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Create client relationships that foster awareness

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Wellness Coaching-2nd Edition by James Gavin & Madeleine Mcbrearty.

Fostering Awareness

At the outset of coaching relationships, you probably know little about your new clients. And though they may know a great deal about themselves, all of us have blind spots. Even when they are highly self-aware, how much clients are willing to share depends on a number of factors, including the nature of your relationship, their level of trust in you, personal values regarding intimacy, and even their ability to describe their internal states and processes.

In a simple yet enduring model of the relationships among self-disclosure, feedback, and self-awareness, Joe Luft and Harry Ingham (Luft, 1969) described a matrix of awareness or self-knowledge. This model, known as the Johari window, is helpful in conceptualizing knowledge about clients and thereby strategically investigating areas appropriate to their agendas (see table 10.1). The more you know about a client, the richer your strategies and the greater their chances of realizing their dreams.

Public Self

What someone shares with her coach is part of the public self. She may not discuss this information with everyone, but by describing it to the coach, she makes these aspects of herself public. Coaches may use all forms of active listening, questioning, and other skills to broaden the dimensions of this quadrant of awareness for clients.

Private Self

This area represents self-knowledge that clients have not yet disclosed. Because they need to share only what is necessary to assist coaches in their collaborative efforts, large areas of their lives may be off limits. Coaches may inquire about personal matters they deem important. However, if clients hold back, chances of success will diminish proportionately to the importance of the information to their stated agenda. If, for instance, a client has an eating disorder or a serious substance addiction and wants to work on achieving optimal levels of wellness, this information is likely to be important in order to proceed in the most appropriate manner or, in some cases, to determine whether the coaching relationship is viable.

Blind Self

You often see things in others that they seemingly have little awareness of. In the coaching process, the task is to help clients become aware of relevant aspects of themselves that they manifest through actions or unconscious communications. Of course, you would not always disclose information of which clients are unaware. Timing is critical, as is a regard for the legitimate agenda of the relationship. If the information is pertinent to the coaching process, then, at an appropriate time, you may need to use various approaches to create client awareness. When the information is irrelevant to the coaching agenda, it may well be left unsaid.

Unconscious Self

Much of the early work in psychoanalytic theory (Freud, 1949) was premised on the belief that we all have significant areas of unconscious experience, and this information remains virtually unknown to us or to anyone else until pivotal events surface previously unconscious material. Freud (1953) thought dreams represented the “royal road to the unconscious” because a careful analysis of dream content brought to conscious awareness aspects of our previously unknown selves (p. 25). We know that painful memories of traumatic experiences are often repressed. Indeed, some people have little recollection of significant periods of their lives, typically in childhood and adolescence. One function of certain psychotherapies is to enable people to bring forth these memories so that they can resolve the presumed effects of these repressed experiences.

In considering the agenda of lifestyle wellness coaching, this unconscious domain is never the focus of direct intervention. As a coach, you are not attempting to unveil aspects of your client's unconscious. This does not mean, however, that the person's unconscious self is irrelevant to coaching. Any process that has a substantive effect on someone's functioning stands some chance of bringing to light memories or awareness that may not have been within the person's conscious mind and that the coach had not expected to emerge. This simple yet poignant story illustrates the point:

A client working with a health professional decided that, as part of her program, she wanted to commit to drinking at least eight glasses of water a day. Her work through all the processes of establishing a goal, planning action, preventing relapse, and creating social support brought no great awareness of any underlying issues related to this simple goal. She merely thought that drinking more water was important for her health.

While engaged in goal pursuit, the woman became aware of how frequently she would sit at her desk with a bottle of water within arm's reach and yet refuse to pause long enough to quench her thirst. A growing awareness of this blatant self-denial stunned her. The experience so profoundly affected her that she began recalling other instances of self-denial in her life. Eventually, she recalled critical messages from childhood. When this woman was a young girl, her mother repeatedly labeled her as selfish. Her mother's words came back to mind with resounding force: “Stop thinking about your own needs so much. You're so selfish.” These messages became so ingrained over time that they formed a way of life. All this arose from a simple intention to drink more water!

The story is true. The likelihood that coaches will encounter these kinds of revelations is hard to estimate. In working with this woman, the professional only needed to be supportive. The client uncovered a major influence on her behavior of ignoring or denying her needs over a lifetime. She not only reached her goal of drinking a daily quota of water, she also set other goals for health improvement that she engaged thoughtfully and successfully during the following year. Should she have wished to discuss this particular matter further, a lifestyle wellness coach might have considered referring her to a competent counselor.

The Johari window (Luft, 1969) is a practical guide for reviewing the knowledge we have about clients vis-à-vis the information we believe necessary to work effectively. Here are some other reflections about the model and its relevance to coaching:

  • When critical knowledge remains in the area of the client's blind self, effective coaching must generate awareness of this information in a sensitive manner that promotes trust and intimacy.
  • Should the client be withholding information (private self), the coach needs to be skilled in creating comfort and safety for the client in discussing these personal matters.
  • When the client talks extensively about life issues that are not related to the coaching agenda (public self), the coach needs to know how to help him define appropriate boundaries for self-disclosure.
  • Should troubling memories be triggered in the client's unconscious self during coaching, strategies for addressing and managing these experiences need to be available as part of the coach's repertoire of interventions and referral sources.

Some methods are more potent than others for creating awareness. Even so, the fact remains that people sometimes gain awareness simply by telling their stories to an attentive and concerned coach. Coaching offers multiple lenses from which to appreciate clients' stories. Looking through these novel lenses at stories that clients have repeatedly told from unproductive perspectives can provoke moments of awareness. Coaches may reframe or interpret issues that their clients bring forth and then offer back these interpretations for their consideration. They may become aware of new meanings in what clients say and wonder out loud whether these perspectives resonate at all for them. Or, they may focus intentionally on particular aspects of communications because they suspect that there is special value in certain details. Let's explore three well-tested ways of creating awareness: focusing, reflection of meaning, and interpretation.


A popular interpretation of the skill of focusing is based on the work by Eugene Gendlin (1981), who represents it as a type of awareness enhancement. According to Gendlin, focusing allows clients to direct their attention toward a specific theme, or, at times, on their felt experience, almost as a meditative act. Within the realm of sport and competition, attentional focus, or concentration, has also been widely explored as a strategy for performance enhancement (Abernethy, 2001). The perspective of focusing represented here derives more from the work of Jean Baker Miller (Baker Miller, 1991; Baker Miller, Stiver, & Hooks, 1997) and interpretations of her work by Ivey and colleagues (Ivey, Ivey, & Simek-Morgan, 1997; Ivey et al., 2010). It allows the coach to take a number of specific angles for listening and responding to a client's messages. Let's see how this multiangled perspective offers a variety of ways to understand a client who is expressing difficulty in adhering to a stress management process to which he firmly committed in a previous coaching session.

Client: I'm simply not doing what I agreed to, and it's not just because of me . . . I don't mean to make excuses, but work has been rough . . . way too much traveling . . . and my kids have needs, too. I can't always expect my spouse to shuttle them around to all their sports and lessons. I'm disappointed nonetheless. Exercising and meditation require a lot of time and effort. Maybe you should have come up with a more flexible plan for me.

A comprehensive paraphrase would reflect all elements of this client's message, yet if you had been working with this man for a while, you might have a hunch about the most productive lead to follow. You might choose one of the following perspectives for focus.

Perspective A: Empathy. You might believe that the client is simply having a rough time meeting all his objectives. You could choose to focus on his felt experience of disappointment, empathizing with the dilemma in which he finds himself. A focusing response of this nature might sound as follows.

Coach:Sounds like you've had a rough week with work, family, and no time for your program. I hear your disappointment and imagine it's hard to believe that things can get better—even though you really want to follow through on your commitment to yourself.

Perspective B: Responsibility. You might believe that the client is blaming others for not doing what he agreed to do. You could bring the focus on his responsibility for the contracted agreement and on his tendency to excuse his behavior. A response of this sort might sound as follows.

Coach: I hear you. You're feeling disappointed, and there are a number of reasons you're suggesting for why you didn't follow the plan. Would you be willing to explore with me what you might have been able to do this past week to deal with the problems you've identified? What could you have done differently to live up to your commitment to yourself?

Perspective C: Planning. Based on your knowledge of the person, you might choose to focus on planning. The client has a highly unpredictable job that requires him to continually adjust his agreed-upon actions. He may plan to train at his lunch hour but instead finds himself on the way to the airport. A response of this sort might sound as follows.

Coach: I can truly empathize with your disappointment. You planned to exercise and meditate according to the schedule we laid out and instead you ended up traveling. With the kind of last-minute business trips you take, it doesn't leave much time. What do you imagine would be possible for you to do when unplanned events take over your schedule?

Even if the client responds by saying that there is nothing he can do, the effect might be to reduce his disappointment. Along with you, he can then brainstorm contingency plans for the future.

Perspective D: Offering new viewpoints. You might believe that the client is feeling up against a wall with few options and not much hope. You could make a decision to inject new ideas or perspectives into the interaction by sharing personal experiences, providing information, or offering advice. A response of this sort might sound as follows.

Coach: Sorry to hear about your week and how disappointed you feel. Based on your experience this week, I have some ideas I would like to share with you. There are some things you might be able to do that will help you reach your goals even when you can't follow your plan to the letter. Would you be open to my offering a couple ideas?

The points of focus just described derive from the content of the client's story. In a more comprehensive way, Ivey and colleagues (Ivey et al., 2010; Ivey et al., 1997) have described seven global areas of focus that a helper can consider in formulating a response to a client's message. Briefly, these are as follows.

  1. Focus on the client's immediate experience. Who is the client and what is he experiencing right now? What messages are you receiving in the present moment? You may be trying to absorb many details, but how does all this information coalesce into a useful image of the person before you?
  2. Focus on the problem. Turn attention not so much on the client as on an aspect of her experience. Separating the person from the issues is not always easy, but by depersonalizing the client's messages and focusing on what needs to be resolved, you and your client may be able to dissect the matter with more objectivity.
  3. Focus on significant others. When other people can affect a client's commitment, you may wish to draw out his awareness of these influences. The absence of significant others in a client's story does not necessarily mean that they do not exist or that social connections are unimportant. The lack of detail about relationships would potentially justify an exploration of this area before drawing conclusions.
  4. Focus on family. What are the client's family relationships and responsibilities that might affect goal setting or program implementation? What is the client's family history that might have bearing on beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors? The attitudes of family members toward a client's commitments can either hinder or help goal pursuit.
  5. Focus on the coaching relationship. Sometimes it is valuable to bring the focus close to home, that is, to the relationship between you and your client. This focus might mean emphasizing expectations, attitudes, roles, or feelings. When you have indications that clients have strong expectations of you or when you sense that they are experiencing certain feelings that have implications for the working alliance, you may decide that it is timely to bring these matters into focus.
  6. Focus on the coach's world. In listening carefully to client stories, you may hear distortions, fallacious beliefs, or seemingly irresolvable problems. Drawing on either professional knowledge or personal experience, you may have important points to add to clients' perspectives.
  7. Focus on contextual or background factors. When trying to locate the client in a matrix of sociocultural, gender, geographical, occupational, and other contextual variables, you may become aware of certain influences on your client's attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Unless these influences are accounted for in strategies for working together and implementing action plans, they will continue to have an impact on the client and on the way she engages in goal pursuit. For example, a clinically obese woman with a negative body image may not do well in a mixed-gender fitness center. Clients with strong gender stereotypes may restrict themselves to pursuing certain kinds of activities involving only people of their own gender group. Ethnic and cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, religious or spiritual associations, socioeconomic status, and other relevant contextual factors of diversity are all important elements that might influence clients' expectations of coaching, programming, and relationship dynamics.

Focusing is critical to the competency of creating awareness in that it acknowledges the multiple lenses through which clients might reexamine their agendas. It opens avenues for exploration that might not be at the forefront of their minds. It brings under the microscope key elements for creating commitment.

We have chosen not to dissect the approach of focusing in the way we have for other coaching processes (e.g., describing steps and upside and downside). In part, this is because focusing relies on skills we have already described, such as powerful questioning, active listening, and direct communication, among others. What is unique about focusing is how the coach shines a light on a specific aspect of the client's messages.

Focusing speaks to your internal process as a coach in your decision about how to respond to a client's messages. Multiple options for responding will always exist, and some will prove more productive than others. Knowing which to pursue derives from accurate knowledge of who the client is and what he needs, coupled with your self-awareness of agendas or biases that may drive your own behavior.

Read more in Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition edited by James Gavin.

More Excerpts From Lifestyle Wellness Coaching 2nd Edition