How to talk about fitness (with people you care about)

There are some things that can be tricky to talk about without real emotional distance. Health behaviours are in that group. So, when it comes to talking about this stuff with the people closest to us, things can get weird pretty quickly—even with top-notch intentions. Suffice it to say that there are some skills involved.

Over the years, I have come to think of intrinsic motivation in the same way that Neanderthals probably thought about fire: it’s precious and delicate, and please (please, please) don’t stomp on anyone else’s. For that reason, I want to share some ideas around how to take care of that flame for others.

Margielyn Didal opted to jump this flight of stairs instead of discussing healthy food choices with her parents.

Whenever my judgement lapses long enough for me to find myself in an online comments section, I am reminded of how volatile—and useless—shaming is as a strategy. People change because they want to change—and because they decide to change. The idea of being terrible to someone because you want to help them is deeply dysfunctional. Self-contempt has absolutely been used to create change. But it burns dirty; the collateral damage can be dramatic.

When people are sharing their challenges with you, they are probably asking for you to do one (or all) of the following:

To listen like a champ
You can do that by asking questions, rephrasing things to make sure you understand, and making sure that the things are crystal clear. Some of the most rewarding conversations I’ve ever had have challenged me to understand AND the other person to clarify their words and ideas.

To empathize
You may not have had this struggle. But you’ve had a struggle. That’s why you can relate.

To be without agenda
You may well have achieved great personal success by living exclusively on narwhal horn shavings and shredded back-issues of Inside Wrestling. However, that doesn’t mean that your own experience will translate. You may think that this person will benefit greatly from adding or subtracting things like powerlifting totals, muscle, or body fat. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s your call to make.

In fact, a lot of people have had dark experiences trying to live someone else’s version of health or fitness. As someone in the inner circle, you need to tread delicately. I sometimes think of previous traumas like allergies. Peanuts are innocuous-looking little things. But if someone has a volatile history with them, you’re obligated to avoid eating a PB&J sandwich before heading over. This isn’t your problem but it’s your responsibility.

To be open
One type of question I’ve learned to ask advocates for not changing. “What would be good about not doing X?” Or “What would be bad about doing X.” It’s counter-intuitive. It might even go against what your heart is crying out for. But your ability to let go of your own agenda is what allows you to listen. People change because they want to change and opportunities to change are presented that fit their level of motivation and ability. You’d be surprised how much people can open up when you stop trying to convince them. 

To keep it cool
It’s entirely possible that you’ll feel frustrated. Or angry. Or Litost (a particularly Czech word that describes “the state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery”). Without relative distance from your relatives or friends, however, objectivity will go bye-bye—along with your chance to be a part of someone’s long-term support system.

To (yes) take no for an answer
If you offer a suggestion or option and the other person says no, an amazing opportunity emerges: you get to say “Ok.” In that moment, the other person feels heard, seen, and in control.

To take not knowing for a possibility
How often do you ask someone for an opinion and hear the words, “I don’t know”? It’s pretty rare. But there seems to be a real correlation between the frequency of this phrase and the expertise of the human saying it. The more you know, the more that you realize you don’t know.

To leave the solutions (and glory) for the other person
It’s so, so, so not a knowledge issue. People are pretty savvy. And while you can sometimes offer some insight on first principles (why a thing works), the advice part works best when you can alley-oop the ball and let them dunk the sucker.

To be gentle with thyself
Always. Here, though, it’s knowing that you may not be able to solve this problem in one conversation—no matter how badly you want to. The good stuff takes time.