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How To Get Clients To Tell You What They’re Really Thinking


In one of my first classes in graduate school, my fellow students and I paired off to practice some therapy skills.  The task that day was to explore a situation the other person had experienced.  But there was a catch:

We couldn’t ask a single question. 

“What happened?  How did that feel?  Who was there?  What happened next?”  – all off limits.

Until you’ve tried to have a get-to-know-you conversation with someone without being able to ask anything, you don’t fully realize how much we rely on questions.

It’s like trying to recite the alphabet while holding your tongue. 

But the exercise forced us to stop machine-gunning people with questions, and start practicing something else.

Something I’ve been meaning to write about the whole two years I’ve been writing this blog, but just haven’t.  I’m not sure why, really.  Perhaps it’s one of those small things that people roll their eyes at because they think they already know all about it.  Or because it sounds small and unsexy and a mere footnote compared to more glamorous business topics.

20130531_Yale_5th_Reunion_3341But not having a grip on this particular skill results in fewer sales and more problems during sessions.  Because it means they’re less likely to tell you what’s REALLY going on.

Ever had a client neglect to mention that they really wanted a photo of just them and their grandma during their wedding, and they got kinda cranky with you during a sales session because you hadn’t read their mind?  Or had a client morph into a crazy person over email, and you found out later that their mom had just passed away?

Or generally had a time where if only you’d known ______, you could have done ______ differently with no trouble at all?

Clients are just regular people, and people aren’t particularly good at communicating their emotions and desires even to the people closest to them – let alone a stranger staring down the barrel of a lens.

So what’s this mysterious skill?  Something called “reflective listening.”  In short, after a person speaks, you reflect back to them what you just heard them say.

Note that reflective listening is different than paraphrasing or shuffling their words around in a different order.  That just confirms that you heard the words that came out of their mouth.  Rather, it’s reflecting back to them, in your own words, what you really heard them say.

Reflective sentences may start like this:

“It sounds like….”

“So what I’m hearing is….”

“You’re wondering whether…..”

“You feel…..”

“So you’re deciding between _________ because __________.”

A few of you out there might be thinking this is namby-pamby fluff.  There was a time when I might have agreed with you, but I’ve seen firsthand what can come out when you use this technique, so I advise you keep reading.

A basic bit of reflective listening might look like this:

How To Get Clients To Tell You What They're Really Thinking

Bride:  “I’d like to make sure you get photos of all of our grandparents and my sisters.”

You:  “It sounds like your family is a really important part of your day!”

Bride:  “Yes, and they’re being great.  My sister is an interior designer and she’s making all the bouquets for the centerpieces.”

You:  “So photographing the bouquets is meaningful because they show how much your sister cares about you.”

Bride:  “Yes, and the cake too, my grandmother is helping make it.”

You:  “Wow!  So maybe we can make sure to work the schedule so I can be around when your family is setting up, because it sounds like what they’re doing means a lot to you – and pictures of them doing those things would be wonderful for you to have.”

Bride:  “Yes!”

Reflective listening often elicits comments that a client may not have thought to tell the photographer. 

When you respond with a reflection, rather than a question, the client gets to “re-see” what they just said.  And this usually prompts them to fill in whatever gaps they perceive with explanation or details.

Whereas asking a question usually prompts the client to try and tell you what they think you want to know, simply reflecting back what you heard gives the client a chance to tell you what they think is most important.

Let’s look at the example above.  In the blur of getting things done, they often fail to communicate all the true “heirloom aspects” of their wedding that would be useful for you to know.  Instead, they telegraph what they think you expect to hear, or what they think will get the job done.

Understandably, the statement “make sure you get photos of person X, Y, and Z” might make some wedding photographers cringe (This person has no idea how useless/cumbersome ‘shot sheets’ are on an actual wedding day, there’s no way I can guarantee all of this, group shots are so boring, etc).  But simply reflecting back the feeling behind the comment (Wow, sounds like your family is important to you) gives the client a chance to say what’s really going on.

In this case, it might be that the family is showing their love through the acts of service they’re giving.  And that’s a core part of what the bride wants to remember about her day.

So instead of wasting time trying to corral grandma and big sister for individual formal shots, which might have been your first instinct based on what she asked for, you can instead focus on getting a shot of grandma working on the cake, and maybe her consulting a handwritten recipe.  Which would mean a lot more to the bride in the end than just “a picture of grandma.”

The bride might not be aware of all this, exactly, when she says she wants “a picture of grandma.”  That’s why it’s important to pull out what’s really happening, so that you – the professional – can give her something even better than she thought to ask for.

When people seem to make annoying demands, it’s often because they’re trying to get something specific – and finding out what that specific thing is will often make them happier than complying with the word-for-word request.


A big part of reflective listening is reflecting back what you heard, without judging what the person said. 

By so doing, you’re giving the person a chance to see how they’re coming across – which may or may not be how they meant to come across.  And that’s where it gets interesting:

Sarah the Client:  “I think I’d like some wallets and 8x10s.”

You:  “So you’re interested in small desk prints rather than displays.”

Sarah the Client:  “Well I do want to hang the 8x10s on the walls.”

Sarah might be surprised to hear you say they don’t want to hang stuff on the walls, since that’s not what she meant to communicate.  And boom – this gives you the perfect chance to hold an 8×10 and a 16×24 up for her to see the difference.

But rather than you coming off as argumentative (“8x10s are too small for the wall!”), which would probably only make Sarah more determined to defend her position, your suggestion to look at bigger prints makes them feel like you’re trying to help her achieve her goal.  And that can be the difference between upselling – and not.

This kind of reflection is sometimes called “building discrepancy” – or highlighting the difference between what they want and what they’re buying.  If they say they want to hang something on the wall, but they want to buy an 8×10, you can reflect that discrepancy by highlighting what an 8×10 is actually best for – desks and bedside tables.

Another way to build discrepancy is to overstate what the client said, so you can see whether they really meant something:

(This technique is taught in the book Motivational Interviewing, a classic text about reflective listening):

Bride:  “I want to make sure we get every single shot on this list!”

You:  “So family formals are really important to you – even more important than candid shots of your family interacting.”

Bride:  “Well no….”

Telling the person what you really heard them say (they want you to take time away from other kinds of photos to make sure you comply with the formal shot request) can surprise them.  And make them evaluate whether or not they really want what they just asked for.  Sometimes they’ll stick with it – which is good for you to know.  But sometimes they aren’t aware of the tradeoff they’re making.

Either way, your slightly “overstated” reflection makes them pause and consider, and calibrate how much it really matters.

Reflection also helps diffuse anger.

Client:  “I didn’t want any black and whites!

You:  “You’re frustrated because you were expecting all color images.”

Client:  “Well, I know you mentioned before that there would be some black and white, but I want to give THESE images to my mom, and she only has color in their house.”

Sometimes people escalate expressing their anger solely because they feel like they aren’t being heard.  Not because they’re actually that mad, they just think they need to be to get your attention.  When someone repeats in their own words what they’re mad about, it makes them feel acknowledged, and surprisingly often, people will back off.

In the example above, you might be tempted to hear the client’s first sentence and launch into a defensive “but our contract says ____,” which usually just makes clients feel stonewalled.  Reflecting back gives them a chance to clarify their actual expectations, and tell you what the REAL issue is (the gift for the mother).  And once you know the REAL issue, you can get their attention off of expressing their frustration and onto a solution.

When done correctly, reflective listening feels incredibly validating for the receiver.

How often does someone really take time to listen to what you say, and acknowledge that they heard and understand how you feel?  Reflecting back what someone said is the lowest-cost client service you’ll ever offer.

It helps you anticipate and respond to real needs, diffuse anger, and locate the source of problems faster.

Try it out!


P.S.  Pssst….want to know what clients really think about money?  Click here to get on my email list, and you’ll instantly receive a free guide that explains how clients make decisions about spending and cash….


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  1. Kat on September 11, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Perhaps by using more reflective listening techniques, I might have discovered why my client thought I could remotely clean jam smears off her laptop screen!


    In all seriousness, excellent post. Thank you!

  2. Jamie Swanson on September 11, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    You’re friggin’ brilliant, that’s what I think. 😉

  3. Sean Phillips on September 12, 2013 at 1:15 am

    This is a really great article and gives me some food for thought on how to improve my in person sales sessions….

  4. Angela Pointon on September 12, 2013 at 1:51 am

    So chock full of yummy goodness, I think I’m going to have to read this a few more times to fully digest it. Nice work, Jenika!

  5. Heather Kanilopoolos on September 12, 2013 at 2:02 am

    SO true… and this applies to wedding day timelines, too!!

    I constantly have to send a timeline back to a bride with corrections, saying: “So, I see that you want your first look and bride and groom portraits at 2:30 and family formals at 3:00. However, traveling to the spot you want for family photographs will take 20 minutes. So, what I’m hearing is you want 10 minutes total for all the photographs of you and (groom). I can totally make that work- but since you spoke previously about those shot being so important to you and wanting time to relax and be together, I would suggest the following minor adjustments….”

    This works SO much better than telling them outright that they’re wrong or it’s too tight- or worse, not speaking up and having them disappointed at how “rushed” they were!

  6. Debi on September 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    . . . .WOW! At a loss for words to express what a great article this is! Definitely something I am going to re-read a few times. Thank you!

  7. Tyler on September 12, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Jenika, this is flippin’ genius. I’m doing some serious client consultations this week (themed model-style portraits for seniors) and I’m going to try this out!

  8. Angela on September 12, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Love this post. And it applies to all forms of business! I sent it to everyone in my legal office and will be applying it there and in my photography business.

  9. Jen on September 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    This is so true. Thank you!!

  10. April Maura on September 18, 2013 at 2:55 am

    This post gives me a lot to chew on. Your examples are very helpful in understanding in the field of photography. Thank you.

  11. Linnae Designs on September 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    I have heard of “reflective listening” but forget to practice it. Great article.

  12. Spencer Lum on September 23, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    This is so dead on. Everyone should apply this in every business. Good for home life, too. 😉 Great article, Jenika!

  13. Jenny Lens on September 23, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    I posted this on FB:

    Brilliant article about dealing w/ppl, no matter your service, product or work … thanks I ask questions (“So what do you do?”). Then repeat what ppl say to me, with my interpretation and suggestions.

    Met a yoga teacher also into astrology. Going to charge ‘love donations’ in a VERY high priced hood. I said, “market yr classes with your astology knowledge. Raise yr price. That’s a very different class than most.”

    She said “I never thought about marketing.” I said, “That’s all I think about! Marketing in ways to connect and resonate to yr target audience, and profitable for you.”

    I intensely listened and turned it into a great marketing op. Gotta listen, repeat back, and make suggestions and questions based on what others say.

    “Reflective listening.” Good tip. I appreciate the reminder, cos it’s not how we are taught to communicate. To be patient and guide ppl to what is on their mind and in their heart. Thanks!

  14. Judith Haphey on September 24, 2013 at 12:08 am

    Thanks for your wonderful post! This is something that needs to become a natural part of my life! Using this technique with family and friends would be great too!

  15. Sarah H. on September 24, 2013 at 1:32 am

    I would feel like a mental-ninja pulling these techniques off. Can’t wait to try!

  16. Dee Perrin on September 24, 2013 at 2:25 am

    I need to read this before every sales session. So simple, and so effective!

  17. Karrie Porter on September 24, 2013 at 3:29 am

    So, what you’re telling me is that helping photographers understand human nature is really important to you. 😉

  18. Carol on September 24, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    FANTASTIC article! I can see that this will take some practice, but would be SO valuable. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Amy Corrigan on September 25, 2013 at 5:07 am

    This is really great. I also like how we can apply this to other relationships as well and not just business. Think of how reflective listening can be a springboard in our families!! It helps you get to the truth of what people are really saying. Brilliant.

  20. Wayfaring Wanderer on September 25, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    PURE GOLD! I’m all of a sudden glad that my phone meeting with a potential client got postponed yesterday. Now I know it was because I was meant to learn and use this technique to seal the deal! Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Jenika!

  21. Shriti Bhandari on September 30, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Great perspective and food for thought. Thanks 🙂

  22. Cattie on October 8, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    I just found your blog yesterday and what a goldmine it is! Love this post, I have always said that being a good people photographer is all about communication. I avoid shooting people like the plague, but still have to deal with the human clients who bring their adorable furry family members to me and reading this post has taught me more than years of “trial and error” has. I will tape this on my wall and study it every day until it becomes second nature! Thank you for sharing all this!

  23. Dave Norby on November 2, 2014 at 4:36 am

    This is what I have been trying to do all along. This post helps clarify the approach.



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