An Antidote to Parasitic Ideas

‘What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?… An idea. Resilient. Highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, It’s almost impossible to eradicate.’
-Dom Cobb


Inception (2010) by Christopher Nolan

Word count: 886

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes


  • Unhelpful ideas are all around us
  • Unfortunately, many of our clients will be gripped by these ideas
  • Effective questioning is a method of planting helpful ideas as well as cleaning out the harmful ones
  • Effective questioning in itself is a skill and illustrates the complexity of coaching

How many times have you told a client what they should be doing? Was it successful? Despite possessing the answers to their goal, how hard is it to get certain clients to follow your advice? How many times have you created an amazing plan only for your client to drop out of it after three weeks because of something they ‘saw on Instagram?’ This is a common phenomenon in our craft. This is where we scratch and bang our heads against the wall. These are the moments that compound, ultimately causing us to lose faith in our profession.

This ‘I say, you do,’ approach only works to people who are open to your suggestions – and they are rarer than you think. But there is another way. It is longer, and it is more complex. But it is effective.

In Inception (2010), the protagonist, Dom (played by the vampire, Leonardo DiCaprio), is tasked with planting an idea within the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) by entering Robert’s dreams. By doing so, Robert believes this idea to be his own, and will act out his new-found beliefs in the real world. The act of planting an idea – is ‘inception.’

Despite the fictitious nature of this film, we must remember that although fiction is imagined, it still comes from an individual’s mind, and any mind is influenced by the ideas around them. So, our next question is – is it possible to plant an idea inside someone else’s mind? The answer is a resounding – yes, yes it absolutely is.

Look no further than our own industry. Not so long ago, the image of ‘male fitness’ may have been a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his gigantic deltoids. Now, we have an image of Chris Hemsworth; we’ve transitioned from the ‘big bodybuilder’ to an ‘athletic superhero’. And how many males are gripped by this ideal – to look like Schwarzenegger or Hemsworth?

How do we then ‘inception’ someone without using professionally edited photos of Schwarzenegger and Hemsworth? We don’t plant the idea. We guide our clients to create it themselves. The way we do this is through effective questioning. Borrowing a technique used in counselling called, motivational interviewing, we engage in conversation with our client, subtly asking the right questions until an idea is fully formed. Because we know a client so well, the challenge is keeping our judgement and advice at bay – and facilitating self-discovery for the client.

Consider the following example. Your client, Jenny is planning to undergo another 12-week diet challenge to ‘lose the extra kilograms.’ However, you as the trainer know that this is yet another ‘fad diet’ and your client would be better off building long term habits. They were also unable to keep their weight off because they reverted back to their previous habits after the challenge.

Although frustrating, if we are to engage in motivational interviewing, we must refrain from offering advice. Instead, we must ask the right questions with the goal of leading them to say what you want.

For example, instead of saying ‘but that didn’t work last time, so it won’t this time either,’ you might say, ‘Oh I see, what went wrong last time? If so, how is this time going to be different?’ This approach allows the client to articulate their idea, whether fully formed or not, in a non-judgemental way. From there, we can identify gaps in their idea and ask gentle questions to make them self-aware. Eventually, with patience, you might ask ‘So… is this really a good idea?’ to which they will hopefully answer, ‘actually… no. I don’t think it is.’

This strategy of persuasion requires an extensive array of knowledge on your part, strong rapport with your client, and a substantial amount of patience. In fact, it is not uncommon to engage in extended dialogue – for the sole purpose of having your client reflect on their ideas. This is arguably more important than just prescribing exercise because reflection is how we learn from our decisions. And it is through reflection that we make better decisions for our future. This is one of the pillars of great coaches.

Coaching is more than instructing our clients on exercise technique. It also involves but is not limited to understanding client intently, and persuading them to do what’s right for them – even if they are unaware of what that is at the time. It is essential that we, as coaches, develop our toolkit beyond that of just movement. That’s why at M3, we believe in creating courses that make you a well-rounded coach. We believe a coach does so much more than prescribe exercise. We believe the ripple effect a coach’s role can have on society. We believe in the impact of coaches.

 Yours in Health and Movement,
The M3 Team