3 Questions to Assess Your Clients’ Willingness to Change

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Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Canadian health and fitness professional, Dave Smith. He shares some excellent advice on how we can better assess our clients’ willingness to change.

Have you ever had a client who was extremely eager to jump into the health and fitness lifestyle?

They’ve bought their new fancy running shoes, pedometer, sweat pants, and they’re ready to go.

You sense this eagerness, and to help them, you construct an intensive diet and training plan that will help them achieve their goals.

1 week passes – everything is going well.

2 weeks pass – they’ve missed a training session.

3 weeks pass – they’ve missed 3 training sessions and only followed the diet plan for 2 days of the week.

4 weeks pass – they’ve given up. Dieting and training just “isn’t for them.”

We’ve all had these types of clients in the past, and it can be very misleading – one day they’re inspired and motivated to be healthy, the next day they’ve given up and are back to their old ways.

It’s important that when you’re working with new clients, you assess the stage that they’re at regarding to how willing they are to make changes.

You have to see past the initial excitement that they may have, and make a proper assessment of their level of dedication to changing.

The 5 Stages Of Behavior Change

The Transtheoretical Model is a handy little tool that you can use to assess your clients willingness to change – in this case, a change in their training and eating habits.

These 5 stages are:

  • Pre-Contemplation: The person is not planning on taking action at all
  • Contemplation: The person is aware that their behaviour is problematic, and is beginning to educate themselves on the changes necessary
  • Preparation: The person is preparing and is ready to take action in the near future
  • Action: The person is making changes to their behavior
  • Maintenance: The person has now made those changes a habit and is a part of who they are

Using these 5 stages, we are able to assess our clients and their willingness to change.

The Reason Why The Stages Of Change Are So Important

Understanding the stages of change is crucial for being able to properly assess a new client’s ability to build new habits.

For example, let’s look at a new client that we’re working with named Jimmy.

Jimmy’s a cool guy. He’s 32 years old – wife and two kids, works a standard office job.

Jimmy wants to make some real gains. He wants to put on some muscle.

So Jimmy comes to you looking for a training and diet plan that will help him with his goal. He seems extremely eager, energetic and ready to go all out with the new plan that you’ve written up for him.

But you’ve seen this too many times.

Too many times clients have come to you with the energy of a kid in a candy store, only to have that energy drained after a mere three weeks.

Not only have they upset themselves, but it can also can give the impressions that the service you’re providing is sub-par.

The reason why it’s important to recognize the 5 stages of behaviour change is because it allows you to see past the initial excitement and assess your client’s willingness to change in a long-term perspective.

So now when Jimmy comes to you ready and wired, it’s your job to ground his excitement and assess where he’s really at.

Not only will it prevent him from being upset in the future if he decides to drop off at the three week mark, but it also prevents the chance that your reputation is tainted.

3 Questions For Assessing Your Clients

To do this assessment, here are three questions you can ask Jimmy that will bring down the initial wavering excitement levels and decide if he REALLY is ready for change.

1. Have you tried anything previously to make progress towards your goals?

If Jimmy tells me he’s tried everything from calisthenics to Olympic lifting, there’s a good chance that he’s probably in the preparation stage. He’s searching for answers but hasn’t figured out an appropriate action plan.

This is shown by Jimmy’s inability to pick a path and stick with it. This might also tell you that Jimmy is looking for a “magic pill” to solve his problems. Maybe he’s looking for the quick fix rather than sticking with one plan.

2. What, specifically, has stopped you in the past from reaching your goals?

This is where you get to see if Jimmy comes up with an external excuse or not.

If Jimmy tells you he hasn’t had enough time because of work, or because his wife and kids have kept him too busy – you can recognize that he’s probably in either the Contemplation or Preparation stage.

While he sees value in adding more muscle to his frame, his priorities lie elsewhere.

Throwing him into an intensive program is doomed to fail (at this point).

Jimmy needs to be introduced to change more slowly.

3. Using a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being “there’s no way” and 10 being “definitely will do”), would you be able to exercise for _minutes for _days this coming week?

This is the ultimate test of Jimmy’s willingness to change.

In this case, Jimmy says that he’s probably at a 6 when it comes to exercising 45 minutes, 4 times per week: He’s got a lot of commitments next week, but he’s ready to “try his best.”

Is a 6 rating really that convincing?

Do you really want to give a client a task that has at least a 40% chance of failure? (I say “at least” because most clients overestimate their ability to take on change in the beginning!)

Identifying a Willing, Ready, and Able Client

Question #1 gets the ball rolling. It lets you see how new or experienced your client is with training and nutrition, and also his level of interest in these two areas.

Question #2 throws a curve ball to the client. He is perhaps thinking you’re just asking a basic question, but really you’re screening the client to see his attitude and willingness to change.

If your client blames the reason of not reaching their goals on external factors – deflecting the reason to things such as not enough time, too busy with work, the wife not cooking healthier meals or the kids bringing home junk food – then this is a sign of someone who’s in one of the earlier stages of change.

Again, the notion of wanting change is there, but perhaps not at the expense of other enjoyable things in life.

However, if they take responsibility for their actions or lack of, then that’s a good sign of someone who could possibly be ready to get started.

Question #3 is the true test of a client’s willingness to change. “Action speaks louder than words”, and we’re about to find out how loud their actions really are.

Any number they give you shows their level of commitment to following a training and nutrition plan.

  • Any number between 1 and 3 is a sign that they’re probably not ready for much of a change.
  • A number between 4 and 6 is an okay, mediocre response. A small change may be possible.
  • A number between 7 and 10 is a good sign that they’re ready to go. Let’s take them into Action.

Changing Your Plan For Different Behavioral Stages

You can’t give a client an intensive, thorough training and nutrition plan when they’re not ready to change, so it’s important to identify which stage your client is at and adjust their needs from there.

Remember, the majority of them are going to say “they’re ready for everything right now” when their excitement levels are high, but it’s your job to assess how willing they truly are.

Clients that are in the Precontemplation stage need help finding their “why.” Help them see why it’s important to work out and eat healthy. You can relate it to having more self-confidence, living longer so they will be able to spend more time with their family etc.

Once you find their why, keep tapping on that pressure point.

Clients that are in the Contemplation stage will benefit by showing what they can achieve as well as the sacrifices they’re going to have to make to achieve it. Also a basic level of the how to achieve their goals will help them.


Clients that are in the Preparation stage will benefit from organizing a custom plan for them. Sorting out times that they’re able to exercise, recipes that are healthy and they also like etc. Anything that is customized for them and moves them towards taking action.

When the client has reached the Action stage, they’re now to start working on the fitness plan that you’ve customized for them. Remember to not jump the gun and start with extreme exercise sessions to begin with. Gauge where your clients fitness levels are at and work your way up from there in small steps.

Once your client is in the Maintenance stage, you’re now able to just keep the ball rolling and help them so they don’t fall back to their old ways. Spice things up every now and then with different exercises, challenges; perhaps increasing their training frequency or adding some extra healthy snacks.

Remember, you’re the professional. You’re the leader. It’s up to you to properly assess a new client and then deliver a program that has the highest likelihood of success.

About the Author

Dave Smith is a professional fitness and weight-loss coach who was chosen as “Canada’s Top Fitness Professional” in 2013. He shares awesome health and weight-loss tips through his blog and podcast that you can find at makeyourbodywork.com.

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