Guidelines for talking with clients about politics

Posted on August 20, 2018

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(Last Updated On: August 20, 2018)

One of the stark differences between personal training and other healthcare providers is the communication frequency. Most don’t see any healthcare provider more than once every six months. If they do see them often, it’s usually only for a few months. Such as being in physical therapy, or needing some extra dental work done, where you proceed to think

“I guarantee this jackass doesn’t floss five times a day either.”

With personal training, it’s customary to have a client multiple times per week, for years. That’s a lot of interaction. Where all types of topics come up.

We all know there are touchy subjects. Ones many of us won’t even bring up at the family dinner table. Politics and religion. I’ve found religion rarely comes up with clients, but politics can. In 2018, more than ever. It’s not an easy topic to deal with when you’re only trying to get somebody a workout. Here is what I’ve found to work:

Preface

The city I train people in-person was found to be the 11th most conservative city in America ten years ago. The city just south of it was recently found to be the most conservative city in the county, and sixth most in California. (Yes, California has many Republicans.)

I have no doubt my experience with this topic has been colored by this. That said, I live in one of the most liberal states in America. So, in life, I think my experience with both sides is even. With my in-person client work though, it is heavily on the conservative side.

I have encountered some pretty far right views in the gym. One of the most memorable was gym members threatening to quit if any news channel besides Fox was on the treadmill televisions. Followed by another gym member threatening to bring every newspaper in San Diego to the gym if only Fox stayed on (and they actually did know many journalists personally).

However, my views are not the point of this. (If you care at all, I’m not registered with any party.) After all, our first goal is,

Don’t take, or give, the bait

This is my default response to any political innuendo. It’s not I think political topics should never be discussed. It’s doing so takes time. I’m always nervous a political topic will cause a client’s workout to be cut in half.

Keep the preface in mind, but I’ve found conservatives are way more likely to bring up politics. (That doesn’t imply good or bad.) I only mention this because I’ve learned what’s innuendo and what’s not. If it’s veering towards conventional conservative thought e.g. any scent of “personal responsibility,” it’s probably innuendo.

I also know the people who I don’t even hint at asking about a topic which could fall off a cliff into politics. The most random topics can be tethered politically. The day before writing this I was talking to someone about weight-loss views. I made an offhand comment how some countries are getting stricter with their regulations due to healthcare costs. That exploded into this person and someone else having a discussion on immigration, how people need to get inline with what the government tells them, protesting is stupid, and incessant cursing about the current state of America. They were more or less yelling with one another. Meanwhile I slowly stepped back and talked to somebody else about testosterone.

Lesson learned. Never mention government or any related word to that person again.

With that, if I do find the person is conservative, I’m even more careful about mentioning anything revolving around politics. I’m more fearful a heated discussion will breakout than I am if I catch wind a person is liberal.

I also do my best to never volunteer a political topic. If I ever do get into a conversation about it, 99% of the time I insure the client brought it up. I assume nobody wants to hear my political thoughts unless asked.

Change the topic quickly

Someone said something about a politician and their 3am tweeting. Obvious innuendo. I quickly interjected “isn’t it crazy how some people can operate at that time? My dad is that way. Can get 3-4 fours sleep and be ready for a full day of work.”

Suddenly a topic about tweeting became a topic about sleep deprivation. Don’t do this in the “sigh, let’s change the topic way.” That’s belittling. Try to be genuine.

Know yourself

Some cannot talk about certain topics without getting worked up. Having a little passion is fine, but we all know the dinner table that gets flipped over because of a [name the issue] talk. As the trainer, you can’t do this. Never mind the person you’re talking with, it’s a bad look for other gym members around. You set the tone.

As a trainer you are going to hear an inordinate amount of nonsense. About health! Diets, exercise routines, supplements. You can’t get worked up about these either, or you probably shouldn’t be training people.

But even the best of us have some topics where we can’t keep it calm. If politics is one area for you, a way to get out of any talk, if somebody is insisting on broaching the topic, is “I really don’t know much about that.” It’s hard to have a discussion with somebody when they flat out tell you they don’t know enough to even talk about it.

[talking about puppies]

“Yeah, well that’s what happens when people at McDonald’s think they should get $15 an hour.”

[uh, how did we get there?]

“It’s just ridiculous…”

“I really don’t know anything about that. I understand some say it’s bad for business, while others think everybody has more money to spend. But can’t say I know anything more about it.”

 

[some comment about the bias of the media]

“Oh yeah? I don’t watch any TV for news. Not something I keep up with much.”

“Ha. Probably a smart move.”

That’ll almost always kill it. If not, keep repeating “Yeah, I don’t know.”

Be prepared to be surprised

I’ve had clients I got along with as well as anybody, then was shocked to hear their social commentary. I’m a firm believer in disagree does not = dislike, but be prepared to hear some shit. Your favorite clients may end up being people you’d never sit in a bar with, which should tell us all something. There is often common ground where you’d never thought there’d be.

People really are extreme, initially

The conviction some will speak on a topic about can be surprising. There is research on this- people are more extreme these days.

That said, I almost always find I can still talk to these people if it comes to that. Merely by asking some questions and not being as extreme.

The caveat here being the know yourself guideline. If you’re extreme with these topics, that either makes for fireworks of agreement or hurricanes of disagreement.

Facebook will be cited as a news source

“Where’d you hear that from?”

“People are saying it on Facebook.”

Happens. Often.

Either stay off Facebook or be careful being friends with clients

You will see some stuff on Facebook you never thought. Or, you will be judged for something on your Facebook you never thought.

For many, Facebook provides some source of political identity. You or a client are going to hit like on something and that will set off a path of assumptions. That can make for an awkward experience once back in the gym.

-> Business rule: don’t change for one person. A consistent complaint is worth addressing. One offs are rarely worth considering.

Whenever you lose, you gain- having a point of view is ok

I’ve followed David Heinemeier Hansson for years. He’s a software business owner and programmer. His twitter account is flooded with political commentary. Blunt, often extreme, commentary. Yet in those years his follower count has gone up, I don’t know, like 100k, and his business has grown as well. In fact, they just had their busiest month ever not long ago.

One school of thought with all this is “keep your politics to yourself.” Another is “you can’t talk to people about politics. People don’t change their minds.” What a terribly cynical view.

That doesn’t mean scream at people and call them idiots for disagreeing with you, but if you feel strongly about a topic and aren’t happy with what you hear, I’m all in favor of speaking up rather than being soft. I’ve had plenty of clients where I’ve had great conversations about politics. Whether we agree or disagree. Lo and behold, one of us might change our mind too!

I’ve been on Obamacare / Affordable Care Act -it is sadly true many don’t know they’re the same- since the beginning. It’s the only reason I had health insurance. (I had a knee surgery that qualifies as a pre-existing condition.) When people start talking about it negatively, I’m happy to push back. Most of the time I merely ask them “Do you think I should not have health insurance? It’s ok if you do, but I’d like to hear the rationale.” “Do you understand I couldn’t do this business and have health insurance if not for the law?”

Often people don’t know the law, don’t know what a pre-existing condition is –being a woman is a pre-existing condition- and they end up going “Oh, I didn’t know that.” No fighting over it. Somebody actually started to see the other side. They realized they aren’t for full repeal. They’re for making the law better. Something we’re all for.

Say what you want about the current president; what no one can criticize is he has oratorical conviction. While he does not have popular support, millions still voted for him. Even if you say 50 million only did so out of partisanship, that’s 10 million + who are cool with him. If you’re a business, that’s more customers than most will ever come close to needing.

Point being, it’s silly to be afraid to speak up because you don’t want to lose business or a customer. With politics, you’re more likely to lose a customer by being hostile than by disagreeing. Hell, these days, having hostile views can be good for business too!

Besides there being plenty of people out there, you may very well gain customers due to speaking up, or current customers may become more loyal. Many of our favorite businesses are those which have a strong point of view.

You don’t need to screen your clients based on their politics, but you also don’t have to put up with clients throwing out n-bombs left and right either (happened).

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