Coaching Foundations 3: The Three Client Archetypes

Welcome to Coaching Foundations Lesson 3!

Clients give us clues, some obvious and some opaque, as to how they’d like to be interacted with. Sometimes it’s the questions they ask and the statements they make. Sometimes we’re only given implications and information to induce or deduce. Using years’ worth of observations and interactions, I created three, outrageously over-generalized client personality types. But they happen to be extremely useful when gauging how to interact with a person at a given time. Especially when that time is at the beginning of the coach-client relationship.

The last thing we want to do is put a person in a bucket and leave them there, people are dynamic and respond differently to different contexts, environments, etc. But simple, general tools that create frames and divisions help us to understand and interact with each individual. Feeling heard and understood is something that all people want, and it that feeling goes a long way toward promoting psychological safety.

Our three personality archetypes are What people, Why people, and How people. What people just want to know what they have to do to achieve their results, and they put their heads down and go without needing much else from their coach or coaches. Why people want sound reasoning and explanations for what they are doing before they totally buy in and expend effort. How people are mostly relationship-based. They want to know how you feel about them and how they fit in first, then they can worry about all of the other things.

There’s one, gigantic, uber-important thing to keep in mind—we’re all, all of these people. However, we each have a predominant modus operandi depending on environment, circumstances, etc. In context, we’re talking about how a person manifests their personality with a gym-based, coach-client relationship. It’s especially observable, and important to note, in the beginning of the relationship. As time goes on and relationships evolve, people show different parts of themselves. You’ll likely see people change archetypes before your eyes. And, mostly, people are a combination of two archetypes. With all that said, there’s a predominant one that is usually noticeable from the get-go.

Understand, also, that these three archetypes are just starting points for learning how a client likes to get information, what information is most important to them, and how they want to be communicated with. People are incredibly complex, things will change—but the cool thing is, you’ll likely see elements of one of the other archetypes pop up as your relationship with the person evolves, so you’ll still have an understanding and a strategy for interacting.

Each of the three archetypes has its own highest value that it’s seeking, as well as dangers and pitfalls to avoid. Let’s unpack those for each archetype, along with some strategies for combating the dangers.

What People

The highest communication value for the What person is clear direction toward the result. Yes, everyone wants results, but for What people it’s that simple. With the other archetypes things get a little more convoluted and other questions need to be answered before results become the primary concern in communication. What people are simpler. As long as they are seeing progress, they are typically happy. Keep them moving forward at consistent increments and your relationship is typically in good shape.

What people seem like a dream, right? What danger lurks in the recesses below their outwardly trusting cooperation?

The danger begins with the ‘if a little is good, more must be better’ mentality. It’s a commonly, but not necessarily, manifested complexity of the What person archetype. Their sincere, but misguided logic follows: they like to work, and they just want to know what to do, so if they do that thing they are supposed to do, maybe they should just more of that thing they are supposed to do, and they’ll get to their results faster.Every trainer has at least one client like this throughout their career. The client that takes the good they’re given and overworks it. How do we combat this and help the client?

One early step is asking for their trust in the process and laying out clear steps that they can follow—inside and outside of the gym. If they want a detailed “what”, give that to them. Work with them to gain clear direction for what they should be doing on off-days, how to follow their programming using the right amount of effort in the gym, and fill in all of those other little gaps that they could fill with unnecessary amounts of a good thing. A full plan and buy in goes a long way to help the over-working What person, but sometimes a dose of “whoops I shouldn’t have done that” works well to curb their excesses. Pause and take a breath before you read the next paragraph.

This is going to seem outwardly counterintuitive, but I promise I’ve seen it work for the chronic ‘more is better’ sect of What people. Let them mess up. That’s right—let them overwork a bit, let them go to excess and try the crazy diet, let them do too much on their off-days. Some What people just have this need-to-abuse-a-good thing wired into them, and they need the experience of burning themselves to the ground to break the hard wiring. But here’s the deal, a coach has to be there to support them and provide context after that mess up—using tools like rating of perceived exertion to give them info about appropriate effort. Sometimes people have to go to a dark place to learn where the light is, and it’s not because they aren’t willing to listen to you. They just need to find out. That’s one of the downsides that I’ve noticed about some What people. Even though they just want to know what to do, they also want to take that What and make it their drug. Sometimes it’s appropriate to give them the room to do that.

We’re also in danger of letting a What person’s outward front lull us to sleep. It’s easy to assume everything is all good all the time, limiting our check-ins and efforts at relationship building. You know the old adage the squeaky wheel gets the grease?Well, What people predominantly aren’t all that squeaky, so while other people are more demanding of our time and attention, What people get passed over and the depth of the relationship with these folks gets ignored. While the relationship may not be as outwardly important as it is to a How person, it’s still important—they are human beings.

Overcoming this danger is simple, don’t ignore the relationship. As obvious as this may sound, learn about the person—seriously. Outwardly it will seem like the depth of relationship doesn’t matter as much to a What person. But taking the time to ask questions and learn about what else is important to them will go a long way toward retaining that client, which ultimately helps them to achieve what they set out to do. Change is the product of consistent effort, and it’s impossible for
an unretained client to be consistent with you. Beyond that, we can’t disregard the human element. Human connection is one of those three big reasons people come to see us, that doesn’t change just because it isn’t a What person’s highest value. It’s still a value.

And, to close the conversation on What people in general, keep a few things in mind. Help them turn their clear direction in to simple, definitive actions. Remember to develop the relationship even though the result is likely their highest value. And, when necessary, give them the room to mess up with a little bit of overworking, but be there to give context and guidance so they can learn from their mistakes.

Why People

In the past, I had the opportunity to work with a baseball pitcher that had the fortune, and misfortune, of being 6’3” when he was twelve years old. Being twelve years old, and someone that grew like a rocket was strapped to his back, he didn’t have the strength, resiliency, control, or sustainable capacity to handle the stress of pitching. The outcome? An elbow injury and Tommy John surgery at the age of thirteen. Super.

What happens when a smart, cerebral thirteen-year-old kid is sidelined with injury that doesn’t allow him to do the thing he loves the most, and, in the process of training and rehabbing, you don’t give him any answers, or value the fact that he’s interested in and needs some answers? Something that looks like outward de-motivation and low-effort.

This kid, we’ll call him Gerald, had seen physical therapists and trainers after his surgery for a couple of years before I met him and started working with him. He came across as morose and disinterested, but as I got to know him, I realized he was a bright, curious kid. He’d also just spent two years rehabbing and training for a sport and still hadn’t played. At some point, anyone would start asking what’s all this for? Why am I doing all of these things if I’m not even getting to do what I want to do? Gerald hadn’t been given any good answers.

My boss at the time noticed that I’d developed a good relationship with Gerald, and when it came time to write Gerald’s next training program, my boss asked me if I wanted to take over his training. It was a smart move on my boss’s part. Not because I’m some programming wizard, but because he understood the power of connection and what it does to help people make progress. I, of course, agreed to take over. Gerald and I got to work.

Knowing that Gerald was a cerebral kid that liked to know things, as well as directly connect his actions to his goals while understanding the reasoning, I asked him if he wanted me to explain his program and why
I’d made the decisions that I did. And when he acknowledged that he’d like that, I laid it all out for him, explaining why I had made every choice and how each of those choices related to where he currently was in his training process, as well as how it connected to getting him back on the field.

I continued to explain things to Gerald and encouraged him to ask questions. It was as if he became a different kid—at least in the walls of our gym. He was seeing progress and he understood why. An adult was also treating him as though he wasn’t just some kid that needs to “just do what he’s told.” (Quick aside: I’m not saying that any of the other coaches at the gym I was working at were just telling Gerald to do the work and keep his mouth shut. That’s not the case at all. What I am saying is that my developing a relationship with Gerald and understanding of his curiosity helped me to better help him.) Then I took that to the rest of the coaches. But sometimes when the answers someone wants aren’t given to them, and they’re not acknowledged in the way that they’d like to be, it’s implied that their need to know doesn’t matter—even if that’s not the intention of the coach.

Gerald needed to know why. He needed to be able to connect his actions with sound reasoning, and when he could do that, there was a different sense of motivation. The morose, “lazy” kid morphed into a funny action taker—it was a beautiful transformation to watch. (He went on to play college baseball, by the way.)

Our man Gerald is a classic Why person. The Why person’s highest value is knowing. It’s most important to them to make the connection between their actions—the actions their coach is recommending—and their desired outcome(s). These folks aren’t just innately curious, they also don’t like to act without justification. When they don’t get that justification, their effort is either entirely stymied, or, at the very least, lacking strongly concerted drive. If their need to know why isn’t met, and they aren’t acknowledged for the intelligent human beings that they perceive themselves as, they won’t buy in. (Fun fact: I’m a Why person through and through.)

The biggest danger associated with Why people is treating them as if they are What people—expecting their trust while giving them direction without explanation. It’s not that Why people are natural born a-holes that just like to push buttons or ignore a coach’s advice. Needing to understand is just part of their motivational make up, and it’s how they like to be communicated with. Combatting this danger is simple—have sound reasoning for everything that goes into a Why person’s training process. (P.S. You should have sound reasoning for everyone’s training process, it just has to be super-tight with Why people…and well-communicated.)

Why people are going to ask…well…whysomething is in their program, so an arbitrary exercise selection that you haven’t totally thought through is an absolute no-go. Because if you do make such a choice, and you hesitate when they inquire, that hesitation won’t go unnoticed. And then you’ll lose some relationship footing with that lady or gent. But, if you reason through all of your exercise, and coaching, selections for that person, and can explain how every piece relates directly to their goal-achieving process, then you’re in solid shape.

That includes avoiding exercises that you’re not totally well-versed on—even if you think it might be beneficial for the person. Let’s say you just got back from a great, weekend seminar and you learned some intriguing exercises that you can’t wait to put into practice, but
you aren’t totally comfortable with the cueing, where the exercise fits in someone’s program, and clean performance. Don’t experiment with that exercise using an inquisitive, Why person’s program. Your lack of true understanding will be noticeable and will definitely impact rapport. If, however, a person likes experimentation, and you have a conversation with them beforehand that lets them know you’ll be playing around a bit, then you’re likely ok. Not outwardly acknowledging the experimentation it is the issue.

In most instances, if an exercise, a set and rep scheme, an exercise sequence, a change in process, is happening and it involves a Why person’s process, have a true and confident understanding of the change and explain clearly why you’re making, or recommending, the change.

Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know, but…” It’s a phrase that serves us all well in many parts of our lives—keeping us open to possibilities and demonstrating that we are intelligent enough to realize how little we can be sure of. And, in the case of building a relationship with a Why person, it builds trust with them. Why folks have extra sensitive bullshit meters, so if you lay some on them thick, they’ll sense it and the entire game will be afoot! Saying, “I don’t know, but…” and either finishing that sentence with, “I think…” or “I’ll get you an answer” will absolutely build trust between you and a Why person. You’ll, of course, have to make good on your promise to get an answer.

Keep in mind that Why people also like to supply answers and demonstrate what they know. These folks value intelligence, and they like to be asked questions as much or more as they like to ask them. I promise you that they know a lot about at least one thing—ask them about it. And, in many instances, they’ll value an opportunity to show you that they have training knowledge as well. Give them that opportunity to show you.

Let’s level on one last Why person danger—they can wear on patience. Their natural inquisitiveness can sometimes seem annoying, especially if we aren’t in the right head space. I’m sitting here, as the coach writing this book, telling you that Why people have gotten on my nerves before and I didn’t do a good enough job working with them because of it. I tell you this because, well, there’s no high horse for any of us to be perched on. We’re all going to mess this up sometimes. But I’m also telling you this to help prevent you from walking into that trap—or at least limit the damage.

If you know that you have a Why person coming in fora session or meeting, especially an expressly inquisitive one, make sure you’re in the right head space before you meet them. Have something to eat so that you can better regulate your emotions. Remember, also, that you’re their coach and it’s your job to answer their questions and guide them into the best possible position to be successful. Physiological self-care and a small bit of framing goes a long way toward keeping your relationship with a Why person on the up and up. Seriously, at some point this is going to matter.

To wrap up the Why people discussion, keep in mind that the “why” is what these folks need to buy in to your coaching, programming, process, what have you. Offer them sound reasoning and only use exercises and methods you’re well-versed in. Don’t forget to ask them a few questions, and, for the love of everything holy, don’t try to bullshit them.

How People

How people got their name by the implied, and sometimes not so implied, question that their behavior asks—how do you feel about me? In many instances, they are also folks that consistently ask how to do something—even when it seems like they should have that something down. Maybe it’s an exercise, or how to read their program, etc. I can’t give you a definitive reason why, but I’ve noticed a connection between these two types of “hows” over the years. And they’ve combined to construct the general How person archetype.

These folks tend to question their competence more than they should, and they outsource it to coaches in a different way than a What or Why person might. Sometimes it happens as a social phenomenon, other times it pertains to skills, and still other times as both. That want for competence, and potential feeling of lack, is something that we must consider even more intently than we would for one of the other client archetypes. We have to put them in positions for success early and often—especially in the realm where they feel the most incompetent. To do that, we do as much as we can to match the interaction, and the environment, to the person’s current level.

Let’s say, for example, that a person new to your gym that’s introverted and has mentioned that they also don’t like to be the center of attention. Also, this lady or gent, happens to feel particularly nervous about learning how to deadlift—they’ve been fed a lot of foolish propaganda about how deadlifts are dangerous body destroyers that turn your back into a pile of mush and give you kidney stones…or something like that. They aren’t totally convinced of that nonsense, they think if they do deadlifts correctly they’ll be fine. But, none-the-less, this person still feels some apprehension and is painfully aware of their lack of skill. So, the absolute best thing to do is just load some weight on the bar, walk them over to it, and make them get over their fear while also crowding around other clients to observe. I’m kidding, please, for the love of Christopher Walken, don’t do that.

It’s imperative that we set this person up with a situation that allows them to jump over a “small hurdle” first so that they feel success as early as possible. To do that, we have to consider their “hows” in each realm—social and exercise performance—and put them in the position that doesn’t overwhelm them. Let’s have a look at each individually.

Maybe your protocol is to introduce a new member to as many people as possible on their first day. It’s always good to get people together, right? And maybe that introduction is a public one that consists of you yelling across the gym, “Hey, everyone! This is Charlene! She’s new and we’re pumped to have her. Everyone, say hi!” Which, in most respects is awesome—and it just might make Charlene, that introvert that’s concerned with not being the center of attention, come out of her shell. But, from the evidence that she’s given us, it probably isn’t the best move on day one. She likely needs some warm-up time. It would probably be better to explain to her the normal protocol and see if she’s comfortable with that, and, if she isn’t, do something she is comfortable with. A few quiet handshakes and hellos with your most welcoming members is probably the best move. Unless she says she’d rather keep to herself. In that case, do that. The best policy is to ask.

Once you move past the social realm, and onto getting Charlene picking stuff up off of the floor, it’s time to consider the best place to introduce your new friend to the wonders and splendor of loaded hip hinging. By this point hopefully you’ve completed some kind of movement screen that gives you the low-down on Charlene’s movement competencies and capacities. This will be your secret weapon for starting her off in the best possible position to be successful and get an early win.

Knowing, however, that she has no skill and experience with deadlifting, and that she’s apprehensive, I’d start at the lower end of my deadlifting progression—at a level where she’ll likely learn quickly and experience immediate success. Then, using another small increase in hip hinging difficulty, we’d progress to increase skill. When we found the hip hinge variation that challenged her enough to continually build strength and skill, without putting her in a bad position, we’d stop there…and that would be the movement that stuck for her first program.

Charlene, the fictional person that she is, just experienced our process that we call small hurdle, big hurdle. It’s a simple way to introduce exercises, challenges, etc., that match clients’ current level of perceived competency and willingness to seek challenge. The goal is to increase the size of the hurdle the person is willing to attempt to “jump.” Every person needs a combination of small hurdles and big hurdles, the proportions of each are individually, and situationally, dependent.

When it comes to How people, a series of small hurdles to get the party started, get momentum rolling, and get some competency-laden confidence building is usually a great initial course of action. Sometimes it takes a series of small wins to show people how capable they truly are, and how quickly they can become competent at something that scared the living bejesus out of them. Once there’s momentum, that’s when bigger and bigger hurdles can be introduced. Helping them celebrate the success of jumping over those small hurdles helps to accelerate the process. We have to draw attention to the fact that they just did something good and celebrate that with them. Celebrate even the smallest of victories. It helps the rapport of the relationship, it ensures that they aren’t skipping over their accomplishments, and it builds their confidence in their competency.

Having objective markers helps How people navigate the world of hurdles and challenges. Overcoming something, no matter how seemingly small, gives them the opportunity to prove their skill, strength, and growth to themselves. Sure, everyone on the planet benefits from the process of overcoming something difficult and seeing themselves grow into someone more capable. How people are just more sensitive to the effects. At our gym, we have strength standards that folks must pass/demonstrate proficiency with before they’re allowed to move on to barbell work, overhead training, and push-ups from the floor. Since we’ve been talking deadlifts and Charlene, let’s keep it consistent and stick with those examples.

In the back corner of our group training floor there sits a 60-kilogram kettlebell—that’s 132 American pounds. A lady or gent must perform two, consecutive sets of eight reps with good form before they can move on to any kind of barbell deadlifting. (The next step in the process is the barbell RDL.) Charlene is interested in deadlifting, even though she finds it a little intimidating, and wants to be able to, not only move on to bigger and better deadlifts, but also prove to herself that she’s strong enough to handle it.

By the end of her second program, she nails it and is absolutely elated. I’m seriously sitting here as I write this trying to think of a better way for someone to prove to themselves that they’re capable, and I can’t call one up. The small hurdles introduced to Charlene on day one of her training helped her build the momentum that empowered her to jump over the big hurdle of passing the deadlift standard. That’s small hurdle, big hurdle in action. (P.S. This isn’t just some cockamamy story that I made up for illustration’s sake. This happens at our gym consistently—every day, every week, every month.)

So far during our How people discussion, we’ve talked tools for putting these folks in the best positions to be successful—but what about the dangers associated with How people and navigating those?

Since we are their coaches, we are often perceived as being in a, de-facto, “one-up” position, rather than just being their peers. Since How people are focused first on relationship, acceptance, and appearing competent, it’s easy for them to get locked into the habit of seeking a coach’s approval. We nip this in the bud by asking them questions so that they can reinforce themselves as soon as possible and create an environment of peer reinforcement.

Another, much simpler danger, is mistakenly treating a How person as if they were a What or a Why person. It’s a simple case of mistaken, or disordered, values. Of course, the How person still wants the results, and there’s probably some part of them that’s curious about the process. But it’s not their initial highest good. Beginning from a place of What or Why puts the relationship too far to the side. That’s another no bueno situation.

Keep in mind that these dangers aren’t certainties. I’m not saying that every How person will absolutely try to shift the relationship to a dependent one by seeking your praise, it’s just something to be aware of. I mention this because these folks still need your praise and demonstration of acceptance—all that celebrating small victories stuff we talked about before. We just need awareness of dangers, and strategies, so that we can navigate those dangers should they show themselves. So, don’t withhold praise from someone that needs it just because you’re worried about them becoming too attached to you. And trust me, you’ll see the warning signs if they are heading that way. No matter the case, it’s always good to create an environment where people can self-praise and garner strength from their community of peers.

In closing, How people value relationship and feeling competent above all else. That’s their entry way into communication and learning with you. Show them immediately that they are unconditionally accepted, give them small hurdles to jump and build confidence in their competency, and celebrate the hell out of those successful hurdle jumps. Create an environment in which they can self-praise and garner strength and support from their fellow members. Do all this, you’ll nail your How people relationships.

Got questions?  We’ve got you.  Email and let’sketit

In 2010, two dudes Chris and Todd, started the business that would eventually become Strength Faction.

You know how they say the rest is history? Well, it’s not.

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