Your Go-To Guide for Successful Virtual Health Coaching
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
Health coaching in the new virtual reality
Health coaching has long been the “career of the future.” Once a fringe profession many didn’t understand, health coaching has become a well-respected and advantageous career path for those looking to pursue their passion for holistic health and wellness and wanting to help others take control of their health and prevent lifestyle- and diet-related chronic conditions.
When you think of working with or as a Health Coach, you may think of meeting someone in a gym, wellness center, or doctor’s office. Even though meeting someone in person isn’t something we’re able to do right now, it doesn’t mean Health Coaches can’t still meet with clients.
In fact, people are in need of support now more than ever to manage not just their health concerns that existed before the current pandemic but all the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health issues that have come up since.
Starting an online practice may be simpler for new Health Coaches than for those with existing practices who need to shift their sessions from in person to online, but it’s not impossible. The hurdle to overcome is not the actual work of bringing your business online; it’s likely the fear of what will happen to the in-person connection you fostered with clients.
But don’t worry – we've got you covered with expert advice from two practicing Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches who are navigating this challenging time along with you and the rest of our global Health Coach community.
We’ve been hearing from our incredible community about how to continue practicing during this time, so we turned to Cori Landon, class of 2015 and founder of Free Byrd Wellness, and Jon Fischer, class of 2014 and founder of The BK Health Coach. We (virtually) sat down with them to discuss the ins and outs of their coaching experience, how to make virtual coaching sessions feel as similar to in-person sessions as possible, and tips for both novice and long-term coaches!
Tell us more about your experience coaching and hosting virtual sessions.
Cori: Hosting a virtual session can be beneficial for both the client and the Health Coach. First, you want to ask your client what they feel most comfortable doing: a FaceTime/Zoom call or simple phone call. My number one priority is evaluating what my client is most comfortable with. In my experience, many of my clients have requested a phone session (with no video). I've been told it's typically because they had a hectic day and do not feel comfortable getting on camera. To be honest, I've noticed this approach tends to benefit not just my client but me, too! Once you take the visual component out of the equation, you're able to better focus on your client and connect deeper with their story and exactly what they’re telling you they need, whether they say it or not! Your ability to listen and focus are heightened, and you’re better able to concentrate on your clients’ current needs.
Jon: I’ve been coaching in person and virtually for over five years. I also run a men’s wellness group that typically hosts live events in NYC but has now gone entirely virtual over the last month and a half.
I started coaching for a few months after I graduated, and it was after those few months that I began narrowing my niche market to middle-aged men in the LGBTQ community and signed my first male client virtually. Interestingly enough, it was through our phone sessions that I began to gain confidence as a Health Coach and continue to pursue my niche market. Between narrowing my niche market and opening up my services virtually, my business grew exponentially. I’ve since been able to attract male clients in different areas of the United States, Canada, Europe, and even the Middle East.
I enjoy virtual coaching because I'm somebody who is highly sensitive and easily takes on other people’s emotions and energy (I’m sure a lot of you can relate!). I’ve found it beneficial to host client sessions virtually because the phone screen creates an energetic buffer. Like Cori mentioned, I am also able to be more present with my own emotions and feelings, which allows me to remain more grounded and present for my client.
I enjoy in-person connections as a coach – and am looking forward to the day when they can resume – but I also feel less stressed hosting a virtual session because it reduces the number of variables that come along with in-person sessions, such as commuting issues – traffic or a difficult subway ride – or loud music at your go-to café.
So whether or not you’ve done virtual coaching or feel comfortable with the idea of it – this current situation is showing us that it’s beneficial to have the option to work remotely with clients. Additionally, this was the nudge we need as a society to understand that virtual connections can be just as impactful.
How do you facilitate sessions that create a similar experience to in-person sessions?
Jon: A lot of the skills are transferrable. For some of us, it’s a lot easier, and for others, it just takes a little bit of experience and practice.
If you feel you may struggle with virtual coaching, there’s good news: We’re all already communicating with friends and family over the phone or on FaceTime, Zoom, etc., which means we’re familiar with these types of interactions. Maybe we just haven't had enough experiences interacting with clients this way (yet).
Some of my suggestions are:
1. Start using low-risk virtual conversations with friends and family to practice creating space and working on your active listening skills that you've learned through IIN's Health Coach Training Program. Practice asking clarifying questions, listening more than speaking, and using sounds or words to indicate you’re following along. Start becoming more comfortable with silent pauses by focusing on your breath.
2. When you do begin hosting virtual sessions with clients, you may find that you need to focus more on grounding yourself and being fully present even though you're not physically in front of them. If you’re extroverted or thrive on in-person connections, I suggest using a video platform instead of a phone session (more on this later), so you can see your client’s face and stay stimulated.
3. Attempt to make eye contact during the session but don’t necessary maintain it the entire time. Focus more on looking and sounding attentive by glancing at the camera to make random eye contact and using active listening skills, such as clarifying questions.
4. Be mindful of any delay in the line or connection. You will likely need to allow for longer pauses to avoid talking over your client.
5. After you explain something to your client, ask “does that make sense?” or “do you have any questions about that?” to ensure they understood your point. Sometimes it’s hard to read your client’s facial reactions or responses when working virtually, especially when using a simple phone session. I find that people appreciate when I clarify that they’re following my train of thought and the flow of the session.
Cori: Yes, a lot of the skills are transferrable. For me, focusing on the setting and making sure it's just as quiet as an in-person session would be is first and foremost. I find it best to facilitate a session from home, preferably in my office, where I can close the door and maintain little to no background noise, hoping whoever is in the household also allows that experience.
If you’re on a video call, you’ll also want to make sure your client’s view is clear without background distractions. Eye contact, like Jon said, is important over a video call, just like it is in person, so you can better connect with your client and ensure that you are present and listening. Whether you need to take a few light notes or not, make it a point to pick your head up a number of times to maintain focus and eye contact.
Last, I find that similar to being in person with your client, having a virtual session with video is a luxury as it allows you to take special notice of their facial expressions, attitude, and body language! That is key to tuning in to how comfortable a person is feeling about the topic being discussed and whether the client feels comfortable with the guidance you’re providing them in that moment. Being able to see the client virtually will help you better see their true feelings and perspective.
What do you think many Health Coaches get wrong about hosting virtual sessions? What myths do you think you need to bust for them?
Cori: Many coaches tend to think that taking the reins and leading the session is the way to go and the way to show the client they have control or know what's best. Most of the time, assuming tends to come back to bite us! This goes back to seeing if your client is comfortable with a video or phone session. Not only can the visual component be distracting for some, but you can also run into Internet or other technical issues that can detract from the session –sometimes you have to feel it out rather than try to set the tone in advance.
Another myth around virtual sessions is that you cannot motivate or hold your client accountable from a distance. I find that virtual coaching is just as effective as in-person coaching because you're still connecting, listening, and reading facial expressions and body language (if possible). That is typically all you need to support and guide your client toward their goals. Plus, hosting a virtual session can be convenient for the client as well as the coach!
Jon: These are great points, especially that some coaches assume in-person sessions are more effective than virtual. I do recognize the benefits of in-person coaching; however, I urge you to not underestimate the benefits of working with your client while they are in their own home. Often, when your client is in a comfortable, familiar space, it allows them to open up more, especially if they’re a bit shy or reserved.
Virtual coaching allows for the unique opportunity for both the coach and client to get a glimpse into each other's world. I think that has the potential to add more context to your conversations and give you a better picture of who your client is and what their environment looks like and vice versa – for them to know you as a coach and as a person.
I also want to point out that “virtual” does not necessarily mean technologically complex. For anyone who is nervous about technology, please remember that yes, you can coach clients via Zoom, FaceTime, or another platform, but it can also mean a good old-fashioned phone call. You are the coach; it’s your business – so you’re in charge of how you’ll host the sessions. I suggest you decide which options you are comfortable with and then allow your client to choose from your menu, as Cori recommended earlier. I personally offer phone, Zoom, and FaceTime as my only three options.
Can you share some things that have come up in your virtual client sessions over the years that may be helpful to share with those who are just starting out?
Jon: Over the years, I’ve certainly experienced tech issues and a variety of other curveballs during sessions. One time during a Health History, I spilled an entire latte on my computer (it actually destroyed it). But try to remember that you are being paid because you are an effective coach, not a tech expert. Don’t be afraid to be honest with your clients. If you’re dealing with a tech issue that you can’t figure out, let your client know. You don’t need to be perfect! It sets a good example of being vulnerable and makes you more relatable. That said, it’s helpful to have a backup plan. For example, when I ruined my computer during a Health History, I used Skype on my phone. Or other times when my Wi-Fi crashed, I had my client’s cell phone number handy so I could call them directly.
Speaking of tech issues, sometimes when a video chat gets choppy because of a poor connection, it can create frustration. I’ve had sessions where I was getting annoyed with the technology and assumed my client was, too – only to later find out they were completely fine about it. Try not to assume that the things frustrating you during a session are being experienced the same way for your client. (Remember what Cori said about assuming?) If anything, if you feel they’re getting frustrated, check in with them and offer to use another platform or reschedule.
Cori: Yes, having a backup plan and showing your client that you are only human is so important!
The things I have noticed coming up more now than they did before, considering the climate of the current pandemic, is the worry, stress, and inability to retrieve as many health food items that were accessible before. At the end of the day, you always want to support your client no matter what the circumstance, so make a point to allow them to vent even more and remind them they are doing their best. If their meals aren't as healthy as they were before, that's okay. We deserve to treat ourselves, yet there are also ways to cook in bigger batches or meal prep to make it easier to keep up with healthy habits.
I've also noticed that clients who feel comfortable with you and tend to open up even more than the next person may begin to speak to you as if you are their therapist. Especially in a time like this, you’ll want to be sensitive toward what they are going through but always bring it back to the topic at hand and guide them through action steps and things to look forward to that can divert them from going on a tangent.
Can you provide general coaching tips that are applicable now and well into the future for our Health Coaches?
1. Be transparent. From the first free consultation call, you’ll want to be as open and honest with your potential client about your services and what you can offer. Make sure to have all your forms ready from the get-go to send via email, including your Health History and Circle of Life (which happens to be my favorite!), as well as your prices and program offerings! That way, they recognize the value of your program and how this is about being ready and making a commitment to themselves as well as to you, their coach.
2. Reach out shortly after your first consultation. To keep these potential clients feeling excited and energized, make contact early and often. After you have signed a new client, it’s essential that you send an email immediately afterward. This will reassure your client that they have made a great investment in your services, and it will show your eagerness to work with them on their health journey.
3. Listen, listen, listen! I've learned that active listening is an essential part of communication as a Health Coach and involves engaging and responding to your client based on what they've said. Paraphrasing is linked to the skill of active listening and the combination is a sign of an exceptional listener.
Another important listening tip is to hold your tongue and avoiding finishing your client’s sentences as this can disempower your client and give them the sense that you’re taking control of the conversation.
Jon: I agree with Cori’s recommendations and would echo many of them. My tips are also simple and go back to what we discussed earlier:
1. Before your session begins, recommend that your client find a quiet, private space. If they have a spouse or someone else in the home, encourage them to close a door or turn on a fan or white noise machine to make sure they feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly.
2. In general, I know I tend to leave things to the last minute, so when I see a client remotely, I have to put in more effort to give myself ample time to set up my space and prepare for the session. I always add 15 minutes to the front end of each session when I put it in my calendar so I can use that time to get ready and ground myself before the session begins. I would highly recommend doing this with every session. Scrambling to find a Zoom link or your client’s cell phone number before the session starts will not put you in the right headspace to start off the session.
Any last words of wisdom for Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches?
Jon: I want to share a story about a breakthrough moment that happened virtually a few years ago because I think it will tie everything together to show why I love coaching virtually. I was coaching a client from Minneapolis, MN, over the phone. One of the areas he was working on was building consistency around going to the gym and working out. He held the mind-set that he had to work out at least 45 minutes every time he went to the gym. He was an all-or-nothing type of person and was unable to live up to his own standards. During one of our phone sessions, he asked me how I was able to incorporate fitness into my life since I was a busy guy. I replied, “I'm actually lifting dumbbells right now while we're speaking!”
We both laughed, but it turned out to be a major aha moment for him. It dismantled the idea that fitness had to be done in one setting or in one way, and it gave him permission to incorporate fitness into the day however possible. That moment was a breakthrough for him, and he was able to start doing small 5- or 10-minute exercises in his basement, which eventually gave him the confidence and ability to do longer workouts when he wanted. I don’t think he would have had such a revelation had we been meeting in person.
Remember to keep an open mind and just go for it!