Mom Was Right: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
A good friend of mine is about to bring home her very first dog. As you can imagine, I want to give her buckets of advice to help make this an awesome experience. I want to tell my friend everything I know, so that she can avoid all the mistakes anyone has ever made in the history of owning a dog.
I bet you guys can relate. If you’re involved in animal welfare or a pet-related business you’re probably doing a lot of knowledge dropping. From trying to explain the problem with puppy mills to trying to convince someone to leash their dog, we all want to get others to listen to us. It’s not easy!
It got me thinking: How can we share information with others in a way that’s truly helpful and well received? How do we keep the conversation going and create the right conditions for learning?
Over the years, I’ve picked up some tips that have helped me to get better at talking with others about stuff that I’m passionate about.
Here’s one thing I know for sure:
Being right is not enough. What good is being right if no one sticks around to listen?
How we give people information is as important as the information itself. Mom was right when she told us, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!”
These are the four nuggets that I try to keep in mind, so that I’m not just talking to my cats:
- Avoid Information Overload
- Personal Experience is King
- Help Them Save Face
- Small Steps Deserve Big Cheers
Avoid Information Overload
You can’t know too much, but you can say too much. – Calvin Coolidge
When sharing information, particularly with a newbie, we have a tendency to blast the pants off of them with information. One sure way to kill a learning buzz is to overwhelm someone. When I’m overloaded, I just shut down. Like a fainting goat.
One of the hardest lessons for me to learn back when I was working at the shelter was that adopters can only take in so much information at once. I wanted to tell them EVERYTHING they might ever need to know right then, while I had them in my
clutches sight. So I would start burying them in information: health and medical needs, behavior and training advice, favorite toys, treats, tools, books, what the dog’s poop looked like, and a brief history of how man domesticated the dog.
What they wanted was to get their hands on the dog in front of them and experience it for themselves. They could only absorb a tiny smidgen of what I was saying.
So, I learned to tell them just the most important information and then put a cork in it. This was excruciating. Cutting to the chase is not my strong suit (see: this blog). But I knew that if I wanted them to hear the really important bits, I had to cut back on what I said overall.
Avoid overloading your listener. They don’t need to know everything all at once. Try to let the newbies – whether they’re new dog owners or new to a challenging experience or an animal welfare issue – get their footing before you slam them with everything you know.
Keep it simple, give them a few concrete actions steps, and send them home with stuff to read later. Patricia McConnell says so. If the situation allows for it, make yourself available for a follow up. The follow up is important because…
Personal Experience is King
“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
― Will Rogers
I have to pee on the fence. So do many adopters, clients, advocates, and probably your uncle Larry too.
We learn by doing and we’re not the only ones. Remember learning to drive? No matter how good the manual may be, it’s not the same as actually driving a car. Once you have some time behind a wheel, then the manual suddenly makes a whole lot more sense. Oh, you think as you hit your first patch of black ice, that’s what skidding feels like. Which way do I turn the wheel again?!
It helps to acknowledge this need for experience, so you can let go a little.
At the shelter I learned that people needed to experience living with the dog before they could truly make sense of the resources they’d received.
Before: it was me yammering at them while their brains were hijacked by shmoopy-faced dogs. What I was saying couldn’t compete and didn’t feel relevant in that moment.
After: they had experienced the shmoopy-faced dog taking a dump on their rug and it became real (and smelly). They could put what I had said about house-training into context. It was suddenly personal, relevant, and really believable!
Once I understood this need for experience, I did two things: I incorporated hands-on learning during the adoption counseling (ex: I would have them put the harness on the dog themselves to learn how it fit) and I made myself available for help after they brought the dog home.
Until we’ve experienced something for ourselves and figured out how it’s relevant to us personally, it’s tough for us to understand something new or believe it to be true. There’s a kinesthetic learner in all of us.
That’s why it’s such an a-ha moment when someone lives with a reactive dog for the first time. Suddenly, they understand everything anyone has ever yelled at them, like “my dog needs space!” because now they’re living the DINOS-dream for themselves. It wasn’t real until then. Personal experience is king.
I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t try to help others understand things in advance. Anyone who is a little further along in the journey should try to put down gutter bumpers to help newbies do the right thing and prevent anything truly bad or dangerous from happening. But we also have to accept that people need room to do some learning on their own. Which means that mistakes are inevitable…
Help them Save Face
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou
When people make mistakes, your job (if you want them to learn anything) is to protect their dignity. Help them save face, so they’ll stay in the conversation.
In other words, try not to shame the shit out of them. If you do, you’ll lose them in a heartbeat.
Years ago I met my now-BFF while she was working in a Philly pet store that sold only very high quality food. The brand my family had fed my childhood dog (it rhymes with Defiance Riot, which is also the name of my imaginary hardcore band) wasn’t for sale. I mentioned that the food must have been OK, since we bought it from our vet.
My friend, who probably wanted to vomit all of her holistic health and nutrition knowledge at me, simply said, “Yeah, it’s not so great.” And she causally pointed to a book Food Pets Die For, if I was interested in learning more. The book was also her way of saying, it’s not just my opinion. Check out this expert.
Her super laid back brilliance allowed me to absorb this surprising new knowledge while maintaining my dignity. I was privately embarrassed that I knew so little about dog food. My friend, who wanted me to learn more, helped me to see where I had room to improve in such a generous way. She didn’t put me on the defensive. Instead, she opened the door a crack and gently suggested I take a look.
And I did, because I didn’t have to admit I was an idiot in order to do it.
So hard to do, isn’t it? I know. But we have to remember this isn’t about us showing off how much we know or how skilled or smart we are about a topic. It’s about helping someone else feel comfortable enough to check out what’s on the other side of the door.
Help others save face when they share something that you may not agree with or when they make a mistake.
If you blast them with negative information – telling them how wrong or dumb they are or how horrifyingly awful that product/trainer/idea is that they like – you’ll run the risk of shutting them down in embarrassment and shame. It doesn’t matter how right you are, if the person you were trying to reach has left the conversation because they hate they way you’ve made them feel.
I’m still learning how to do this, btw. It is hard.
side note: Have you guys heard about “spontaneous trait transference“? That’s the phenomenon where people spontaneously and unintentionally associate what you say about other people with you yourself. So if you’re talking about a certain dog trainer or co-worker’s negative qualities, guess what? The people listening are associating those negative qualities with you. It works in reverse too, thankfully.
Small Steps Deserve Big Cheers
“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.” Anatole France
So you’ve got someone who’s listening? Cool. Here’s my favorite way to keep people interested in learning: Be a cheerleader. Pom poms are optional, but kind of awesome.
Celebrate whatever it is that you want them to do more of – no matter how small – and build the foundation of a genuine and positive relationship with your adopters, clients, friends, and neighbors (maybe even your adversaries!). When people feel good, they stay engaged.
Don’t wait for them to get it all right before you start celebrating their accomplishments. Remember these words, spoken by the great sage Bill Murray in What About Bob?: Baby steps.
Small steps deserve big cheers. Even if you’re dying for them to speed things up and get to the other side, keep rooting them on if they’re headed in the right direction (p.s. they may never get to the other side, so try to accept that not everyone will do things exactly as you do). They’ll appreciate your support and encouragement. It will make them feel good about themselves and their choices. And that will help them stay motivated to continue, even if things get more challenging. They may even allow you to continue on the journey with them.
There’s tons more advice out there about how to effectively share what we know, but those are my guiding nuggets. The truth is that I still fail at all four of these steps all the time. But I’m always trying to improve, because every once in a while I really want to help someone learn something new or useful. I bet you do too.
So consider how you’re sharing what you know. If you don’t, you might get pegged as the Crazy Dog Lady. That’s an easy way for others to dismiss all the great stuff you have to share. And that would be a bummer for the dogs. They need you!