-ended questions during online nutrition counseling leaves room for clients to actually describe how they feel. It’s also important to communicate with your clients that you are not the food police, and you’re not there to judge them. As their healthy eating coach, you just simply want to help them to develop a plan in order for them to be successful. In order to do that you need to identify the root cause behind their actions.

Not only will asking questions help you to identify what’s really going on, but it will help your client to understand the bigger picture too! The more you explore for answers, the more likely your client will be to start to develop solutions on their own. 

Step 2: Identify the Problem During Online Nutrition Counseling 

Once the specific behavior is figured out, then you can move forward into actually pinpointing the problem. Now, this can sometimes be easy to identify, while other times your client might not have a clue what’s actually going on, and that’s okay! That’s why they have you, the nutrition expert. 

If they don’t truly know or understand the problem, then you should begin to ask more questions. 

A client comes to you and they’re eating an entire bag of chips every night during the week, but they really don’t know why they do this. Asking questions like “What purpose does the bag of chips serve, and at the end of the day, how is it helping you?”

Once they answer, move on to asking “What’s something that’s bad that comes out of eating a bag of chips every night during the week? How would you feel if you gave up chips or cut back on how many times you do this?”

After asking these SIMPLE questions, your client might say that eating the chips helps them to temporarily feel a sense of comfort and forget about the stressful workday that they had. 

Although they KNOW that eating an entire bag of chips 5 days a week isn’t the best way of coping with stress, they might believe that it’s just easier to grab the bag out of the pantry for that temporary relief. 

Step 3: Be Your Clients Biggest Supporter 

As a dietitian business owner, you might get some information disclosed to you that is hard for someone to talk about. Because your clients know and trust you at this point in the game, it’s important for you to communicate with them that you’re on their side. 

You UNDERSTAND why they’re feeling the way they are. 

You KNOW that it can be hard to implement changes into everyday practice and you UNDERSTAND, because you’ve been there.

Now, try to relate your personal experience to what your client is currently dealing with.

Maybe you yourself had dealt with disordered eating in the past. 

Maybe you used to turn to that wine bottle for a sense of relief after a stressful day at work. 

It’s crucial to recognize that what they’re going through isn’t easy, let them know that they’re not alone, and turn their problems into evidence that they can overcome anything because of their strength. 

At this point, your client might become discouraged. When that happens, you should reinforce all of the things that they’re doing RIGHT. This helps them to further understand that you’re not being judgemental, helps to validate their feelings, and lets them know that their voice matters. What they’re communicating to you is important. This is vital when learning how to start an online nutrition business.

Step 4: Stage Client Readiness 

During undergrad, we all learned about The Transtheoretical Model, or Stages of Change. This model has 6 stages.

First we have precontemplation. During this stage, people really don’t intend to take action in the foreseeable future. They’re unaware that their behavior choices are even an issue and have possible negative consequences.

Next is the stage of contemplation. Here, people intend to start making healthy lifestyle changes, but not right at this moment. In this stage, they might be willing to take action within the next six months. People recognize that their behavior may be problematic and they put more thought into the pros and cons of implementing a plan to change, but they might still be doubting whether or not to actually take action. 

In the preparation stage, your client will be ready to take action within the next 30 days. They might even be taking small steps towards their goal and they actually begin to believe that this change WILL make a difference. 

Next is action. In this stage, people change their behavior and intend to keep moving forward with that change. When coaching a non-compliant client, we want them to get to this point- to take ACTION and gain control and their self-confidence.

In the maintenance stage, people have finally sustained their behavior change for a while and plan to keep moving forward. This is where you come in as a coach to help prevent relapse into earlier stages. 

Lastly, we have termination. In this stage, people have absolutely no desire to return to their unhealthy behaviors and are 100% positive that they won’t revert to old habits.

Through online nutrition counseling, we need to ASSESS where clients are at, and meet them there. Now this is where step 5 comes into play my friends!

Step 5: Develop and Implement Strategies Together During Online Nutrition Counseling

After determining how ready a client is to make changes, it is so important to set goals together. 

If someone actually has a say in what changes are going to occur, they’re much more likely to do them. 

Ever had someone tell you to do something that you really had no interest in doing? Did you actually do it and continue that behavior long term? 

Odds are, probably not. 

Having your client state what THEY are willing to do will help to ensure long term success. 

TIP: When online nutrition counseling, I always have clients rate on a scale of 1-10 how ready they are to do an action BEFORE officially setting a goal. The higher they rate themself on the scale, the better off they will be in terms of successfully implementing SUSTAINABLE changes.

Once you set a goal or goals together, make sure to reassess the following check-in and make changes as necessary!

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