Empathy Training for Personal Trainers by Carrie Myers

Run a Mile in Your Clients’ Shoes: Empathy Training for Personal Trainers

You’ve probably heard about the story of personal trainer, Drew Manning, who purposely gained–and then lost–70 pounds. As the story goes, he did this, because as a lifelong fitness junkie, he had a difficult time understanding where some of his clients were coming from. He quit working out and sipping on spinach smoothies and instead, began snarfing down junk food and soda. After gaining the 70 pounds, he then went to work and lost the extra pounds in six months. While he admits it was probably easier for him than it is for his clients, he experienced enough of what they go through–including withdrawal from junk food, feeling lethargic, and poor body image–that he can now empathize with his clients in a way he wasn’t able to before.

While for some, having had similar struggles to others can have an opposite effect–I mean, I did, so why can’t you–many times it helps increase empathy for them. What is empathy? No doubt you’ve heard the saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is putting yourself into those shoes to experience what they experience, feel what they feel, see what they see, think what they think. It’s being able to understand–at least on some level–from their perspective.

Empathy training is important for fitness professionals! Many of us come from a “drop the excuses and just do it” attitude. But there are many things that keep someone stuck in their old habits and destructive patterns and having a trainer showing tough love can sometimes do the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish. From a client’s perspective, the tough love approach may mean you’re dumping a whole load of shame onto them. They’re already ashamed of themselves! What they often need is an understanding ear from someone who gets them and can help them overcome the mental and emotional blocks they have toward a healthier life.

You may be thinking, But what if I’m not naturally an empathetic person? There’s good news for you! Just as you help train people, you can also be trained–to be more empathic.

  1. Really listen. Many times we’re too busy trying to get the workout in to stop and take the time to listen to what our clients’ needs are. What struggles are they facing right now that are preventing them from making healthy food choices? What obstacles are they running into that are making them miss workouts? Tell your clients who are struggling that you’d like to start spending a certain amount of time each session (5-10 minutes) discussing their needs and struggles and brainstorm possible solutions to them.
  2. Ask “what” and “how” questions. Empathetic people tend to ask questions, because they truly care about other people and want to know about them. Asking open-ended questions that require more than just a yes and no response will help you get more information out of your clients. Avoid “why” questions, as they tend to instigate a defensive response. Most “why” questions can be asked from a “what” and “how” perspective.
  3. Try to find something in common. Chances are there are areas of your lives that intersect. Do you and your clients have children? Then you know how difficult it can be to work around their activities and schedules. What else do you have in common with clients? What about aging parents, digestive problems or bad knees? These types of things can all affect our choices and make it more difficult to make them healthy ones.
  4. Mirror back what they say. You will create more rapport and begin to empathize with clients when they feel that you understand what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. One way to build rapport is by mirroring back what they’re saying to you. After they explain an issue or concern or answer your question, you can respond with something like, “So what I hear you saying is…”.
  5. Envision yourself in their skin. This is a visualization exercise that you can do on your own that can help hone your empathy skills. Sit and close your eyes. Envision one of your struggling clients. Then envision yourself stepping into their body–into their skin, breathing with their lungs, feeling their heart beating and looking through their eyes. Place yourself into their environment. Can you feel some of what they’ve explained to you that they’re feeling? Choose to better understand where they’re coming from based on what you’re experiencing in the visualization. In the end, you will be a far better trainer who will help your clients not only become physically healthier, but mentally and emotionally healthier, as well.

This article is by Carrie Myers . The author’s opinions are their own and Gear Update does not take responsibility for content statements and opinions. You should seek expert counsel in evaluating opinions, treatments, products and services. For more info see our Editorial Policies.