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Meeting new people can lead to many things in life. For personal trainers and behavior change specialists specifically, the situation can offer up opportunities to network, connect with someone in a new field or part of town, and potentially even gain a new client exists. How this meeting and potential relationship unfolds is ultimately up to you and your approach.

Before we jump right in: If you are interested in the behavior change – as it relates to nutrition – check out this free nutrition and behavior change mini-course we released. 


When people discover they are speaking to a personal trainer, they shift the conversation towards their own practices, challenges, and excuses. Here is where ambivalence becomes evident.

Ambivalence is when we feel conflicted, often regarding changing habits. We may know that our stomach will be upset, or we might feel guilty if we eat too much yet indulge ourselves.

We also know that exercise and being physically active are extremely important; however, only 24% of the population meets the Healthy People 2020’s objectives for aerobic physical activity and muscle-strengthening activity (Healthy People, 2020). Generally, personal trainers respond in one of two ways:

Option 1: Respond relatively quickly to the interested individual with advice and direction based on a combination of research and personal experience. The expert in us wants to scream and shake people to grasp the importance of being active!

Option 2: Continue to let the individual dig deeper into these topics by using a framework of open-ended questions and practices to elicit change talk. Expert advice and direction may still be given, but it is balanced by the individual’s involvement in the decision-making process. This ultimately allows the individual to make their conclusions on how best to reach their goals.

 In case you hadn’t guessed, Option 2 tends to be the more extended, more involved method of effecting behavior change, but it is also the stronger, more effective one. This style of intervention and discussion is known in clinical circles as Motivational Interviewing.


Enter Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI was founded by Stephen Rollnick and William R. Miller in 1983 (Rollnick, 2020). Initially used in mental health situations, MI has found successful applications in healthcare, criminal justice, education, and, most recently, sports.

The best way to describe MI is through its guiding spirit. It is truly a dance and a sweet science not unlike the chess match that is boxing. The “Spirit” of MI is collaboration, evocative interaction, and consistent respect shown for the client’s autonomy (Rollnick, Miller, & Butler, 2008).

In this way, a partnership and shared responsibility exist in achieving behavior change.

Applied to the gym, trainers and clients must feel comfortable enough with each other to be vulnerable. A level of selflessness and a sense of genuine caring for another human being must be present.

As the old saying goes, “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Not only is listening for what is essential to your clients the right thing to do, but it also makes your life easier and will help them remain intrinsically motivated.

Coaches should be wary of telling clients what they need to do too much. Even if WHAT you are telling them is evidence-based and proven, it can come off as preachy and ultimately is less effective if overdone.

MI can teach you to take two steps back and eventually learn to guide your client to the best conclusions. Motivational interviewing is not a Jedi mind trick to get your clients to do what you want or not to complain, but like Socrates and Yoda, MI seeks to guide its students to the answers that already lie within them.


R: Resist the Righting Reflex

  • The urge to fix is powerful when we see or hear errors.
  • Whichever side of ambivalence you argue for, your client is likely to argue for the opposite. When you tell your client all about the adverse effects of sugar, be ready for a response in defense of sugar. This is human nature.
  • We tend to believe ourselves the most. Our thoughts and spoken words are the most impactful.

U: Understand Your Client’s Motivations

  • Change will come as a result of your client’s desires and motivations more than your own. I have yet to eat any vegetables or gain any muscle for my clients!
  • Spend time finding their WHY!

L: Listen to Your Client

  • We have two ears and one mouth for a reason…
  • Listening is a complex skill that requires a baseline of mindfulness and presence.
  • Listening may also mean asking the right questions, affirming, reframing, and summarizing conversations so that both sides are clear on what was said and intended.