by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

We hear it every month: “We don’t have any problem getting the already active involved in fitness programs, but how do we get the couch sitters going?” Or “We see a lot of people who need to lose 10-15 pounds at our introductory weight management sessions, but not many who are 30-40 pounds overweight. How do we get them involved?” The answer — as is so often the case — lies with the target participant.

Here’s the usual programming approach: Identify the problem; develop or buy a service to educate, motivate, and support behaviors that would affect the problem; then promote the heck out of it and hope the right people show up. Most of them won’t.

Beyond focus groups and interest surveys, participant involvement in what they need comes down to a partnership mentality. Some characteristics of partnerships that contribute to success include:


  • Ownership. Both you and the participant have a stake in the challenge and ultimate success.
  • Trust. If you don’t have it, you’ll never be successful.
  • Mutual goals. Before a business partnership moves forward, everyone needs to have the same goals. In a health promoter/participant partnership, shared goals help both parties focus on what will really make a difference and shed extraneous activities.
  • Shared risk. Most health promotion services are designed so that if they fail, so what? The participant becomes a nonparticipant, returns to their previous behavior, and you move on to your next participant. But in a partnership, you both understand that a failure is a shared failure, which reflects negatively on each party.

How to Form a Partnership

Most successful businesses form partnerships with key customers because it’s easier to keep a good customer than to find a new one. And good partner-customers become good sellers. This works for wellness, too. Try these steps:


  • Communicate needs. Both parties need to define their goals and desires. Only after it’s all out on the table (or up on the white board) can you begin to see links and crossovers. Start by saying “In this partnership I want…”
  • Discuss values. If potential partners don’t mesh somewhere on their value spectrums, a successful relationship is unlikely. Start by each person writing “The most important things in my life are…” Then discuss them. Look for similarities, common ground. And even if you find only a few connections, you’ll each have a better sense of the other person’s values.
  • Assign roles. What will each partner do for the relationship? Outline processes to keep the roles clear.
  • Describe success. How will you know the partnership is working? What are the markers you plan to hit? When will you be there?
  • Draft and sign a contract. It’s not as daunting as it sounds. Simply write out the partnership goals, what each person will do and when, and how and when progress will be documented. Then sign and date it, make a copy for each, and keep it close as a regular reminder.

The partnership technique isn’t a replacement for mass programming that raises awareness and generates interest. But when you do recruit a high-risk candidate who’s ready to make a behavior change, you can improve their chances for success by applying partnership principles.


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