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By practising the art of active listening you can truly hear what your clients are telling you – and respond in a manner that rewards you both.

In this series on client retention, psychologists Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot provide unique insights into what makes your clients tick, and how to keep them coming back week after week, month after month, year after year.

In the first article in this series, we discussed the importance of using empathy to engage and connect with your clients. In a nutshell: when you feel sympathy for someone, you feel sorry for them – whereas when you feel empathy, you take time to think about what’s going on for your client, you listen hard, and you walk a mile in their shoes.

Listening – and listening well – is a skill. Some people are born with it (they’re the ones you go to when you need to talk), but most people need to develop or hone their active listening skills.

Why do we call it active listening? Because you don’t just sit there while the client is talking, thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, or working out what you’re going to say as soon as they’re finished.

When you listen actively, you work hard to stay present. You slide your own thoughts to one side, and focus on what the client is saying. It’s surprisingly hard work.

The good, the bad and…

Here’s the difference between good listeners and bad listeners. As you read the list, think about a person you know who ticks the boxes on the bad listener list.

Bad listeners:

  • Interrupt or change the subject
  • Speak over you
  • Are chronic problem solvers or advice givers
  • Shift their body around impatiently or can’t hold eye contact
  • Finish your sentences
  • Hijack your point by saying ‘Yes! That happened to me! I remember when…’

Does a bad listener you know come to mind?

Think about what it’s like when you talk to that person, and how you feel. You’re likely to feel that they don’t really understand you or know what’s going on for you. You may feel shut down, or dismissed.

Not a very nice feeling, especially if that person is someone important to you.

Now let’s take a look at the characteristics of good listeners. Good listeners:

  • Are patient and don’t jump in when you’re pausing to think
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Give their full attention, including eye contact and posture
  • Let you know they follow what you are saying by nodding in agreement or asking you to clarify something
  • Don’t judge or criticise
  • Don’t relate everything you say to their own personal experience
  • Are genuinely curious about what’s going on for you.

Empathy and active listening are the golden rules of client engagement. In order to truly connect to your client and give them a reason to attend your sessions – even when life’s stresses get in the way – you need to understand their world from their perspective (empathy), and let them know you’ve heard and understood (active listening).

Let’s compare

Here’s an example. Beth is a 42-year-old accountant working full time with two primary school-age children. She’s desperate to lose those kilos that snuck up on her after having the kids.

Beth: I’m really struggling with getting here during Winter. The kids just seem to be sick all the time, and I have to take time off work and try and work from home. I’ve been thinking I should suspend my membership and get back to it in Term 4.

Response from PT who hasn’t read this article:

PT: Yeah, that happened to my mum too when we were kids. I don’t know how you mums do it. I’ll suspend your membership now.

Response from PT with ninja listening skills:

PT: That sounds really tough. Poor Tim and Bella. But more importantly, how are you coping?

Beth: Yeah, it is tough. And I’m not really coping. That’s why I thought I’d try and cut something out.

PT: Mm, I get that. But I also know how important building your fitness is to you.

Beth: You’re right. And I hate always putting myself last on the list. But I don’t know what else to do.

PT: What else have you thought about?

Beth and her PT go on to discuss other options and, with her trainer’s help, she realises she can enlist the help of her husband, change her session times, and alternate sessions with walks at lunch time during the day at work.

Active listening allows you to get an accurate picture of the challenges and frustrations your clients face. They feel cared for and supported because you’re actively letting them know you value them as individuals – not just sources of income. And when their motivation and commitment start to wobble, you can use the knowledge you’ve gained about them to reconnect them to your service.

In the next issue, we’ll talk about honing your listening skills so you can gain the maximum information about your client and tailor your interactions and program to their needs.

Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot
 are Melbourne-based psychologists specialising in treating overweight and obese clients. For information on their books The Ultimate Guide To Training Overweight And Obese Clients, and Do You Really Want To Lose Weight? visit

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