// Negotiating the realm of client counselling: Self-disclosure

by Chad Timmermans

In almost every workshop I have presented to personal trainers and fitness professionals, the question arises of ‘what do I say when a client asks me about myself’. In the same way that people confi de in their hairdressers, personal trainers are often regarded as ‘quasi-counsellors’, acting as a sounding board for clients during their weekly fi tness and venting session. Consequently, trainers will often end up talking about what the client should do about an issue at work, how they should handle or improve a relationship, or how they should deal with their problem children.

When an individual becomes a personal trainer they are not always prepared for the personal side of the job. They are interested in helping clients get fit, and this interest usually stems from the enjoyment they get from their own fitness regime; ‘I love being fit, how great would it be to help others get what I’ve got!’ But while they may be well versed in the core requirements of exercise physiology, technique, and business management, many trainers will lack the skills needed to deal with the ‘human element’ that clients present with. The ancillary interpersonal and coaching skills, and knowledge of human behaviour tend not to be the focus of most education programs. If a trainer does possess good skills in this area, it is normally because they have learnt through life experience and have a high level of self-insight.


When a client asks their trusted trainer for advice on their personal issues, it can be a sign that the client trusts the trainer and is comfortable with them. How a trainer handles this can have a significant impact on the trainer-client relationship. When an unskilled or inexperienced trainer is called on by a client to help them with personal issues, they often talk about their own experiences in the hope that something in their story will help the client. This is known as ‘self-disclosure’. Interactions between client and trainer that contain self-disclosure can either make the training relationship stronger, or
signifi cantly damage it.

When an ‘untrained’ person dips into their own pool of life experiences, hoping that something they have done will help the client with a strategy for the present, it can end up sounding something like ‘well this is what I did when I was in the same position…’ While this statement is often well-intentioned, it does not always have the positive or helpful eff ect it is supposed to have. Informing a person that you understand their predicament because you had the same experience can be dangerous to the relationship you have with them, because the truth is that your experience was not the same experience that your client had. It may have been similar, but it is not actually the same. By telling your client that you
understand because you had the same experience could make them feel that you are patronising them or lacking respect for their situation.

The key element in such a situation is the concrete way you talk about yourself, and the association that you make between yourself and the client. Talking in a concrete way or in absolutes (statements like ‘I had exactly the same experience’) sets you up for rejection by the client if they don’t agree. It is safer to keep an element of separation between your experience and the client’s experience (see suggested tips below). If you are going to use self-disclosure
then you have to make sure there is a point to it, otherwise it is just you talking about yourself, which can be a self-indulgent waste of time. The point you’re trying to make should be something that benefi ts the client or builds your rapport with them. If it benefi ts only yourself, then think twice before saying it. Feel free to take time to consider your self-disclosure (the rest of the session, or even the few days between sessions) to make sure it is suitable and worthwhile. Then, when you deliver it, try to do so in a non-confronting way by bringing it up during the stretching session or warm
up, as deliberately sitting them down to talk about it may be unnerving.


The following suggestions will help you improve the self-disclosure you use when talking with a client. The most
important thing is to use empathic language. Empathy is diff erent to sympathy which has an element of sorrow attached. Empathy requires you to demonstrate to the client that their message is getting through. It is you walking in your client’s shoes and then letting them know they are understood. It is a highly eff ective tool, but one which is often poorly used.

• Separate your experience from the client’s experience. The easiest way to do this, if you are going to relate an experience that has happened to you, is to talk about your experience in more general terms, as if it belonged to someone else. This allows you to impart the story free from the client’s assumptions and beliefs about you, which enables them to absorb the point of the story without their view of you getting in the way, or the story altering their view of you.
• Do not blatantly say, ‘I had an experience just like that’ because your experience was not just like theirs. It was your own experience with its own individual set of circumstances. It is better to discuss ‘similar experiences’, and to then tell either your own story or a story of someone you know.
• Be vague when you talk about the point. Talk in general, non-specifi c terms. Don’t specify the exact point, rather tell
stories for discussion that allow you to throw around ideas. This allows the client to mould the point into something that works for them. If you present the point in fi xed terms, then if it does not fi t for the client they will reject it straight away. For example, it is better to say ‘mixing up training a bit may allow you to fi nd what could work for you and what may not’ instead of ‘I always have my clients mix up training to fi nd out what you enjoy, that’s how I found what works for me’.
• Be non-assumptive; you don’t know exactly what is going on. Premise your point with ‘I don’t assume to know everything about what you are going through…’ or ‘feel free to correct me if I get this wrong, but I’ve noticed…’
Self-disclosure can be a highly eff ective tool. By searching your history you can genuinely help your clients. In order
to tap into your own experiences and turn them into useful stories, ask yourself the following questions;

1. What experiences have you had in life that could translate across to your work?
2. How did you handle those situations and how could others learn from your experience?
3. Can you present them in a way that meets all the above points?

After asking yourself these questions, if you come up with nothing then just do what every good coach does – feel free
to ‘borrow’ stories from others. A good story with a powerful or eye-opening point can help a client find their own answers to their current situation.


Chad Timmermans
Chad is a provisional sport psychologist specialising in consulting with personal trainers and fi tness facilities. He also has a private practice in which he helps clients with exercise psychology and sport psychology. For further information on workshops and one-on-one coaching, Chad can be contacted at chadtimmermans@hotmail.com or 0416 113013.