Understanding a Better Approach to Get Results

Telling a client to stop doing a thing, regardless of how destructive to their goals it is, is not always beneficial. 

Everyone knows that eating a pint of Haagen Daz every weeknight is going to create issues on their weight loss journey. 

Your client definitely knows that just as you do.

You’ve told them countless times to stop doing it…but they proceed to make the walk to the freezer before bed.

Instead of losing hope, pushing them harder in the gym, or the multitude of other ways trainers try to overcompensate for this continual misstep, put yourself in their shoes and instead ask:

“Why does your client keep making this mistake?”

That is the million-dollar question.

If you’ve been in this field for any length of time, you’ve experienced the frustration that comes with this conundrum, you’ve suffered through the client turnover that comes with being unable to unlock the answer to that question, and you’ve seen your paycheck suffer because you couldn’t get your clients to execute on technically sound advice.

Well, good news.

We have found the answer to that million-dollar question. So now, when clients ask why they keep doing something they know isn’t helpful toward their goals, you have an answer.

When your clients metaphorically stumble, you will understand why and have the patience and compassion to steer them in the right direction.

And, when you’re devising behaviors for your clients to support their goals, you’ll be implementing ones that your clients can sustain long term which will result in real progress.


The answer is simple: that particular behavior serves a root cause for them.


Remember that – all behaviors serve a root cause for the person doing them, that is, the person performing the behavior receives some sort of benefit or fulfillment out of it.

Every single behavior you do, I do, she does, all serve some sort of root cause.

Let’s go back to our nightly pint of ice cream eater from above.

What possible root cause could eating a pint of ice cream serve?

Well, surprisingly, that particular behavior could serve several different functions even beyond the fact that it tastes delicious.

Maybe that behavior serves as a de-stressor or a means for downregulation. From a physiological perspective, a high carb, high-fat food helps to drive down cortisol and increase serotonin production so the person ingesting them relaxes. They’re called comfort foods for a reason. This is one possible function of the nightly pint.

Maybe, regardless of the physiological effects, the evening ice cream serves as a reward for a long day’s work. The person could feel they deserve a treat like that after an honest day’s labor. There is a sense of entitlement for their efforts. The ice cream in this instance serves as a recompense for their day’s efforts.

Maybe the behavior offers a sense of belonging and community for the person. If for example, having ice cream is a family tradition, a bonding experience at night, so there is a form of social pressure, an expectation that they participate in the same behavior. It’s a ritual that shows that they’re part of the family. To not participate in this behavior, feels isolating or they think potentially sends a message of judgment to the rest of the family, their “tribe”.

Or maybe the behavior keeps occurring for other reasons. The reality is that we’ve just dipped our toe into the possible pool of options to understand a behavior. And even with this shallow dive into behavior change, you’ve already seen examples where you can better help a current client, or you have the insight to see why a previous approach didn’t work.

This infographic gives you a foundational understanding of the four root causes of behavior:

Any way you look at it, you will first need to ask yourself why they continue these unproductive habits and then dig a level deeper if you’re going to positively impact that person’s behavior.

From our ice cream example above, having the person simply stop eating the ice cream also creates an absence of the benefit they received from that behavior. This is not a recipe for success. A client might gut that out for a few days, but they’ll soon revert back to the habits that served a function that you didn’t address.

And this ice cream example parallels any behavior you want to change.

You have to understand their “why” and then create a replacement that serves that same function if you hope to get a sustainable change with that person.

And, there it is, the key takeaway: the replacement behavior or habit substitution MUST fulfill the same root cause as the existing behavior if the client is going to be consistent with it.  

So, as you read at the beginning of this article, you’ll continue to be frustrated if you keep telling a client to stop doing a particular habit. The absence of the existing habit also leaves an absence of the benefit they receive from that habit. That creates an uphill battle for consistency and results.

Instead, explore the function of the behavior that needs to change.

This does not mean ice cream should or can’t be part of someone’s healthy lifestyle. But once you find the why, even if you substitute part of the experience that allows them to have ice cream in moderation (because a daily pint just isn’t moderation), you are creating a more consistent, healthier plan for them.

And when they can be consistent and achieve the results they want, your frustration will evaporate away. 

And to sum it up…The Summary:

  • All behaviors serve a root cause. 
  • The four root causes are escape, attention, tangible, and sensory.
  • Matching a replacement behavior’s root cause with the undesired behavior’s root cause will make consistency much easier. 


One sentence takeaway: 

When you understand the root cause(s) of your clients’ unhealthy behaviors, you can create easier and more sustainable replacement behaviors for your clients.