“Why won’t my clients just listen to me?”

This is a common question that just does personal trainers’ heads in sometimes. You get a new client, he tells you that his goal is of the highest significance and actively seeks your guidance, then ignores it.

Come to think of it, how often do people who seek our advice actually heed it? Why would someone go through the trouble of seeking out assistance, only to then do nothing?

Perhaps there is no answer. This phenomenon could just be a mystery of the mind, and maybe we would do well to simply shrug and get on with our work, careful to not waste time or energy trying to sort it out.

But for some of us, it’s just too frustrating and we feel compelled to ask why. For those of you who fall into that category, my answer is…I don’t know why, really.

But…I have a four guesses to offer:

1. Cognitive Dissonance

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the acclaimed novel The Great Gatsby, said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

That test is one that the vast majority of us, sadly, fail. For many, trying to hold two opposing ideas in mind significantly diminishes our sense of certainty and increases emotional duress.

The need for certainty may at times sabotage our clients’ ability to adhere to our recommendations because even though they desire the positive changes associated with personal training, the cognitive disequilibrium between what they believe (I am destined to be fat, diets and exercise don’t work for me, etc.) and new information to the contrary causes a degree of emotional duress significant enough to dissuade change.

2. Reactance

Reactance theory in psychology suggests that people have a tendency to reject a course of action that threatens their individual behavioral freedom, as when they’re told what to do. Reactance has the potential to create behaviors, or at least perpetuate ones, that are contrary to those that the instructions were intended to create.

In order for a behavior to be the result of an individual exercising his/her freedom, he/she must have options to choose from. When we tell our clients to take a single course of action, following that option means that they give up their freedom to elect another strategy.

As William Ross Ashby illustrated in his law of requisite variety, a cybernetic system, which you can say is highly analogous to a societal structure, is dependent on its capacity for variety.

3. Amygdala Response

Change is scary for anyone, especially when it relates to self-image or exposes the person to the possibility of failure, judgement and rejection.

Fear is regulated by activity in the amygdala. When the amygdala is active it impairs working memory as well as the function of our prefrontal lobes overall. So when we take our clients’ inconsistencies as an indication that they’re out of their minds, they are! They’re out their rational minds, anyway.

It’s scary when you feel that there is a gap between what you are being told to do and what you’re capable of doing. Many of our training clients may feel that if they fail to successfully fulfill our directives, they will let us down, disappoint us, or even suffer our judgement and condemnation. All of this can disrupt the thought processes that are essential to successful implementation of our well-meaning and, of course, well-laid plans.

Further, if we tell our clients what to do, we own the result. If our clients are collaborators in their own solutions, they hold greater responsibility in bringing those solutions to fruition.

4. Unfulfilled Needs

What benefit do people derive from the problems they suffer?

That question seems so absurd, even insensitive, doesn’t it? As counterintuitive as it seems, many of us at some level benefit from our suffering. That does not mean that we are to blame for it or that we brought it about; it simply means that there may be a benefit—likely unconscious—that causes us to fear letting go of what we think we desire to relinquish.

Perhaps our anger about our seeming state of helplessness gives us a feeling of significance. It could be that the pity of others makes us feel valued or maybe loved. Or perhaps our frustrated attempts at change alleviate us of a sense of responsibility. In any case, if we are not aware of why we want what we want and take part in decisions central to the process, then continual change is not likely to ensue.

In the following video these actors are giving a brief overview of the application of motivational interviewing:

Although the role-play is geared around a weight-loss conversation between a medical professional and a patient, it is similar to conversations we may find ourselves having with our clients. The idea is to have a client-centered conversation aimed at increasing intrinsic motivation and decreasing ambivalence, which will lead to the client taking action through his or her own self-determination.

Notice how the doctor never tells John what to do, rather he leads John through a process that allows him to arrive at his own decisions.

Motivational interviewing is a comprehensive process requiring a high degree of skill. However, we can all get better at leading our clients to decisions that afford them greater benefit and adherence through the skilled questioning and affirmative listening and summarization practices that are encompassed within the motivational interviewing process.


Bobby Cappucio Bobby Cappuccio has held various positions in the fitness industry, including personal trainer, fitness manager, Membership Sales Consultant, Area Director and Corporate Director of Training and Development. Bobby’s passion is to help people create a more empowering self-perception by exercising their ability to affect change in their life through health and fitness. .

Through his company, Precision Nutrition, Dr. Berardi has worked with over 60,000 clients in over 100 countries. These clients range from recreational exercisers all the way up to the athletic elite, including: The Cleveland Browns, The Toronto Maple Leafs, The Texas Longhorns, Canada’s Olympic Ski Teams, Canada’s Olympic Bobsleigh and Skeleton Racers, World Champion UFC Fighters, Canada’s Olympic Speed Skaters, and more.

Previously published by PTontheNet

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