Choosing a focus area and exploring readiness to change

So far, I have covered the first three stages of the health coaching process:

  • identifying the client’s vision for optimal health and wellbeing
  • exploring values and what is important to them about their health
  • assessing current health through Current and Desired States questionnaire and other available data such as lab and diagnostic tests or a health risk assessment

At this point, the client is usually ready to identify a focus area, i.e., a part of their vision of health they want to begin working on. This can be a particular domain from the Wheel of Health, such as nutrition or exercise, or it may be something like weight loss, which can encompass several areas of the Wheel. There are several factors that may influence where a client chooses to start, including:

  • the long-term importance of the focus area to them
  • the immediate benefits of making the desired change
  • the client’s current willingness to take on the challenge of the desired change

In my experience, that last factor typically plays a key role in how successful the client will be in making the change. That is why the next step in the process is so critical: assessing the client’s readiness to change. Just because a client has prioritized a focus area does not mean they are fully ready to make the change.

A client’s readiness to change can be influenced by many potential factors, but the two primary factors tend to be importance and confidence. Ideally, we want both of those factors to be relatively high before moving into goal setting and action steps. Oftentimes, clients want to jump right into action, but it will increase their chances of success to slow down and explore readiness to change before moving into action.

Typically, a client chooses a focus area because it is important to them at some level, but there may be other competing values or priorities that could interfere with the client’s attempt to change. And even if the selected focus area is of high importance, the client may have doubts about their ability to change. Perhaps they have tried in the past and failed, or they are not sure what steps they need to take to achieve the desired change. There are a number of strategies that coaches can use to assess readiness to change. Typically, we explore the importance of making the change before assessing confidence. After all, if it’s not important to the client, it is not really worth spending a lot of time on their confidence to change.

One of my favorite tools for exploring importance is a 1-10 number scale (with 1 being low importance and 10 being high). Asking the client to place the importance of making the change on a number scale allows them to think about all the factors that go into selecting the number. In general, a client is usually ready to move forward if they rank themselves as a 7 or higher. If a client ranks themselves lower than a 7, there are follow up questions I usually ask to explore the reasons why it is important for them to change. For example, if a client ranks themselves a 5, I may ask “What makes it a 5 versus a lower number like 3?” This allows the client to verbalize the reasons why they rated it as high as they did while also acknowledging any competing priorities that may keep it from being the most important area for change.

Another strategy for assessing the level of importance is to help the client explore the pros and cons of changing vs. staying the same. Having a client verbalize the pros and cons of changing may help them identify the positive benefits they will experience if they change. On the other hand, it may bring to light any competing priorities that could make it difficult for the client to change. All of this information is critical to helping the client determine if the focus area is of high enough importance to address at this time.

When the client determines that the change is important enough to move forward, the next step is to assess and support their confidence to make the change. In my work with clients, I have often found that importance is typically high, but confidence is usually on the low side. If a client is lacking in confidence around making the change, it can make the rest of the change process quite challenging. Thus, it is critical to adequately assess and help build the client’s confidence before moving into action. Lack of confidence often comes from the client’s previous attempts to change without success. For this reason, it is beneficial to acknowledge when the client has had at least partial success and more importantly, to help the client learn from the times they were both successful and unsuccessful.

Coaches use some of the same or similar strategies and tools to assess client confidence. For example, I often use the 1-10 number scale to assess confidence level (with 1 being low confidence and 10 being high). Again, we typically want the client’s confidence to be a 7 or 8 before moving into action. If a client ranks themselves lower, I will often ask one of the following questions:

  • “What makes it a {6} versus a lower number?”
  • “What would it take to increase your confidence from a {5} to a 7 or 8?”
  • “What number would it have to be for you to begin making the change?”

These questions can help a client verbalize what makes them confident about making the change as well as what challenges they believe may get in their way.

If a client’s confidence is low and they are not feeling ready to move into action, there are strategies a coach can use to help build their client’s confidence level. One of the most effective ways to do so is to explore the client’s strengths and past successes. Perhaps they have lost weight in the past and can tap into the tools and resources they previously used. Or this may be an opportunity to look at a client’s successes in other areas of their life and how those strengths and skills can apply to the current focus area.

If a client has made several attempts to change in the past without success, they may feel discouraged about attempting to change one more time. In a case like that, it is beneficial to have the client think about the time when they had the greatest amount of success, even if they did not accomplish all they hoped. If the client is concerned about barriers that prevented their success in the past, the coach can help the client strategize how to overcome those barriers should they arise again (this will be done in the action planning stage as well). Having a plan for addressing barriers may help increase the client’s confidence in attempting the desired change one more time.

After thoroughly exploring importance and confidence, the client and coach together will determine if the client is ready to move forward into Goal Setting and Action Steps. If confidence is still low, the client may want some time to think about it between sessions and then revisit confidence the next time. Or it may be that they need to consider a different focus area at this time. Even if the client and coach decide that moving forward with the current focus is the way to go, importance and confidence can shift throughout the coaching process. Thus, the coach may revisit either or both if they sense changes based on the client’s words or actions.