Whether you’re an animal behavior professional working with clients or a knowledgeable pet parent who is talking to your friends and family about animals, we hear a lot of myths, explanatory fictions, and inaccurate descriptions of behavior. There’s a whole lot of misinformation out there about behavior in general and what we do for a living in particular, but if people knew what we know they wouldn’t need to hire us. So dealing with that misinformation is just a part of the job.
But here’s the thing we professionals have to remember: it might be the millionth time that we’ve had a conversation about what dominance is and is not, or reframing what clients perceive as stubbornness or demanding behavior or selective hearing, or helping clients to realize that walks aren’t the only – or even the best – way to provide their dogs with exercise–but for the client, this is all new information to them. And a lot of these beliefs carry a lot of emotional weight for that client. They can be carrying a lot of frustration, fear, shame, and exhaustion. Or, on the other hand, these beliefs can feel validating or affirming, or help them to feel like they have some control over their outcomes.
So it’s important to tread lightly when helping our clients learn more accurate observational skills, perceptions, and definitions. If we want to develop a strong, trusting relationship with our clients where they feel safe enough to be vulnerable and honest with us, we shouldn’t come in hot with language policing, “well actually” statements, and blasting their dearly-held myths out of the water.
So what should we do instead? It depends!
Pick Your Battles
As a first step, if my client is saying something that isn’t accurate, I ask myself, “Does this matter in this moment? Will this get in the way of our progress at this point?”
If the answer is no, I let it go. If I’m successful at building a long-term relationship with my client, we can address it later on down the road when the time is right.
If the answer is yes, the misinformation is going to impede our progress, then I’ll move on to the next step.
Acknowledge the Kernel of Truth
In almost every myth and misconception, there’s a little bit of truth. If something is just 100% completely absolutely wrong, it’s usually less believable. It’s that kernel of truth that makes myths, pseudoscience, and explanatory fictions so compelling. So we should eagerly point out the parts that they’ve gotten right. Acknowledge the things that are true.
Plus, it doesn’t feel very good when people just tell you straight up, “No. You’re wrong.” There might be times and places where that approach is necessary or appropriate, but when working with clients you’re not going to win them over by bluntly telling them they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or telling them that they’re using the wrong words to describe a behavior. Or that they’ve fallen for some pseudoscientific garbage.
So I always start by acknowledging that kernel of truth in what they’re saying. Then I follow that up with a reframe, as well as an explanation as to how that reframe will help them, meet their needs, and/or remove an obstacle for them.
- Instead of saying, “Well actually, dominance in dogs is a myth,” we might say, “You are absolutely right that dominance is a thing! Let’s talk about what it does and doesn’t look like in dogs so we can accurately identify when it’s occurring and when something else is going on. If something else is going on that is being misinterpreted as dominance, and we try to address it as dominance, we won’t be as effective.”
- Instead of saying, “It’s not demand barking, it’s connection-seeking barking,” we might say, “Oof, I hear you! That frequent, loud demand barking is annoying and disruptive and uncomfortable for sure. Your experience is valid and you are a trooper for putting up with that! And you know what? That exhaustion and frustration you’re feeling is probably just as hard as the barking itself, right? So let’s reframe how we’re thinking about the barking to make it easier for you to empathize with your dog while you’re teaching them better ways to communicate.”
- Instead of saying, “I know you like to walk your dog, but your dog clearly doesn’t like it, so you should stop taking them on walks,” we might say, “Aw, I love that you enjoy going out on walks with your dog! Let’s work together to find times and locations where you can walk with your dog in peace so that the two of you aren’t constantly having to worry about stressors. Then for the rest of the time, I bet we can find some other ways to provide that physical and mental exercise, sensory stimulation, and bonding time.”
By giving your learners validation, agreeing with the things they’re right about, and then working alongside them instead of creating a hierarchical power dynamic, you are demonstrating your ability to listen and learn in addition to teaching. And we can’t expect our students to learn if we’re not willing to do the same.
- Consider a conversation you’ve had recently where acknowledging the kernel of truth could have been beneficial. If you were to do it again, how could you adjust your approach to achieve a different outcome?
- If you are a professional who is also working on navigating challenging conversations, make sure you check out Episode 10 of Enrichment for the Real World where we were joined by Mike Shikashio to discuss Influencing the Industry Through Empathy. It’s filled with great suggestions!