Articles for Professionals, Businesses

Empathy – If It’s Not in Your Trainer’s Tool Kit, You’re Losing Money.


Fitness professionals are outgoing people that find it easy to connect with others. While we’re great at lifting motivation and generating enthusiasm, we’re not always as switched on when it comes to the subtle art of ’empathy’ – which is a far cry from our standard use of ‘sympathy’.

Kate Swann is the author of ‘Do You Really Want to Lose Weight?’ and ‘The Ultimate Guide to Training Overweight and Obese Clients’ (both free for FITREC professionals).

This is the second in a series on Client Retention – A Psychological Perspective. The first article was on the importance of listening.

To retain clients, it’s essential to establish a strong connection.

Your new client needs to feel welcome and valued. And to do that, you need to get into their heads, understand what’s going on for them, and work out what makes them tick.

This is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Every single person who walks through your door is unique. Sure, there are common denominators, but never ever make the mistake of thinking you can swing into auto-pilot.

Let’s go back a step and take a look inside your new client’s head as he’s on the way to the gym for his first session with you.

Let me introduce you to Brett.

Brett’s 35, married with a baby and wife at home. He’s in sales and marketing and is working hard to climb the corporate ladder. Brett’s been fit and sporty most of his life until – yep you guessed it – he married the girl of his dreams.

Boy, can that girl cook! (Research tells us it’s common for men to put on weight once they marry).

Now with Junior in the picture, there’s no time for that run after work. When Brett walks in the door at the end of the day, he walks into the middle of the witching hour. Junior, the dream girl, and the dog all desperate for his attention, the dripping tap needs to be fixed, milk needs to be picked up . . . you get the picture.

Despite the chaos of his life Brett doesn’t want to give in and buy larger clothes. He wants to keep his waistline, maintain his fitness, and perhaps even bulk up a little. He figures if he joins a gym and organises training sessions, he’ll have to go, and his better half’s supportive. He’s going to train in the morning so it doesn’t disrupt his schedule – he just needs to get up an hour earlier.

So let’s take a look at Brett’s expectations as he steps in the door for his first session.

Brett tells you he wants to:

  • Lose a bit of weight and
  • Improve his fitness.

And here’s what Brett isn’t saying. He wants to:

  • Muscle up so he looks hot
  • Have a place he can escape from his responsibilities without causing friction at home or feeling (too) guilty
  • Take a break from sales figures, targets, and nappies
  • Get some order and routine back into his life.

And you thought he was just there to train . . .

Now, all of this is important for you to understand as Brett’s PT. Because when the going gets tough for Brett (and believe me, it will), he’ll need more motivation than losing weight and getting fit to keep to his training schedule. The second there’s a deadline at work, or that baby’s kept him up at night, he’ll drop his sessions so he can get through his day.

Unless, of course, you’re offering him that refuge that he desperately needs, but hasn’t thought of mentioning to you.

And that’s where empathy steps up to the starting line.

The difference between empathy and sympathy may feel subtle, but in reality, they’re a world away from each other.

Empathy is:

  • Taking the time to understand Brett’s world from his perspective
  • Not making assumptions about what’s going on for Brett (as in, your sister’s had a baby so you know it all)
  • Listening (and we mean really listening) to what Brett’s saying
  • Walking a mile in his shoes

Empathy isn’t the same as sympathy.

Sympathy is:

  • Feeling sorry for him
  • Thumping him on the back and moving on
  • About how you’re feeling, and not about how Brett is feeling

Here’s how you do empathy:

  • Slow down your interactions with Brett
  • Make eye contact and listen carefully
  • Ask questions about what it’s like for him
  • Picture the chaos he’s faced with at the end of the day, the demands of his work
  • Think about what that would feel like if it was you
  • Let him know you’ve heard (really heard) and you understand
  • And sure, thump him on the back if you must, but not until you know he’s got that you get it

The environment of empathy that you create for Brett is an important part of what will keep Brett coming back when the s**t hits the fan at work and at home. Empathy will make him feel cared about and valued. He’ll know he’s not just another dollar to you because empathy has allowed you to forge a strong connection.

In the next article, we’ll talk about how to get the maximum information about your client and tailor your interactions and program to their needs.

You can connect with Kate at PS Counselling.


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