I was asked the question below from a friend and fellow Pilates Teacher this week and thought it would make an excellent topic for a blog post. Whether you’re a newer Pilates Teacher or well-seasoned expert, we’ve all been faced with difficult clients. Learning how to handle and confront the issue in a kind and gentle way can help you turn obstinate Pilates clients into allies who will stick with you for life, and refer all their friends to come work with you too!
“Aliesa, I recently subbed for another teacher and had a client who said “NO” and wouldn’t do many of the exercises I had planned for the workout. This had never happened to me before! How do you handle clients like this who are uncooperative during a training session? Thanks for your insights! “ — Mary
What a great question! I think at some point every Pilates teacher will face a difficult, uncooperative client or two. Honestly, in my experience over the past 20 years of teaching, I only remember having ONE client who really pushed me on this issue and said NO to dang near every exercise that I demonstrated we’d be doing next.
Just thinking about this has gotten me to pondering WHY I’ve had so little push-back from clients and here are a few reasons why I believe this hasn’t been a big problem for me. Hopefully, these Pilates Teaching Tips will help you handle the next challenging client that comes to you.
Create a Partnership from the Start
With every client I work with, whether they are new, I’m filling in for someone else or they’ve been on my schedule for years, I set up every training session in a positive way so they know I’m there to help. By getting in the habit of starting every group class or training session with, “How do you feel today? Is there anything I need to know about your body today? Is there anything in particular you’d like to focus on for today’s workout?” I’m starting our time together getting the information I need to make the best choices possible to meet their needs, and help them reach their goals.
Especially with new clients who don’t know me well yet, I may verbally express that working together IS a partnership, and for me to help them the best we have to have great communications. That starts with me knowing what their goals are, what they might like to focus on for the day’s session and if they have any current injuries, limitations or health issues that I need to be aware of. From there, throughout the session I continually ask how things feel, and where they feel the work so I can be sure they’re engaging the right muscles and getting the benefits I’m hoping they’ll achieve from the workout. And depending on the client, I will either follow up with a phone call or email to see how they’re doing after the session or ask the next time I see them, “How were you after your last session? Was there anything in particular you noticed? Parts of your body you were more aware of? Did you have any sore muscles? Anything else I need to know?” All of this is information I need to continue fine-tuning their program, select the best exercises and create a plan for progress.
I strive to always make it clear that I welcome questions while we’re working together, so I can clarify anything that they may need to understand better to get the most from their workouts. I also explain that Pilates training is a process, the more I know about their body and their goals the better choices I can make to select the best exercises from the 500+ I have to choose to ensure they stay safe and get great benefits from Pilates.
If I go into every training session with a client with this mutual understanding we are both set up for a great experience.
Now, what happened with the client I had who still challenged my exercise choices and continually said, “No, I’m not going to do that.”
I put up with it for her first one and a half training sessions. She was a wealthy, upstanding member of the community and I’m sure was used to telling everyone what to do, and “yes, ma’am” was the only response she ever received from the employees in the corporation and the staff that took care of the daily chores to run her household. At the end of the first session I was physically and mentally exhausted from “fighting” with her the whole session and wondered how we’d ever make any progress. But she’d paid for a package of 10 sessions so I was obligated to work with her… At least that was my mindset after the first lesson.
Session number two, she started in again saying “NO” to the first exercise and so we paused the session and had a “chat.”
Eliminating Fear & Developing Trust
I asked her why she didn’t want to do any of the exercises that I was showing her? Her answer was she was afraid that she would get hurt. They looked similar to exercises she had done in the past that had hurt her. So she was being obstinate with me from a place of fear in order to protect her health – I can completely respect that! But I was coming from my normal heart-centered place of selecting the best exercise or modification to help her improve her health & wellness. Knowing that she was afraid of getting hurt with the exercises that I was showing her gave us the opportunity to open the lines of communication. I realized that not only did I need to give her more information about WHY we were going to do the exercises I was choosing, and how these specific exercises were going to help her get stronger so she wouldn’t get hurt. It was also important for her to know that in the past she may not have been doing them correctly, and my job was to help her understand how to do each exercise right, with the right muscles working, and if she did that they would be excellent choices for her. She then realized how important it was for her to tell me how she was feeling while she was doing things so I could confirm that she was finding the right muscles to do the exercises correctly, or I could help modify and fine-tune her technique to help keep her safe.
There is a level of trust that has to be established between every student and teacher. Once that bond has been developed, you may find that your most obstinate client will transform into your favorite client and best ally for life!
Be Willing To Walk Away
Before we made it to this transformative trusting relationship, the other key comment I remember making was my offer to fully refund her for the package she’d paid for! I don’t think in all my years of teaching that I’ve ever actually “fired” a client, but I was willing to give her money back and have her walk out the door. When I explained to her, that she’d specifically requested to work with me because of my expertise, but was unwilling to try any of the exercises that my expertise deemed safe and appropriate to help her reach her wellness goals. So, I really didn’t see a reason for her to waste her time or money working with me. I was committed to helping her, but at the moment she was not allowing me to do my job. If she didn’t think she could trust me to keep her safe and help her, and try the exercises I was recommending, then there was no reason for us to continue.
I then went on the explain that Pilates is a process, and the only way to know for sure what works and what doesn’t is to try something and see how the body responds. Of course based on her goals and health history we were going to pick the best “beginner” or fundamental exercise to start with, and I can always modify and adapt as needed. But if “NO” was going to be her answer to every exercise that I am confident will help develop the healthy movement habits needed to improve her strength, flexibility and fitness for better whole-body health, and help alleviate the aches, pains and problems that she was currently experiencing, which is why she contacted me in the first place, then she doesn’t really want to feel better and is not allowing me to help.
At that point I left the ball in her court. I was committed, but not attached to her decision. But she had to make a choice, was she willing to put aside her fears and trust my expertise to pick safe and appropriate exercises to help her improve her health, or was she going to choose to take the refund I offered and walk out the door?
In this experience, my client saw the light and opened to the possibility of developing healthy movement habits without creating more pain or injury. She began trusting my exercise choices, communicating with me when she was unsure of herself, exploring what it felt like to find and use better habits to improve her health, and she began making leaps and bounds of progress quickly. Instead of dreading the 3 days a week she came in for her lessons, she was one of my favorite clients to work with, because she was committed, and really happy about what she was learning. Her whole attitude changed, and she was getting positive results from her efforts.
“NO” is a brick wall. Find out what they’re afraid of and you can take that wall down, one brick at a time if you need to. Or you might just be lucky enough to walk along the wall until you find a door that opens to quickly take them to the other side, where the possibility of “YES” is do-able, feels safe and will help them enjoy the results they were hoping to achieve when they signed up for Pilates.
It doesn’t have to be “My Way or the Highway!” But as a Pilates expert, if you are sacrificing your expertise and giving in to every “NO, I’m not going to do that,” or having to renegotiate for every exercise in a workout, something needs to be addressed for your partnership to be successful.
Create a partnership with good communication, work to eliminate fear and develop trust, and if you can’t seem to bridge the gap always be willing to walk away. Chances are it will never come to that. Once your clients know that they are being heard, and feel that their needs are being met their fears and frustration will melt away and they will become the most eager, agreeable and faithful clients in the studio.