“I just had my first session with a new personal trainer,” you overhear one member telling another. “I don’t think I want to keep working with him, though. I am sure he is very smart, and he certainly knows a lot about exercise science, but I don’t think he heard a word I said, and I don’t think I could possibly follow all the suggestions he made. He must think I have nothing else in my life besides my exercise program! And I didn’t even get a chance to ask him about exercise and stress management –the reason I am exercising in the first place.”
Since, as fitness professionals, we get paid to give good advice, we tend to think that the more we talk, the better we are performing. Besides, we love to talk about exercise and health, and are eager to demonstrate our expertise and knowledge. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm can get in the way of our work when we dominate conversations and interrupt speakers with our recommendations. Before we start pouring out endless advice, we need to do something quite at odds with our active and outgoing natures: We need to be quiet and listen.
Sharpen your listening skills
If you are a personal trainer or exercise instructor, you need to listen carefully to your clients to understand their concerns. Listening carefully allows you to receive not only information, but also feelings and reactions to your suggestions.
Listening is an important part of communication. It helps people to understand one another, and to feel understood. Think about how you feel when someone takes the time to really listen to you and understand you. Listening carefully is good for the listener, too. Listening with attention forces you to slow down and be mindful in the present moment, which can help reduce the stress you feel from trying to do too many things at the same time.
Are you listening?
Our lives are so busy and noisy, we become used to tuning people out, or listening with half an ear while thinking about other things. As people talk to you, become aware of how much of the time you are really listening. Chances are that most of the time your mind is elsewhere.
Some of the time we pretend to listen, but don’t really pay attention. We pretend to listen so that people will like us or not think us rude. We may hear only part of what the speaker is saying, and tune out parts we find boring or offensive, or parts we don’t understand. We might be formulating arguments, forming judgments about the speaker or thinking about what we will say next. We may simply be daydreaming about something else entirely. We might be preoccupied with ourselves, perhaps distracted by our own problems.
Even if we try to listen, we may not hear what the speaker is saying. We often reconstruct messages to reflect our own beliefs, needs or agendas. We may have prejudices about the speaker, and look for confirmation of these in their words.
Empathetic listening means listening with full awareness, and with an open heart and mind. It means trying to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Empathetic listening is essential when a conversation is important, such as when you are trying to help clients design exercise programs.
When it is time to listen carefully, make a decision to do so. Conduct interviews with clients in a quiet and private space, and turn off music to limit distractions. Give clients your full attention, and concentrate on what they are saying. You will probably be asking them several questions; give them enough time to answer each one before moving on.
Show that you are listening. Make appropriate eye contact, lean forward and take notes as necessary (but don’t spend all your time writing). Ask for explanations of points you do not understand. Paraphrase what the speaker has said to check your understanding. Paraphrase emotions as well as content: “That must have been difficult.” Ask open-ended questions to get more information about important topics. For example,”You said you quit exercising last year. What made you stop?”
You can use a little self-disclosure to show that you understand what your client is saying. Admitting your own mistakes and problems can help you connect with others. But limit yourself to one or two sentences. Remember that the focus is on the client, not you.
What about clients who talk too much?
Listening with your full attention takes a lot of energy, so choose when you will listen carefully. You should certainly listen mindfully when you first meet with a new client, and are gathering information concerning health risks, fitness goals and exercise program design. But whether you need to keep listening every minute to clients with whom you work regularly and have known a long time depends upon your relationship. Clients may stay with you because they value your listening. But perhaps you have clients who drive you crazy by chattering away the entire time you are together. You may choose to listen with half an ear some of the time, and onlytune in when important topics come up.
What if a client shares something that worries you?
When you are a good listener, clients may confide in you and disclose information that worries you. They may want to talk about inappropriate personal topics that make you uncomfortable. Let them know that you aren’t willing to discuss these things, and get the conversation back into the fitness arena.
Sometimes clients give you clues that they have serious psychological or other health problems that are beyond your professional expertise. Be sure to suggest strongly that they get professional help, and let them know you are not the one to treat their alcoholism, depression, eating disorder or whatever else may surface during your work with them.