We cannot control external events. No matter how awesome and amazing you are, you can’t change the weather. Or the economy. Or Trump’s hair.
You can’t change your family or your friends, your colleagues or strangers on the street. And you can’t change your clients.
It will exhaust you to try.
Here’s what you can control: your response to those people and events. You can choose how to engage or not. You can choose to allow yourself to be frustrated or accepting. You can choose to set boundaries or not.
Please understand that I’m not saying it’s easy!! There are real challenges to recognising what’s your shit and what’s someone else’s. But THAT is what you can control. And trust me… it feels goooood!
So how does this apply to your teaching?
How many people are you with every day? When you take into account classes and private clients that might be 5 or 10 or 50 people in a day, each with their own approach to life, their own baggage and their own energy. Each of those people feels a particular connection to you, and you hold an important place in their lives. They probably look up to you and admire you for the physical things you can do and the way that you relate to them and the information you share. They may feel a kinship with you because of the personal, one-on-one time they spend with you. You may be one of the only people they have who really, seriously listens to them and wants to know the answer to the question “how are you doing today?” That makes you really important to them! It may also make the boundaries a little fuzzy for them.
In this post, we will look at The Anxious Private Client (let’s call her Jane).
Jane arrives a little bit late, as usual. She is flustered and flurried. She embarks on a diatribe about how she’s feeling (not great), how her kids are behaving (badly), how the traffic is (slow) and you can’t get her to focus. (*note* people manifest anxiety in many ways, and not all anxious clients will be like Jane. She is only one example!)
Do you, the teacher:
A) keep interrupting her and try to get her on track
B) let her get it all out
C) direct her to the mat or equipment and let her keep talking while she works
D) gain her attention with touch, eye contact and voice to say let’s get moving and we can chat later
These are all strategies I’ve used with different clients (with varying degrees of success) and we’ll get back to them shortly.
The big question here, though, is how do you feel about Jane and her behaviour? Are you frustrated and wishing you could make her get on with it? Do you feel like you aren’t doing your job and that you are somehow failing at your client management skills? Do you feel sad for her and wish you could make her happier?
Those are all legitimate responses, but you can’t control Jane. You can’t MAKE her be someone she isn’t. If your client is a bit anxious and has a tendency to be scattered and chatty, that’s who she is. Love her or leave her, you aren’t going to change her essential nature. Nor is that your job! Your job is to help her work in her body in a way that you both agree is productive and sustainable. What you can control is how you respond to the client. How you feel about Jane is going to depend on the kind of person you are, and how YOU respond to stress and anxiety.
Teacher A is pretty brisk and physical and wants to get the work done. Time is valuable and should be expended in doing the movement that s/he has been hired to do. A’s style is very physical and performance oriented. A is likely to be frustrated or annoyed after a few late-start sessions that involve a lot of extraneous yakking. The tendency is to start a “pushing” tone and energy to try and chivvy Jane to the exercises or focus that will most make A feel like the session is being properly completed. Jane may respond well to this, in which case great, you’re good to go! Jane might, though, end up feeling unheard and resentful or more anxious. If Jane is compliant, she may end up doing more than she can physically accomplish and not be able to articulate that, leading to injury. She may end up more anxious than before and be unable to absorb new information, which makes learning new exercises or poses impossible to retain. She may ultimately leave to go and find another teacher. That may be what A actually prefers, in which case there’s no problem, but it costs more and takes longer to get new clients than it does to keep the clients you’ve got, so…
If Teacher A sounds like you: Can you let go of thoughts of frustration or irritation? Can you have compassion for whatever anxiety makes her need to do that chatter to get set in? And can you find a way to change how YOU respond to HER that makes you both feel good and gets you to work? For you, strategy D is your best bet. Ask Jane specifically “How’s your body doing today? Is there anything in particular that I should know before we get started?” Then LISTEN. Really listen with all your positive, active, compassionate self, for 3 minutes. If she has complaints (which she may well have), acknowledge them. “Wow, that sounds really uncomfortable. If we do anything today that triggers your shoulder/ back/ whatever, please tell me right away. But we know that movement is one of the best ways to help bodies feel better, so let’s start with something gentle.” Say this in a calm, gentle voice and look her directly in the eyes. You could also make equally gentle physical contact (a light hand on the shoulder as you steer her towards the mat) if that is appropriate OR use a gesture and point towards the mat so there is a physical element to your communication without crossing a boundary. Be aware that clients with a lot of overt anxiety may have trauma in their background that they do or do not recognise and touch may seem threatening rather than calming. Use good judgment and experiment with the gesture if you suspect that is the case.
If Jane just can’t stop talking, or you don’t feel you are controlling your “get moving” response for 3 minutes, then try strategy C. Direct her to the mat or equipment as she talks and get her doing something that doesn’t require any major co-ordination on her part or complex cuing on your part. A couple of little directives might be enough to bring her attention to her body. The excessive talking may be a cue that she really needs you to hear her or it may be a delaying tactic if she is nervous about the upcoming activity. I know, she’s paying to be there, but sometimes clients can be nervous anyway! People who struggle with anxiety are often hyper-sensitive and self-critical, so if she senses your frustration or “push” to get going she may feel that she is “failing” at being a “good” client, which will make her more anxious, which will make her more talkative… you see the circle? Try to change your response to one of compassion (not pity!) and attentiveness, so that what she feels from you allows her to relax and feel safe. Once you get her there you can move into the main part of the session with Jane engaged and fully present.
Teacher B is gentle, relational and connected to her/his clients. Time is to be used to manage whatever comes up in a session which may or may not be physical “exercise”; it might also be release, stretching or self-massage. B’s style is slower and involves a lot of mind/body work. B might be annoyed by the late arrivals, but is likely to respond to Jane’s chatty coping mechanism by engaging with it so much that the physical work doesn’t get done and eventually B may feel frustrated that Jane is not progressing effectively and that she is failing to serve Jane as a teacher. The issue in this teacher/client relationship is not that Jane doesn’t feel it is safe to relax and engage so much as that she feels so safe that boundaries can get very blurry and there is a risk of stepping out of scope of practice. If both Jane and B feel like Jane is getting what she needs from the sessions, there is a productive approach to the biopsychosocial realm and there is no overstepping of ethical boundaries, carry on! Jane, however, might end up seeing B as more of a therapist than as a Pilates or yoga teacher, personal trainer, osteopath or massage therapist. In this situation one of two things can happen: either Jane stays as a client forever, feeling a strong but possibly inappropriate bond to B and not progressing physically OR things go awry as Jane brings more to her sessions than B is trained to deal with and Jane leaves with both of them feeling hurt and confused.
If Teacher B sounds like you, can you let go of feelings that you need to “fix” Jane? Can you hear her anxiety without wanting to make it go away for her? And can you change how YOU respond to HER in a way that helps her feel grounded and secure and lets you both move into the physical realm of the work? For you, strategy C is your first choice. Get the focus on gentle movement right away, and allow her to explore her feelings as she connects to her body. Take note of when you start to pay more attention to how she is feeling about her whole life than to how she is moving. Or when she has stopped moving altogether and you are both just chatting! You can’t control her and make her stop talking, and you can’t make her be a less anxious person, but you can choose to control your response to her conversation. Listen and respond to her, but keep your responses shorter (“mmm, that sounds hard, interesting”, rather than engaging in questions and answers) and continue to direct her back into the movement practice.
If you have tried keeping your responses more focused on moving into the physical work and you keep getting pulled into the distraction chatter, then it might be time to try strategy B. There are times when it is, in fact, a great idea to let Jane get it all out. Investing 10 minutes in allowing Jane to feel in control of the session and verbalising her distractions (the body, the kids, the traffic) all at once may help you feel justified in moving into the exercise portion of the plan without getting caught up in your own need to take care of her. You have given her that outlet, you have created a safe space and now you can be clear with yourself about moving on in the session. Remember- the goal isn’t to control JANE~ it’s to control YOUR response to Jane that may be getting in the way of your productive work together. You can honour Jane’s need for attention and safety while still keeping the focus on strength, mobility and skills acquisition. That will give her a more rugged sense of herself and put the locus of control in her hands. What better way to contribute to Jane’s overall sense of herself? YOU didn’t “fix” her, she now has the tools to support herself and to control the rate and pace of her own development! Relationship is the key to building a rugged practice with long- term clients, but Jane is not supposed to be paying you to be her friend. Try to change your response to one of boundaried compassionate support, so you can see her anxiety without joining her in reinforcing it.
As an added note for Teacher B, if you read those thoughts and feel like I am suggesting you abandon an important part of your practice, if the biopsychosocial part of your work is paramount, please know that I totally support that! You might want to explore some of the amazing certifications out there that will allow you to get right into that kind of practice. Movement therapy is a valuable tool!
Most of us fall somewhere between Teachers A and B. Some days more one, some days more the other. I tend to fall more on the B side and do a lot of mind/ body work with my clients. I know the ones who tend to trigger my co-dependant side, the ones who I will want to settle right in with and spend too much time on the chat, and I am generally more firm with myself at those sessions. If I control how I respond to them, the sessions go well! But even I have days when I don’t want to hear it, I just want to get moving and have to remind myself to moderate my response and invest in a few minutes of listening.
(I’m sure you noticed I never recommended strategy A! Interrupting repeatedly without following through and trying to force an anxious client into your pace will only alienate them and lead to an uncomfortable session.)
For Jane (and most anxious clients) it is incredibly helpful to use multiple communication modes so that each one can be clear, gentle and unaggressive. The goal is to change your response to her in a way that leads to her feeling safe enough with you that she can abandon her natural transition strategy of being really talkative while she settles into the new environment. Don’t forget that the brain and the body are intricately linked. We don’t easily learn or retain new things when we are stressed, afraid or anxious. Creating an environment of safety and attention are the key attributes of a successful session with an anxious client.