Natalie Digate Muth by Natalie Digate Muth

At any given time, about one in four men and two in five women are trying to lose weight. While some will succeed without outside assistance, weight loss is as much of an art as a science. Having a weight-management coach along for the journey can make a huge difference in whether a person is able to successfully achieve and maintain weight loss. Part of the reason coaching experiences are often so successful in helping people achieve their weight-management goals is because the most effective weight-management coaches have mastered the following five skills:

1. Zone in on the client’s readiness to change and then focus all efforts to support the client in moving toward the next step. Not every client is ready to make the changes required to lose weight and keep it off. An effective coach pays careful attention to a client’s words and body language to gauge how ready the client is to change. The coach then tailors his or her approach to the client’s readiness to change, with the goal of helping the client ultimately “talk himself into change.” The aim is to help—but not pressure or force—the client to start to develop a change plan.

2. Master the core skills of motivational interviewing, which is the most widely recognized and studied communication approach to helping people become ready for change. It also offers a framework for developing excellent listening skills, especially through the use of reflections. Reflections are a sort of restatement of what a client has said, with the aim of getting to the client’s underlying meaning. For example, if a client were to say, “I really want to lose weight, but I just hate to exercise,” a powerful reflection might be, “You have had bad experiences with exercise in the past and you know that including some amount of physical activity in your day is important to lose weight and keep it off.” The reflection is much like a guess. The client will respond by either agreeing or, if the guess is off, correcting it to say what he or she really meant. The statement above is likely to be followed with something along the lines of, “Right. I know that I need to exercise. I wish that I liked it more.” This type of response could be followed with another reflection, such as, “If exercise was more fun, you would have no problem doing it.” Through this process of reflective listening, eventually the client would come up with an idea of a type of exercise plan that might be doable. Use of reflections is a very powerful communication technique that helps to relieve the burden of “having the solution” or giving unsolicited advice that will not be followed. Instead, it prompts clients to assess their beliefs and behaviors and come up with their own solutions.

3. Guide a client as he or she chooses a focus and develops a doable but challenging plan to achieve weight-loss goals, without losing sight of the value of focusing on process goals (small behavior changes) to support larger outcome goals (like weight loss). For example, a very overweight client may have a goal of wanting to lose 50 pounds in the next three months. An effective coach provides the information a client needs to make a challenging but attainable goal. A coach might follow this statement with something like, “O.K. Losing 50 pounds is a big goal, but a doable one. It may take a little longer than three months. Ideally, it’s best not to lose more than 1 to 2 pounds per week, so the safest way to lose 50 pounds would be to do it over a nine-month period or so. How do you feel about that?” After the client responds, the coach might add, “Weight loss changes occur with specific changes in nutrition and activity behaviors. Have you thought about changes you might like to focus on in one or both of these areas?” From there, the coach helps the client develop a process-centered change plan, with both short-term and long-term goals built in.

4. Nudge a client toward healthy changes by helping the client create a supportive home and work environment, where the healthy choice is the easy choice. An effective coach helps a client with “environmental redesign” by identifying triggers for snacking and unhealthy eating and working with the client to come up with a plan for removing or changing those triggers. The coach also helps the client set up triggers for positive changes, such as ways to build activity into existing routines.

5. Celebrate successes. Behavior changes stick when they feel good. Celebrations inspire positive feelings and help solidify a change for the long haul. A highly effective weight-management coach helps a client build in healthy and frequent celebrations as a way to set off a string of success.

For more information and the opportunity to further develop your skills in these areas of behavior change, especially at it relates to weight management, check out ACE’s Weight Management Specialty certification.