E226: Ryan Cartlidge - "Overcoming the Us vs. Them Mindset in Dog Training"

In this episode, Ryan and I talk about the idea of overcoming differences in mindset and training, having difficult conversations, and building better relationships for it!  


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Ryan Cartlidge here with me.

Hi Ryan, welcome to the podcast!

Ryan Cartlidge: Hey. Thanks so much for having me, Melissa, and for everything that you do to help learners around the globe — canine, human, and others. It was great connecting with you recently for the Lemonade Conference, so thank you as well for your part in facilitating that sensational online event.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I am super-excited to have you here because it's your first time on and we get to talk about all sorts of fun stuff today.

Ryan Cartlidge: This is fun. I always pinch myself. I'm like, "Work? What?" I don't like the word "work." This is like re-define work by what you do to earn a living. This is what I do to earn a living, and it doesn't seem like work. It seems like fun.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. If only every day could just be podcast interviews, right?

Ryan Cartlidge: It kind of is. It's the best thing.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. To start us out, do you want to just fill everybody in a little bit on who you are, who's in your house, your background, what you do?

Ryan Cartlidge: My name is Ryan Cartlidge. I'm a certified professional dog trainer through the Karen Pryor Academy. I run my own business, Kapiti Dog Training in Wellington, New Zealand, and I'm the founder of Animal Training Academy. I've been working internationally now as a professional trainer since circa 2007, including here in New Zealand. We are currently in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.

I've additionally spent my whole career working in and for zoological organizations where I have and continue to train entire teams of keepers. And now, through the Animal Training Academy, I connect thousands of animal behavior and training nerds with a large and growing library of lessons and tutorials delivered by the world's most proficient professionals. As far as learners and dogs in my house, I'll share about all of the learners I share my house with. There's one canine called Fibi Dog, who is a Chihuahua-cross-Silky Terrier. She is the smallest member of our household. We have two domestic house cats, T-lo and Bagheera, and a 16-month-old human learner/daughter called Summer. And I also have one wifey.

Melissa Breau: One wifey. Wifey doesn't get a name?

Ryan Cartlidge: Just one wifey. My beautiful wife's name is Sapphire.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of all those learners and your background and all that fun stuff, where did that all start? How did you originally get pulled into this crazy world of training and behavior?

Ryan Cartlidge: I've always been into animals, even though when I was young, I wasn't allowed pets. I had goldfish and I had mice, and they had to live in the garage. My family weren't an animal family. But in university I got a parrot.

With all of those animals I have both guilt and gratitude, like many people who don't know what they're doing and they use what they know and what's familiar with us in society, and I think, unfortunately, that's aversive strategies to manage behavior. So I feel sorry for them having to deal with young Ryan, but I'm grateful now with reflection because I learned a lot from them.

I started to volunteer in zoos around 2007, after going to university and doing a bit of traveling. I landed a job in Cairns, Australia, in the tropical North Queensland, very close to my favorite place in the world. I think I can say that the Daintree Rainforest, or go visit the Daintree Rainforest, and see cassowaries.

If you don't know what a cassowary is, it's a bird that stands nearly as tall as me. I'm nearly two meters tall. They've got bright blue and bright red necks, this massive horn on top of their head, and daggers on their feet. They can kick really hard and cause some serious damage.

I'd see tree kangaroos. That's kangaroos that live in trees, hopping around, and musky rat-kangaroos, kangaroos the size of a rat that used to follow us through the forest, and snakes and crocodiles, in this ancient rainforest. But there was a zoo up there where I landed a job in an educational show setting with free-flight birds.

There's two kinds of birds that really shifted everything and the reason I think I'm sitting here talking to you today. They pulled me in and I was hooked on positive reinforcement training.

The first one was a wedge-tailed eagle, which is one of the largest species of eagle in the world: two-meter wingspan, massive talons on their feet, big beaks. The feet are the things that can do a lot of damage, and this particular wedge-tailed eagle, Ridge, he wanted to use them to do damage on me.

I could work with Ridge in our arena area. He would do trained behaviors for me cooperatively, and I could talk about him and have him on my glove. But as soon as I went into his holding area, he would fly in my face with his talons out, and I didn't know what to do. The people at the organization I was working at didn't know what to do. So I traveled, I went to Taronga Zoo in Sydney, I met someone called Nic Bishop and Peta Clarke, and they, specifically Nic Bishop, helped me learn about positive reinforcement.

Using all of the tools that we love so much, we shaped Ridge by chucking mouse legs. Every time I walked past his holding space, I'd throw him a mouse leg and slowly click the door open and throw a mouse leg on the ground and run away as fast as I could if he stayed on the perch.

We got to the stage after a couple of months where he was voluntarily stepping onto my glove and I could play with his feet and put some equipment on him that he needed for flying. I just had the most amazing relationship with this animal after that.

We've got video of Ridge the wedge sitting on a perch and I'll walk up to him and put my hands under his wings and give him this big scratch and he would roll his talons up on the perch and lean into me, so much so that if I stepped away he'd fall off the perch. Wedge-tailed eagles, in my experience, they love tactile engagement, and this bird was no exception. We used to intentionally spend time every day with him, giving him that tactile attention.

Nick also introduced me to a trainer called Steve Martin that owns a company called Natural Encounters Incorporated in Florida. Through Steve and through Nick, I was introduced to Susan Friedman, and I took her Living in Learning with Animals course.

And then, in a story I like to call "gaining wisdom by removing wisdom," I sat in the dentist's office, about to get my wisdom teeth removed, and I had Susan Friedman's Functional Assessment Intervention Design form in front of me.

I went through it with a situation we had at the zoo with Security, the magpie goose. Security was another bird that was dealt with demonstrating what behaviors one might label as aggressive: flying in people's heads,biting at their boots. A little bit less intimidating than the wedge-tailed eagle, but have you ever come into confrontation with a goose like that? They can hold their own. And so I did Susan's Functional Assessment Intervention Design. Before I go on, I should say that euthanasia was being thrown around as a solution for this animal. It was that bad. But we then, after having done the Functional Assessment Intervention Design, implemented some station training, modified his enclosure, and played around with the daily routine of this animal, and within a few weeks he was manageable.

It was life-changing for me. That's why I say I gained wisdom by getting my wisdom removed, because I remember sitting in the dentist office, and life's never really been the same since then. I was empowered and I haven't stopped.

Melissa Breau: First of all, a couple things to go back through there. I love that your parents wouldn't let you have pets but they let you have mice. I don't think that's not the line most parents would draw.

Ryan Cartlidge: I think I just came home with mice one day. I don't think I think I even asked them. And then they were living in the garage.

Melissa Breau: That's pretty funny. The second thing I wanted to comment on was you make working with birds sounds super-appealing. It sounds like working with a malinois constantly.

Ryan Cartlidge: I'm a bird nerd at heart. I worked with a huge array of different species across continents and in different organizations. When you're working with a bird and you're free-flying it, the world is its oyster. It can go at any time, so you really have to build those relationships up and you really have to have trust.

I was lucky enough in 2018, I think, to go to Nepal and meet a guy called Scott Mason, who paraglides with his birds. We went up hundreds of meters in the air with his Egyptian vultures, flying with them, and that, to this day, is probably one of the coolest things I've ever done, to be flying with them after having trained them. And so my love and my passion of birds, and appreciation of them, it's something that I'm …

Melissa Breau: It's not all of them flying at your head with talons.

Ryan Cartlidgs: They are some of my favorite situations because of the wisdom I gained back then and the empowerment that it's given us. The rat is never wrong — they're flying at our heads for a reason, and we have the tools to help them and their human learning partners be successful. So I like them all. Talons flying at my head or not, I love them all.

Melissa Breau: It shows a really extreme example of how much you can change behavior with a little bit of proper application of training.

Ryan Cartlidge: Absolutely, and it completely sucked me in. I saw results immediately. What I also saw was the things I was being told to do before I learned from Susan, from Nick, from Steve, weren't working. That was really clear to me.

Melissa Breau: If that's where you started out, it's a little different, at least to my understanding, from what you're doing day-to-day now. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you got from there to running Animal Training Academy, and what your days look like today?

Ryan Cartlidge: That was 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, I was in Cairns. Then I traveled, I went to Canada, went to a facility that had … I can't even remember … hundreds of birds of prey. I went from doing wildlife shows and free-flight shows for audiences of 20 or 30 people to 700 people, flying condors and falcons, dropping falcons out of hot air balloons, and just madness stuff. And then going to the State Fair of Texas in the U.S. with Natural Encounters, Steve Martin's company. They had trained behavior. They dropped birds out of a Ferris Wheel at the State Fair of Texas. They used to fly down over an audience of thousands of people and land on a presenter's glove onstage. Just these opportunities to do these insanely cool behaviors and work in these shows overseas and different teams and see how different teams operate.

I remember when I was at Dallas working with Natural Encounters and they used to have the show start abruptly. Without really being aware of it, a bird would come soaring through the audience and come land on Steve's glove onstage. They didn't want people walking in a certain area just before that happened because then they might get a hawk smashing them in the head. Up until that point we always had to do those kinds of things. You had to manage the flow of humans when you had birds flying around. Up until that point I'd always said, "Can you stop here, because we don't want you to get hit in the head."

But to see the team in Natural Encounters say, "You are in the perfect spot right now because you have this opportunity to get this awesome close-up view of this bird. If you stand right here, you're going to see this amazing thing happen." It was like, "What do you want them to do instead?" rather than "What do you not want them to do?" To get this opportunity to work in these teams that really understood the science and applied it across the organization …

Melissa Breau: And with people.

Ryan Cartlidge: With people, exactly. I'll never forget that. That was really eye-opening to me. Then I landed back in New Zealand because of family reasons. I met wifey Sapphire and we moved down to Queenstown, which is on the south island of New Zealand. It's a ski resort town and there's a little bird park there. They fly New Zealand native birds around.

Whilst I was there I met a friend from high school who was also living in the same area. He had this online business teaching people how to tune high-performance cars. He's like, "Ryan, you do all this animal training stuff. You could make a course. I have the studio. What are you doing tonight" So I went over there and we recorded this animal training course called Animal Training 101 — something like that; I can't even remember — and we stuck it online. People bought it and I'm like, "What? What is this thing?"

And then we had to come back to Wellington, where I am now with my family. We had to return here. I had already worked at Wellington Zoo, and I knew that I didn't want to just work in a zoological organization without being in a specific training role. That was my passion. They didn't really have anything, they didn't have a position like that at the time, so I didn't know what I was going to do when I went back to Wellington.

I started to study business, I started to study resource management, and considered a change of career. It was my friend Ben, who owned that high-performance car online business who was like, "Dude, don't go to university." I was like, "Why?" He was like, "Why? Because all of that information you get from university you could find for free online. If you try hard enough, you can find it for free. Therefore, you can still learn, and you could spend all that money that you're going to spend on university on building this business." And that just made sense to me.

And so I decided that I was unemployable, meaning that I could get a job; I just wasn't going to take one. The stress on my wife and my family at the time, but I relentlessly tried to learn. There's a big difference between learning about marketing in a university paper and implementing marketing. I learned that pretty quickly.

But I had a trust in the science about behavior, and I had a growth mindset of continuously learning from both successes and failures. What you see in Animal Training Academy now is a result of a lot of failure. That's why I'm here, because I was okay to fail time and time again. And so now my day looks like doing things like this.

Melissa Breau: Lots of podcast interviews.

Ryan Cartlidge: Yeah. I'm working closely with Veronica Boutelle from Dog Biz at the moment. She's helping me get this thing I've created into a manageable, workable thing that's going to serve me and our family and all of our members and our audience. Because it was, at the end of last year, probably not manageable. I burnt out pretty badly. But we've hired some people, she's taught me about scheduling, I say no to pretty much all of the things now, and we've seen massive change in six months, so the failing continues …

Melissa Breau: Just a different kind, right?

Ryan Cartlidge: I fail with more knowledge than I did before, but I still fail. I fail forward.

Melissa Breau: I like that phrase "fail forward." When we did our pre-chat before hopping on to do the real podcast interview today, I know you mentioned, and you mentioned it in passing just now, this idea of mindset and techniques that you've been working on for yourself around navigating difficult conversations.

I don't think it's a surprise to anybody listening that the dog training world — heck, the world overall in general right now — gets to feeling like a super-divisive place, super "us versus them." I want to talk about that and dive into that stuff a little bit because I think it's super-valuable. What really causes people to fall into that "us versus them" mindset, and why is that a bad thing? Why is falling into that place something that actually holds us back?

Ryan Cartlidge: My thoughts are going to be sporadic here, and they're likely going to jump around a bit, so I express gratitude in advance to everyone for sticking with me. Hopefully we can give some value in all of this jumping around. I can't actually answer your question with fact. I'm not that knowledgeable. But I'm deeply opinionated and I have many of them, so I'm willing to offer them.

With regards to mindset, when I think about mindset, and we talk about mindset a lot within Animal Training Academy, there's a book by a lady called Carol Dweck, and that book is called The Growth Mindset. The growth mindset is all about looking at a situation and knowing that you can learn and you can grow and there's always opportunities.

A fixed mindset is, "I'm fixed, my traits are fixed, my knowledge is fixed. I can't change, therefore I'm not going to try." They're two very different things. There's a whole book about it. I just explained it in 20 seconds; it doesn't do it justice.

The Growth Mindset I read years and years ago, when I first started ATA, because it was recommended on a marketing podcast. We did some episodes on The Growth Mindset with Dr. Afiya Fredericks, who worked for a growth mindset company in the U.S. and now is a professor at a university over there teaching some of this stuff.

It's something I always wanted to create, but it's not really dog training related or animal training related. But it has hit a nerve with our audience. We did a book club on it, and in the ATA membership it comes up so often. In web classes we do now it gets mentioned, and I constantly get feedback about how it's been one of the most meaningful episodes we've done for our audience.

Once again, there's a whole book on it. But when I talk about mindset, that's I'm talking about, the growth mindset, and that's going to come up probably quite a bit as I share more with you and you ask some of the questions you sent through to me.

When we talk about conversations, there's a book called Crucial Conversations by a host of authors, and I can never remember all of them, but the company's called VitalSmarts.

You've asked the question, navigating difficult conversations. I'm going to reframe that a little bit and label them as crucial conversations because the book, Crucial Conversations … and by the way, I don't have any IP for any of this stuff. All of the IP belongs to VitalSmarts, so all credit goes to them for the ideas that come from that text that I'm sharing today. But the book defines crucial conversations as happening when three things are occurring: the stakes of the conversation are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.

Once again: the stakes of the conversation are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. Those three elements are present and you can ask yourself, "I'm about to have this conversation. Are the stakes high? Am I emotional about this?" As animal trainers we often are.

Melissa Breau: That never happens in the dog world. We never have those three things come together.

Ryan Cartlidge: Like I said, I can't answer your question, but I can give you an opinion. I think that because we're so invested in it and we care so much about it, there's always emotion. I think that contributes to the way we decide to frame things in our minds, and who we are, and who we identify as, and how that might be different than what we see in others.

One of three things happens when you enter a crucial conversation: you either handle it really well, or you shut down and you don't say anything because it's just too hard, or you get communicatively aggressive. You use sarcasm, you raise your voice, you yell, you become mean, you talk behind people's backs. So one of those three things.

Now I'm going to hazard a guess that a number of people fall into those last two categories, including myself, by the way. I'm getting much better, much better year after year, at falling into Category One, but I'm far from perfect. Sometimes it's too hard and I shut down, and sometimes I find myself being sarcastic. I'm a sarcastic person anyway and I noticed it a lot. I'm like, the reason that we're not talking about the important thing right now is because I'm feeling unsafe, and so I'm using sarcasm.

I think this has relevance for people falling into an "us versus them" mentality. Are we handling these conversations well? Now I, as you have mentioned and as we've talked about, have the pleasure of doing this every week. Whereas you … this is Episode 226, I think you told me. That's awesome. Congratulations. It's so cool.

Melissa Breau: Thank you.

Ryan Cartlidge: We're about to release Episode 150, and as with you, I'm sure there have been conversations that you jump on to have with someone, and they say something that just resonates with you and changes how you think about all of the things.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely.

Ryan Cartlidge: There's two that I think are relevant to this conversation. One was with Steve White, I had a conversation with Steve White, and the other was with Laura VanArendonk Baugh. They were both talking about being at conferences and someone being up in front of them and doing something with a dog.

There's one where Steve White went, "That's them and we're us. They are doing it that way." Steve said the person next to him just went, "Hmm,

I wonder why that person did that." And Steve was like, "Whoa, that's so different than how I was just looking at that situation."

Laura talks about being at a conference. They talked about this in the ATA podcast episode, so I'm repeating it because you can go and listen to them say it as well in their ATA episodes.

She was sitting next to someone at a conference, and she said she had been sitting next to this person for days. There was someone up in front of them training their dog, and this person did something that you might label as different than how you might do it. This person jumped up and said, "See, I told you they weren't force-free." And Laura's like, "Wait, you've been sitting the whole time just waiting for something to prove your story that this person is they?"

And so I think how Crucial Conversations and The Growth Mindset, they are two beautiful examples of different ways of looking at the same situation. I think the books we've talked about, for me, have contributed greatly to my understanding and my application, and being inspired by our podcast guests have contributed greatly to my understanding and application of how I manage it personally.

What I think causes us to get silent or violent, to shut down or get communicatively aggressive, is a reinforcer that I think we're all familiar with in working with canines, and that is safety.

I have an animal-related example to share with you that's helpful. Years and years ago, before I got this job in Cairns, I was living on this property doing wildlife rehabilitation and we had this little Australian magpie bird brought in to us, a couple of weeks old, unable to defend for itself. We called this bird Buddy. I hand-raised Buddy and we taught Buddy … we didn't need to teach him; he's a magpie, but we helped facilitate building his flight muscles and giving him opportunities to learn how to fly.

Because we were living on this big property, it was a cattle property, there was one house, and Nic's house was very, very far away. But there was kangaroos everywhere and wombats and you name it. We had all sorts of things.

We released Buddy, and so Buddy would hang out on the property and hang out in the kitchen with us. He would come into the house, follow me around everywhere, and when we ate lunch outside, he would come lie on his back and we'd tickle his belly.

Buddy also eventually caught the attention of the wild magpies that lived in the area, and these birds would, if given an opportunity, show Buddy how they felt about Buddy being there. They would chase Buddy, and if they could, they would get Buddy on the ground and stab him with their beaks. So Buddy hung out with us for safety.

I remember that we were standing down the paddock one day, far away from the house, doing something with the cattle, and you just hear the screeching, and you see these flashes of black and white screaming towards you. Buddy's at the front, being chased by three or four magpies. Buddy sweeps and lands on my shoulder, and these other screaming three or four magpies land up in a tree near us and just look at us and scream. Buddy comes to us because he's reinforced by that safety. He's added humans to his environment and now he's removed the other magpies.

And so I'm always conscious. When I'm talking to someone, I actually visualize us. If I see that safety has been breached for myself, that feels like an increased heart rate, shallow breaths, sweaty palms, cloudy thoughts, I visualize Buddy on my shoulder. I'm like, "Buddy's here. I'm looking for safety right now." Or if I see it in the other person, if they start using sarcasm, or if they raise their voice, start talking faster, get more animated, I'm like, "Buddy's here as well. Hey, Buddy. Thanks, Buddy."

I use Buddy's presence as a cue to tell me that we're about to have a challenging conversation. I think that's always present in an "us versus them" mentality. That's what I thought about when you asked a question. I'm not sure if it's answered your question, but happy to …

Melissa Breau: I think it definitely answers the first piece of that, and I think it hints at the second piece of that, about how we all lose out when we let ourselves fall into that "us versus them" mindset.

Who knows what Buddy could have taught those other magpies if they'd been open to change. I'm sure Buddy had some real advantages because he hung out with you. Food was probably a little bit easier and shelter was probably a little bit easier. There are lots of good things he got from that, and they missed out on it.

Ryan Cartlidge: They could have hung out with us. We would have welcomed that. I think that is such a valid point. I think what you said is really valid. If we have that fixed mindset, if we're like "us and them," and we behave in ways that are communicatively aggressive, or we just don't engage because it's too hard to engage, then we miss opportunities to learn about ourselves and about the others.

What the book Crucial Conversations teaches you is that when Buddy enters the conversation, when you notice safety is at risk — increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shallow breath, whatever it is for you as an individual — or if you notice that the person you're talking to stops talking, folds, their arms, crosses their legs, or starts talking faster, louder, gets more animated, go, "Okay, cool, Buddy's here. But is it cool Thank you, Buddy. Thanks for showing up."

It cues some new behaviors for you. And those behaviors, for me, often the behavior is to say, "I can see we're trying to force our opinions on each other. I'm committed to staying in this conversation until we find a solution that works for us, but let's just take a break for now."

My understanding of the physiology of that is blood leaves your brain, goes to your muscles, you're ready to fight or to run away, and that's the worst time to be trying to have some of these conversations. So often the cue is taking a break, literally removing yourself and giving your body time to go back to homeostasis. Get your blood go back into your brain.

But then the next step is to ask a series of questions to try to challenge some of your preconceived ideas or thoughts or frames of reference. There's a whole host of questions, but one of them is why would a reasonable … let's say you see someone using an aversive strategy and you're like, "Them. There they are."

If you ask the question, "Why would a reasonable and rational person do what this person is doing?" I would once again hazard a guess that's not in the repertoire of a lot of people to ask that question in these situations. And it is a hard question. It's a hard question and it's a controversial question. I share this question every six months or so in our paid community. I just put a post up like, "Think about this. Think about a challenging situation and think about this."

I think every time I've shared it, it's got responses from people that don't like it, or they find it offensive, or they find it hard. At the end of the day, though, it's just a question. And it's okay if the answer to that question is, "I don't think they're reasonable and rational." If that's the answer, then you're going to be really challenged to have a conversation with them that's going to have mutual purpose. So acknowledging that is important, and sometimes I acknowledge it.

But I also feel like if you could understand every single book someone's read, every single movie they've watched, every single location they've traveled to and had a holiday, every single relationship they've had, every single time they've hurt someone, every single time they've been hurt, every time they've been loved, every relationship that's gone that they've had for twenty years, every relationship that has gone south and they don't talk to that person anymore, who their parents were, what their upbringing was like, what their jobs have been, how they were treated in those jobs — if you understood all of that stuff about people, even if, at the end of that, you were like, "I still don't really agree with it," you would understand it more.

An example of that is there's this program Jenny Doyle comes to stay, we watched two days ago. She goes to these families that might be viewed as "them," and she stays with them, and she tries to understand them.

She went and stayed with a Mormon family. Now that, for me, is something that I don't know much about. I can form judgments when I see it, and I don't have a problem with it. But I might say, "I see how if I was to do that, I would be sacrificing these parts of my life," because they choose not to, based on their faith and their religion, to have these things, and I don't understand that. It's easy to judge there.

But she was asking them about this. And this guy — he had a big beard, he was quite large — and she's like, "How do you feel about this?" He shared they had seven children, that one of them was a stillborn at seven months, and that he feels that she ascended straight to heaven and that it changed their entire life.

They think, they believe — and maybe they're right; I'm not anyone to say that they're not right — that when they die, they're going to ascend to heaven and they're going to be a family again. And the path to get there is through their religion and their faith and adhering to it.

With that information I can be like, "If I had a stillborn, I would likely do the same." If I thought there was a way I could be my daughter again …

I know when my dad died, that was like … you question, like, I hope that there is. Because I'm not a religious person. I'm not saying that I'm right or wrong. But I kind of hoped then.

I tell that story because what Jenny Doyle's program does so beautifully is help you understand where these people are coming from in a nonjudgmental way. But you don't know if you don't ask.

And I think, with the magpies, if we take that time, if we ask ourselves the question "Why would a reasonable and rational person do this?" and we don't know, then that's our starting point: trying to understand the other person's perspective. Not trying to force our opinion on them, but trying to understand.

So how do we fall into an "us versus them" mindset? I think quality questions … this is an Anthony Robbins quote, "Quality questions create a quality life." I think by asking the right questions, it can help us break out of that and find the information that we need. I also believe that every single person is my superior, every single person, insomuch as I can learn something from them. Everyone knows something that I don't. How can it hold us back? A limitless number of learning opportunities.

Melissa Breau: Man, that got deep.

Melissa Breau: We were talking about questions, and stopping and taking a break, and thinking about where is this person coming from and thinking about why they're doing what they're doing. I can see how all of that would help us stop us from falling into that super-defensive place.

Are there any other specific skills or techniques or tips that we can apply? Obviously the first step is to recognizes when you're going to that place, when Buddy's showing up, which is hard enough in and of itself. Do you have any other concrete tips that people can use to keep themselves in a productive mindset?

Ryan Cartlidge: Absolutely. The first conversation in the book is called "Learn To Look." It's a skill that I'm constantly learning about on a regular basis. Learn to look when your heart starts racing. Learn to notice in yourself when you're starting to feel unsafe in a conversation, for one, and learn to look when the other person is starting to feel unsafe in a conversation.

Increased heart rate, increased speech, volume and speed in others, cloudy thoughts in yourself, sweaty palms, whatever they are for you. I know my internal behaviors very well. They're personal, no one else can experience them, but I know when. I don't always catch myself because I'm so emotional sometimes.

Melissa Breau: Aren't we all?

Ryan Cartlidge: I'm so grateful for my emotions. Some of the most challenging emotions I have, they can provide this massive opportunity for growth, and many of them do frequently. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is Buddy shows up, which is Ryan's way of saying it. Buddy's here. Hey Buddy. I love Buddy so much. I'm always grateful when Buddy's here.

The book will start with heart, and once again all IP goes to VitalSmarts for all of this stuff. Starting with heart is a bunch of questions, and "Why would a reasonable and rational person do what this person is doing?" is not part of the start. It's a hard set of questions, but it's one of many questions that I ask myself.

Start with heart ones are specific from Ryan's interpretation of what VitalSmarts teaches. And they are "What do I want from this conversation?" because reinforcers shifts so quickly. What I want now is to stay safe. That's when the heart starts racing and you start raising your voice.

Did you enter this conversation going, "I'm going to talk to Melissa because I want to stay safe"? Reinforcers shift during a conversation, so remind yourself: what are you trying to achieve here? What is the thing that you want out of this conversation?

The second question is what does Melissa want? What does the other person want? What is my understanding of what they want? The third thing is what don't I want? What don't I want to happen in this conversation? The fourth thing is what do I want for this relationship? If you want a good relationship, if that is part of what you want, then it is really important to be conscious of those reinforcer shifts and be thinking about what you're actually talking about and what the other person wants as well, and what you don't want to happen.

There are a number of questions from a huge range of questions that I immediately ask. Those are the ones that I try to approach on the spot, if I need to, because sometimes you can't.

Time away is important, as you said. There's a whole host of other questions as well, like I mentioned thinking about, so if you have more time to think about it, you've noticed that Buddy is there, he's sitting on your shoulder, you're like, "Look, we're just trying to force our opinions on each other. Let's take a break." You go away and you ask these questions.

Other ones are trying to think of a mutual purpose. Ask yourself, "Does this person think I respect them?" "Does this person trust me?" Because if you don't have mutual purpose, respect, and trust, if that person doesn't trust you and you're saying something, it goes through the filter of "This person is trying to manipulate me. I don't trust what they say."

If you doubt there's trust, respect, and mutual purpose, that's your starting point. Don't even talk about all the things you need to talk about. Talk about your trust, because if you don't have that, then it's a challenging space moving forward.

How do we get trust? We build our trust accounts up. We know that. We add reinforcers into the conversation. We build on that relationship, just like we do with dogs. Often when we are working with a challenging animal, whether it be a canine, a bird, or in this situation a human, before we start training them, we have to build a relationship up with them. They have to know that we're a provider of predictable and pleasing events.

I think we skip that step a lot with humans. It has to start with relationships. Drop everything and go and have a coffee with that person and have a laugh. Put your differences aside. Don't talk about dog training. Talk about each other. Get to know them.

And truly being focused on mutual purpose. I said to Melissa I was going to give a recent example. We recently, due to burnout last year, hired some staff. Rose is amazing, and I asked Rose if I could talk about this and she said it was okay. It's quite a recent example.

Rose is also exploring the possibility of becoming a personal trainer. She was very open with us when she first took on this role that she was doing that, and eventually she would like to take some quiet time, and it was starting to impact on her ability to do her job for Animal Training Academy. She on top of that got offered a new opportunity, which is going to require even more resources from her.

She came up with a plan to say "Here's how I'm going to manage everything at ATA," and we basically said "No, because we are worried about you, Rose. We think that your resources don't match your thoughts about what you think you can achieve. We want what's best for you and your family, and we don't think this is it. As a company, our values mean that we prioritize self-care and mental health, and we think by saying yes to this we'd be compromising our values as a company."

She resigned so she could take on this other role. However, I didn't want her to resign. I didn't want to lose Rose, and Rose also didn't want to go. There was a lot of emotion in that conversation. What I wanted as well for ourselves was to keep our weekends, which we'd just started for the first time in six years, two full days off a week now, and I didn't want to burn out again. I didn't want Rose to burn out.

But I wanted Rose to stay and Rose wanted to stay. Rose had read Crucial Conversations. She'd already heard about it. She'd been with us six months and she'd already read it, she's already started to practice it. That's why I wanted Rose to stay. I was like, "Look at this great mindset that's sitting in front of me. There's no way you're leaving."

So we could frame the conversation under crucial conversations and we could tenuously say to each other, "I'm dedicated to stay in this conversation until we find a solution that works for both of us." Rose withdrew her resignation last week, and so she's still in the same employment contract, she's still an employee of ours, but our lawyer drafted a variation of the employment agreement. We changed a number of pieces in a way that really works for Rose, and we can support her and her personal training endeavors. And we also can benefit from the relationship moving forward. It does mean we've hired someone else as well, but I think we've come out at the end of it better than at the start.

I could have easily gotten angry at Rose and said, "You let me down," but when we went into conversations with Rose I had my computer open and I had what I wanted, what she wanted, what I wanted for her, what I think she wanted, what we didn't want, and what I wanted for the relationship. And I consistently, every time I started talking or she started talking, I repeated those things.

I said, "I've been in an employment situation where I wanted to leave as well, and I wasn't as respectful as you have been in telling me. This isn't about you. This is about you signing an employment agreement and you're entitled to resign anytime after three weeks' notice, and you're doing it respectfully." And I've been there. Everyone's been there.

Mutual purpose. Not just saying "mutual purpose." Living mutual purpose and really having mutual purpose be the goal. Back to Anthony Robbins, he talks about quality questions. It was life-changing for me, learning about that, because if you ask yourself a question and there's an unfinished loop, so you have the question but you don't have the answer, your brain will find an answer.

TV programs use cliffhangers. They leave it open. And you know what that feels like: I need to know what happens. Your brain is the same. This has been my experience. I'm not a neuroscientist. This is Ryan talking. If you ask the question and you keep asking, your brain will come up with the answer. I can say that I'll work toward mutual purpose with full confidence, and to do that with Rose was an absolute pleasure. We came out of it with a higher trust account, I think, than we went into it with.

The other thing is to treat yourself as a learner and to do this in a specific way. That way is to use a rubric designed by dog trainer Sarah Owings. If you don't know what a rubric is, because I didn't know what a rubric was when she first used that word for me, it's defined as an evaluation tool, a set of guidelines used to promote the consistent application of learning expectations, learning objectives, or learning standards.

We're harsh on ourselves. If there's an aggressive or reactive dog in front of us, we don't blame the dog. We do a functional assessment, we look at the environment, we put in a shaping plan with small approximations, we find the reinforcers, and off we go. If we are reactive, we can really beat ourselves up.

Sarah's rubric has three main parts and they are: What did I just do that I liked, what did my learning partner … in the case of a crucial conversation, your learning partner would be the person that you're talking to; in the case of your dog training, it would be your dog, and I'm going to reframe that first question: What did I just approximate that I really liked? The language is really important here. What did my learning partner just approximate that I really liked, and what is one small thing that I can change for next time? Or, in Ryan's words, what is one small piece that I can build on my awesomesauce for next time?

Even in hard conversations, if you really sit down and ask that question, you can find something you did that you want to repeat again in the future, a reinforceable behavior from yourself, and you can for the other person as well. I've never not been able to find something they did that I liked, no matter how emotional I was at the time. And then make a small change. We have to remember that we are earthlings, behavior works the same for all earthlings, we need approximations ourselves.

Mary Hunter said at ClickerExpo this year, "Making it easy isn't cheating." Sometimes I think our expectations on ourselves are so big, but to respect ourselves as a learner on planet Earth, we have to give ourselves small approximations, and then we have to celebrate when we achieve them. Asking great questions, treating yourself as a learner, time away, and really being dedicated to mutual purpose and building relationships.

Melissa Breau: If that's what we can do on our end, how we control our own behavior and structure the conversation on our part, there's still this other person involved. Not all of us are lucky enough to have somebody awesome like Rose, who has already read the book, or who already understands the game plan, who has opted in to what it is we want to talk about and the way we want to handle the conversation.

Are there things we can do when we're having these crucial conversations? Is there a way we can keep our partner feeling safe to hopefully help keep them in a better headspace? Are there things we can do to avoid a situation where — for lack of a better phrase, because we're all dog trainers — we're reinforcing behaviors for them that we don't actually want to see? How do we manage that?

Ryan Cartlidge: I think it takes vulnerability and courage. If we're in a space where after listening to this or reading the book Crucial Conversations we start to see Buddy entering the picture with regards to our own safety, we notice that we stop talking because it's too hard, or we raise our voice, or we interrupt and we butt in when the other person is talking, that's all signs that Buddy is there and we're feeling unsafe.

If we start to notice that, how is that going to be interpreted by the other person? Are they going to feel safe with our communicative styles when we're doing it? Sometimes when we stop talking it means that we're going to let other people do what they want, which might make them feel safe. The whole point of crucial conversations is a win-win. I could have said yes to Rose to do this thing. But it would have been a disadvantage to ask not what we wanted in an employee either.

Mutual purpose is all about win-win for yourself. Mutual purpose isn't about saying, "Cool. That person got what they wanted. I'll just take this little sacrifice over here and I'll lose out a little bit." That's not what mutual purpose is. Mutual purpose is "You win, I win," and dedicated to be in that conversation.

They might feel unsafe. I'm already not answering your question, but I'm getting to it. We can speak to them, we can listen, we can seek first to understand. You can do things like repeat back. You can say, "Can I just repeat back to you what you just taught me, just to make sure I understood everything properly?" That is going to be like, "Absolutely."

Two things are going to happen there. You're going to repeat back to them what they just told you, and they're going to be like, "Yeah, you got it. That person listened to me." Most of the time they're going to be like, "That's not quite what I meant," or "Yes, and this other thing as well."

You're just putting deposits in trust again. You're building trust. You're building respect. You can say things like, "Once again let me just check that I understood. Here's what you're saying. I have some thoughts. Is there anything else you'd like to add before I talk?" Listening is probably one of the biggest things, getting curious, making sure you understand their perspective before offering yours.

The other thing that requires vulnerability and bravery is changing your own behavior and once again doing some more approximations. How that looks for me now, and how that looked in my conversation with Rose last week … by the way, my heart was racing when Rose walked in that door, because she had come to our home, to my office, the day before that she had emailed me her resignation, and here she was in front of me now and we had to talk about this.

At that time I didn't have the solution we eventually came up with. That took more time and more thinking and more question-asking. In that conversation with Rose, and it was probably one of the most important and well-managed crucial conversations I've ever done in my entire life, and I read Crucial Conversations over a decade ago now and I've been practicing since then, and I haven't found a situation where it hasn't pushed the situation forward in a positive way. A crucial conversation doesn't solve problems. It's just an approximation towards improving the situation.

What I did with Rose was repeat every time, "Here's what I want. Here's what I want for you. Here's what I think you want out of this conversation, Rose. Am I correct?" And I was. Pretty much every time I spoke, I repeated those things: "Here's what I want. Here's what I don't want. Here's what I want for you. It's really important that we work on this mutual purpose that we've established."

I think those things are the things that I employ to let the other person know that I'm listening, I'm respecting them, and just keeping the conversation on track. With Rose, it had so many moments when we could have gone way off the track of those things that I wanted, that she wanted, and that we didn't want. There were so many moments and opportunities to go on tangents, so consistently coming back to that: "This is why we're here. This is what we're talking about." And the results, I think, speak for themselves. That's how I do it.

Melissa Breau: This whole conversation about this stuff, obviously it can be super-hard to do, even when we're really trying to commit to it. To round this out, I wanted to ask you how you handle it when obviously you have these high standards of how you want the conversation to go. How do you handle it when you realize you didn't handle it as well as you could have or you wish you had? How do you have empathy for yourself a little bit when you let yourself down?

Ryan Cartlidge: Susan Friedman framed this really well for me when she said, "I wish podcast Susan …" I'm going to frame it as myself … I wish podcast Ryan could talk to husband Ryan sometimes. Those two need to have a conversation. Sometimes Buddy is there, and Buddy is squawking around my head. Magpies have sharp, long beaks, and he's pecking me on the forehead and I'm swatting him away, like, "Leave, Buddy. This is too important."

I frequently find myself in situations where afterwards in hindsight, not immediately but eventually, I'm like, "There's some big opportunities for learning right now." If I handle one really badly, and I do for sure, it can affect me for days, even weeks. It can really weigh heavy on my mind in an unpleasant way.

Eventually, once I am able to regain my brain and the blood flows back up there, I remind myself that I am a learner, and what would I do if this was a dog. If we had trained a reactive dog and the dog had a relapse — we'll use it for now — the behavior resurfaced, the behavior never goes, so it came back up in some set of antecedents, the dog thought, "I've got to resort to these behaviors to get my reinforcers right now," we would take responsibility for that. Build fluency up in the behaviors we've trained, generalize it, proof it, train new behaviors, manage the environment, do what we needed to.

Reminding ourselves that I may have learned these crucial conversations skills, but my old behaviors, which were ineffective, haven't left me. They're still there, and sometimes my environment is going to cue me to bring those out to protect myself, "Buzz off Buddy, I'm busy right now." After I've regained my brain, I can go, "Ryan, you're a learner. What did you do just then that you liked?"

When we have our dogs in front of us, we're not looking for behaviors we don't like. We're focusing on reinforceable behaviors. There's a switch. You've been thinking about all those things that you didn't like, but what did you do that you liked? And I can find something. Cool. Great. Awesome stuff. Make sure you do that again in the future. That was awesome.

What did the other person do that you liked? There's an uncomfortable question. They were an a******. They were completely unreasonable and unrational. There's something there, though. I can always find something. The really important part is what is one small approximation I can take to build on this next time. Don't place an expectation on yourself that you're going to be perfect, but what is one small thing you can do?

A recent thing I've done to regain my brain faster is taking time away and doing a brain dump onto a word doc. I've found that when I go away and I'm in an emotional state, that my thoughts are random and they repeat and they're just pinging around in my head. I get them out of my head and onto paper. Once they're out of my head, I find I don't need to rethink them anymore. I've already turned them into reality in my world. They're on a computer screen now.

I never save any of these. I delete them immediately. It's just to clear it out of my head. I do that, and that's what I learnt from the last time. It's something I used to do when I was young, and I hadn't done it for years. In a recent situation I found myself going, "What can I do?" I did that and I was like, "Wow, that solved everything." I went quickly back to the person I had a conversation with and it was great. I had a lot of clarity. So I've been employing that frequently now.

The frame of reference with regards to the unpleasant situation goes from beating myself up about it to gratitude, because I think it's those most challenging situations, if you allow them to, they can provide the biggest opportunities for growth. I'm so grateful that I burnt out last year. It was one of the most challenging mental health related things I've ever experienced in my life. But out of it has come weekends, employees, new scheduling behaviors that have completely changed my life and would not have happened. I would have stayed in this not completely burnt out but burnt out state.

I don't even remember what your question was now, which means I've been passion-talking, and I love passion-talking, so I'm good at that.

Melissa Breau: I was asking you how you deal with it when you haven't lived up to your own standards in a crucial conversation, so I think you were right on track with what you were talking about.

Ryan Cartlidge: Yeah, and just treating myself as a learner. You can have empathy for yourself. I think treating yourself as a learner is respectful for yourself, and I think empathy is part of that. To say you're just a learner on planet Earth that is cued by their environment and has a learning history, and you're biologically incapable of doing anything ever than what your antecedents and consequences make you do in the present moment. And empathy, I think, flows from it.

Melissa Breau: I want to leave folks with a final thought. If we were to drill down our conversation and pull out one key takeaway or one key piece of information you really wish that listeners would remember from this and take away from this, what would that piece be?

Ryan Cartlidge: This is such an easy question compared to the other ones. It would be to buy the book Crucial Conversations. Don't even read it. That's an approximation that I don't even want to talk about right now. I'm just talking about buy it. Get it in your antecedents.

Melissa Breau: First step.

Ryan Cartlidge: Yeah. Buy the book Crucial Conversations. Stick it on your desk. I don't care what you do with it. Just buy the book.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Ryan. This has been awesome.

Ryan Cartlidge: Thank you for the opportunity. It's been a pleasure. I always say to my guests on my show that we want you to passion-talk. What that looks like is asking what the question was again, so well done to you, Melissa, on being such a fantastic host and asking such great questions and confusing me.

Melissa Breau: Hopefully you weren't too confused. Hopefully it was just good passion-talk. Thank you.

And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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