The Words You Choose

Several years ago, a young lady (we’ll call her K), started training with us. Initially, her goal was weight loss and she wasn’t new to strength training or a consistent exercise regimen.

K was working in a high-stress corporate job and had also been dealing with some degree of depression and anxiety which she was on medication for. Like many people, she was hoping that getting her weight in a healthier place and getting some regular exercise would help reduce her stress and also help manage her depression and anxiety, too.

I always try to overdeliver when it comes to our onboarding and consultations. I want my weight loss clients to have as much information as they’ll need to make the best decisions when it comes to diet adherence and reaching their results.

However, it didn’t take long in our journey together to see that K was continually getting bogged down with workload and that began rearing its head into her diet plans, too. In other words, more stress resulted in less dietary adherence and, it wasn’t uncommon for her to have to cancel her training sessions last minute because work began to take over.

We were working together one night and K was relaying some of her frustration to me. She really wanted to see better weight loss results but work and life were spreading her thin and she was having a difficult time keeping every plate spinning in her life.

I recall going to one of our whiteboards here in the studio where I could draw out some of my thoughts and show her some things that might help so that she had realistic expectations about what she could or couldn’t do based on what life was throwing her way. I thought the conversation went well.

A few days later, one of my coaches, Megan, was working with me and she asked: “So, what did you say to K the other night?”

I drew a blank. I knew we had discussed some tactics to help her with her diet plan but I couldn’t quite recall anything more specific than that. I asked Megan what she meant.

She said, “Well, I know you pretty well and I’m sure you had the best intentions with her but she was really upset about how you approached the conversation. She told me she was ready to leave that night and stop training with us.”

I was stunned. I had absolutely no idea what I had said or how I had said it that would have upset K to that extent. But when Megan explained it all to me, it had a slightly different feel to it. In other words, what I said and how it was interpreted were two very different things.

The next time I saw K, I had to bring it up: “Hey, listen…I am so sorry if something I said the other night to you upset you. I would never intentionally do that. I may have not used the choice of words that was best at that moment but I sometimes get carried away in coaching conversations and may have expressed some thoughts that weren’t helpful at the time.”

K replied: “You know, I know that now but I think it was just one of those things where I wasn’t in a good place mentally and it felt like you were talking down to me. I just didn’t appreciate it.”

“K, I am so sorry. I would never approach a conversation like that. I know how delicate weight loss can be and I know how much stress it can put on people. I only wanted to help and I would never intentionally do something to offend you.”

“It’s ok”, she said. “I’m good now. I appreciate you talking to me about it.”

Nevertheless, K was not a client of ours much longer. That was about 3 years ago.

And within those 3 years, while the specifics have gotten fuzzier for me over time, the sentiments have not. I constantly have to remind myself that I need to choose my words as carefully as possible because I never know all that my clients are going through or are trying to process at a moment when we’re having a coaching conversation and the last thing I want is to trigger a negative experience.

It’s not just within the four walls of this business either. It’s in our friendships, our relationships, our marriages, our parenting styles. The words we use and the tone in which we use them are constantly in a battle for effectiveness and as the adage goes: Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? (There can be a difference…)

I look back on that conversation with K and it taught me more about coaching than many other scenarios have.

How can I be the best coach I can be?

How can I use the best and most accurate words to help my clients?

Truth be told, it’s both art and skill. Like many things in life, the ability to coach effectively is not unlike dancing: sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow. Honesty and candor go a long way towards producing great results but that means that both parties have to be willing participants.

Fast forward through those three years and I know I’ve improved as a coach because I keep trying to learn as much as I can. Not only that, but I keep trying to teach those lessons to the rest of my clients because you never know when the wisdom or lessons might sink in.

And also, a little update on K…

K left her corporate job recently after going through both a mental and physical shift in her life. She moved away from this area and started a business of her own, coincidentally a coaching business. I’ve continued to follow her throughout the time since she stopped training here and would engage on her posts whenever I could.

Last week, I decided to reach out and I wanted to share part of that conversation with you: I said “Hey stranger, I’ve been following many of your updates and just wanted to congratulate you on the new ventures. I hope all continues to go great for you.”

She replied: Hey!!! It’s been forever!!! Thank you for reaching out and sharing that with me. Ironically, this morning I was thinking about something you said to me years ago, which was…. When shit hits the fan you have to figure out what you are going to do so you don’t spiral.

To which I said: It’s funny you mention that. I still remember (the scenario, not the specifics) when you and I were working through something related to weight loss and I said something that didn’t sit right with you. Megan was the one who tipped her hat that I had upset you which would have never been my intent but sometimes, the words just don’t come the way we want them to. I frequently remind myself of that because, when I think back retrospectively to coaching conversations, I have to ask myself: Did I say that the right way? Did it achieve the right result? Could I have said it better? But as far as the “spiral” goes, it’s interesting because, especially in light of the pandemic, shit totally got weird! And truth be told, I’m still having that same conversation with clients today: What are you going to do when it’s not “perfect”?

K replied: I don’t remember that upsetting me and if it did, it was what I needed to hear. I was so out of sorts back then and trying everything but getting nowhere. The pandemic is actually when I got my shit together, lost about 30 pounds and started working on my mental health. I have definitely learned it’s not about perfect action – it’s messy action. So keep pushing people in that direction, it was what I needed.

And I concluded: Well, suffice to say we’ve both evolved since then. Thank you for the learning opportunity. 🙂

I couldn’t overestimate how much that original scenario with K would inspire and inform many of my coaching sessions afterwards. The “teacher” must always be willing to be the “student” as well.

This week’s article is just a reminder to any of my fellow coaches (including K) that if we’re paying attention, we stand to learn just as much, if not more, than our clients do. And that process not unlike any process of self-improvement, is ever evolving and rarely perfect.

The words we choose make a difference. The actions do, too…