What To Say & How To Say It

A client calls to cancel a training appointment or dog walk, knowing it’s against your policy. You show up for a training session to find the client’s not done their homework again. You decide a student and her dog would be much better off in private training. You realize it’s time to let a client go. All of these situations require a difficult conversation. Putting such conversations off only makes them harder. Rushing in too fast can make the situation worse. So what do you say? And how do you say it?Two dogs looking at each other, both with their tongues out.

Here’s the 3-part dogbiz formula for finding the right words for any situation:

Set your conversation up for success with the 3 Ps
Humans are complex. We have ability to engage in complex language. We have complex emotions. We each carry a lifetime of complex experiences that influence how we interpret the world around us. Put all that together and it’s no wonder we often find it difficult to get along, to hear each other properly, to respond to situations as calmly and rationally as we might.

Challenging conversations are more likely to go smoothly when we take the time to think them through, from both our perspective and the clients’. The 3 Ps—Prepare, Pause, and Plan—can help us do that.

P #1: Prepare
Before heading into any conversation, get clear with yourself about your conversation goal. Setting parameters ahead will help you craft your approach and stand firm during the conversation, avoiding temptation to agree to an outcome you regret afterward. What do you want to happen as a result of the interaction? What will success look like? Are there any alternative outcomes you’re willing to entertain?

Answering these questions is much easier when you have clarity about your services, who they’re ideally meant for, and how they’re meant to be used. If you find it difficult to set a conversation goal it may be helpful to spend some time clarifying your service details, policies, and the ideal clients you’d like to attract.

P #2: Pause for perspective
In step two we take time to consider the situation from the client’s perspective. We often enter these conversations focused on our own needs and emotions, compounded by our concern for the dog. With all of that swirling in our minds, it’s easy to overlook the person we’re talking to. But to reach that person, to connect with them and communicate effectively we’ve got to be able to step into their shoes.

Take a few minutes to consider these questions. Writing your answers down will help when it comes time to craft the language for your conversation.

  • Why might the client/student be doing (or not doing) something?
  • What needs might they have?
  • What might their priorities be in the moment?
  • What emotions may be involved for them?
  • How might they be experiencing the situation?
  • What’s in it for them? How will your outcome goal benefit them?

P #3: Plan
Now it’s time to plan what we’ll say and how we’ll say it. As you craft your first draft, keep your goal forefront of mind to ensure clear communication of your intended outcome. Also keep an eye on your answers to the perspective questions. This will help you communicate with empathy, increasing the client’s receptivity what you have to say. Be particularly sure to include your why—your answer to what’s in it for the client. How will they benefit from what you’re communicating?

Step away from your draft for a bit. Now try reading it from the client or student’s perspective. Are you saying what you mean to? How else might your words be heard?

Once you’ve got a solid version, practice your delivery to tighten up your words and build your confidence. (It’s absolutely okay to communicate in writing if you feel you’ll be more successful or more easily received that way.)

The 3 Ps in Action
Let’s look at an example of putting the 3 Ps to work. Say a client calls to tell you her week has gotten away from her and she needs to cancel her day training transfer appointment, even though your cancellation policy is clearly stated in your contract and you’d explained it up front during your initial consult. You’d also explained the importance of the transfer sessions and the client’s role in attending them.

Step 1: Prepare
What is your goal for the conversation? In this case, it’s simple: To convince the client to keep the appointment. You want to protect your schedule and revenue. You also want to protect training progress for the client and the dog.

Step 2: Pause for perspective
It’s very frustrating that the client wants to cancel, even after the care you’d taken to explain the critical role these sessions play in the training plan and its success. But let’s take a deep breath. The client obviously cares about her dog, or she wouldn’t have invested in a training package. And she clearly want results or, again, she wouldn’t have invested in a training package—especially a more expensive one in which the trainer does the training. This isn’t a lack of care.

And though it can be easy to focus on personal feelings, such as frustration or feeling disrespected by the client’s request, the more likely culprit is simply overwhelm. The client has put too much on her calendar and is feeling stressed. She’s looking for a release valve, something to remove from her schedule to take some pressure off.

Step 3: Plan
The job, then, is to convince the client that she stands to lose more by missing the appointment than she stands to gain. We know she cares about the dog. We know she cares about the training results. We know she’s invested a lot of money to get those results. Protecting that investment and those results, helping her achieve her goals, gain relief from stressful walks, and enjoy her dog—this is our why, what’s in it for her to keep the appointment.

With all of this in mind, our script might go something like this:

I’m so sorry this week’s feeling so stressful. We can reschedule our Friday appt., but before we do I just want to make sure it’s really the best option for you. Remember, as I explained at our consult and in our contract, I’ll have to charge you for the appointment, and we’ll be slowing down progress toward being able to enjoy your walks with Charlie. He and I are making some great strides and I hate for you to lose the opportunity to take advantage of that, given all the money you’re investing in his training. Before I take our appointment off the calendar, are you sure we can’t make Friday work?

This script makes the goal clear: We want to keep this appointment. It also leaves no room for alternate outcomes. But it’s delivered with empathy and caring, both for the stressful week the client is having and for the frustrating walks that brought her to us in the first place. We are standing firm about our intended outcome because we care about the client’s success.

When we go into difficult conversations with the 3 Ps we’re much more likely to come out pleased with the results. If thinking on your feet in such moments is not your strong suit, make a list of the client conversations you most dread. Take some time to use the 3 Ps to set yourself up for success ahead of time. Prepare for each with a clear goal. Arm yourself with a caring perspective from the client’s point of view. Then plan what you’ll say to communicate your goal from that place of empathy. Add a 4th P—practice—and you’ll be ready for any conversation that comes your way!