So you made a mistake with a client—now what?

Healthcare

The moment Dr. Karin Nordin exited the Zoom call, she knew she’d made a crucial mistake.

It was her first coaching session with a brand-new client, and from the get-go, things felt a little off.

The client (let’s call her Dierdre) was feeling emotional. Within minutes, tears were shed.

And when Dr. Nordin offered advice, Dierdre swiftly rejected it.

That’s when Nordin, a mild-mannered person and seasoned professional, did something out of character:

She got mad.

Instead of applying her coaching expertise, she found herself ranting at Deirdre, challenging her excuses, and trying to force her to change.

Naturally, the more insistent Nordin got, the more obstinate Deirdre became.

By the time she closed her laptop, Dr. Nordin knew without a doubt… that client wasn’t coming back.

What do you do when you screw up?

Turns out, you can learn from Dr. Nordin’s experience. 

Nordin’s a PN Certified coach, a curriculum advisor to Precision Nutrition, and has a PhD in Health Communication.

She also considers herself a pro at making mistakes. Well, not just making mistakes, but growing from them.

Her academic and professional expertise is in something called growth mindset, which views mistakes and failures as springboards for improvement.

(And yes, the term “growth mindset” is almost a cliché these days, but it’s an actual research-based psychological discipline, and something we can all benefit from.)

Here’s how Dr. Nordin bounced-back from her mistake—and how you can do the same.

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Step 1. If you feel compelled to fix it right now… wait.

You know that almost barfy feeling you get when you mess up?

Dr. Nordin feels it too. After her conversation with Dierdre, “I felt vomity and gross for a while. I kept thinking, ‘I handled that so poorly, this is the worst’.”

While her natural impulse was to try to fix her mistake, she chose to wait a full 24 hours before taking action.

“We want to be able to react in a neutral state, or as neutral as possible,” she explains. “And that can take a bit of time.”

In other words, the classic ‘sleep on it’ advice still applies. Of course, that can take a bit of discipline (especially if your tendency is to fix things right away.)

“I knew I’d be thinking about it while I lay in bed at night,” says Nordin, “but with a bit of distance I was able to respond to the situation much better.”

The takeaway: Your inclination might be to try to make things right, immediately. But don’t rush. You’ll likely respond from a calmer, more rational headspace the following day.

Step 2. Practice radical responsibility.

A big part of coaching is helping clients recognize the autonomy and control they have over their choices and actions.

This is empowering: Clients begin to realize they have what it takes to change their habits, and achieve their goals.

That same principle applies to coaches, too. Especially after we’ve goofed up.

“I find it very useful to take a ‘radical responsibility’ perspective,” says Nordin.

“No matter the situation, I say to myself: Let’s just pretend for a moment that 100 percent of this is my fault. Then, on that basis, I ask myself: What can I do about it?”

Depending on your mistake, the answer might be obvious.

For example, if you gave a client information that turned out to be wrong, simply own up to the mistake and provide them with the correct details.

But even if the mistake was more cringe-worthy, Nordin says acknowledgment is still a good way to go.

In the case with Dierdre, Nordin waited 24 hours—and then penned an email that went something like this:

Hey Dierdre, 

I know our conversation got really heated, and I apologize for that. What you do in your life is 100 percent your choice—not mine.

I totally understand that you don’t want to move forward with coaching, and I’ve refunded your deposit. 

Thank you for your time. I wish you the best in all your future endeavors.

The takeaway: Resist the temptation to blame the client, deny the mistake, justify it, or sweep it under the rug. Take ownership for your actions, and do your best to right the wrong. This approach is not only more professional—it’s also more empowering.

Step 3. Look for the growth opportunity.

Once you’ve done the right thing on behalf of the client, consider what you can learn from the experience.

“My mistake taught me a lot about my coaching practice and how to market myself as a behavior change coach,” says Nordin.

Her biggest realization?

That she hadn’t properly communicated to Dierdre what to expect in their coaching session. “I think she expected someone who would just listen to her and help her sort through her emotional issues, whereas my coaching is more about habit change.”

And yes, client resistance is a normal part of change. But if Nordin had given Dierdre a better idea of what her behavior coaching typically entails, they might have avoided the conflict.

“It wasn’t Deirdre’s fault. Many people don’t know what behavior change coaching is all about,” adds Nordin. “I need to do a better job helping people understand what to expect when they work with me.”

The takeaway: Don’t beat yourself up for your mistake. Instead, focus on how you can use it as a learning experience. Aim to come up with at least one thing you’ll work on improving or do differently next time.

Step 4. Get curious with yourself.

In addition to professional growth, mistakes can be an opportunity to understand ourselves better.

Sure, sometimes mistakes are just mistakes—caused by inexperience or lack of knowledge. But they often point to areas where we can dig deeper.

“This is especially the case if it becomes a pattern,” says Nordin. “For example, if you find yourself repeatedly getting aggravated or tense, you might be projecting your issues onto the client.”

After the situation with Dierdre, Dr. Nordin asked herself, “Why did I get so mad about that?”

Ultimately, she decided that her emotional outburst had been triggered by some personal issues that she’d been neglecting.

So, being the growth-minded person she is, she decided to explore them with a therapist.

The takeaway: Do some honest self-reflection. Sure, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” (That’s a Sigmund Freud quote, in case you’ve never seen it.)

On the other hand, some blunders (especially repeated ones) could serve as a wake-up call, or even a personal breakthrough.

Yes, mistakes might suck in the moment. But if you can approach them with curiosity, an open mind, and a dose of compassion, they just might make you a better coach—and a happier person.

If you’re a coach, or you want to be…

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for their unique body, preferences, and circumstances—is both an art and a science.

If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification.

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