The Winding Path

Counselling Services provided by Barb Zacharias

November 2011: Communication Lessons

Posted on Nov 15, 2011

A while back I had an unusual moment of enlightenment out walking with my dog. Now, I often have ‘a-ha’ moments while out with my faithful companion as I let my mind wander and ruminate on whatever catches its fancy. However, this time was different as I was attempting to communicate with my dog.

Since moving to a different community and exploring new routes for the proverbial “morning constitutional,” we have had the pleasure of meeting fellow, regular dog walkers. One in particular has become a favourite—for both the person and the pet. As our busy lives interfere with maintaining a schedule executed with military precision, it is not possible to meet on a consistent, daily basis. So some mornings I feel compelled to inform my dog, “Nobody’s here.”

I don’t know what makes me think my dog can’t come to the same conclusion as I have given the same data: no familiar vehicle in the parking lot, no person of significance to be sighted, no whiff of that certain canine BFF. In my role as caregiver, I think I must communicate to her that her friends are not in the vicinity—it will be ‘just us’ this morning. Sure, her hopes are up as we climb the small hill to the park; but she assesses the situation just as well as I do. I suspect the difference is she can make the better adjustment to disappointment. At least some days. There have been mornings when she will linger at the top, alert for any hint that her friends will appear, before descending back into our subdivision.

Unlike many humans, dogs have an uncanny ability to ‘roll with the punches,’ ‘go with the flow,’ make the most of ‘what is.’ They live in the moment. And when the moment has passed, there’s always hope for another one around the next bend. So when I inform my dog that “Nobody’s here,” what does she do? Keep on the lookout for “Nobody.” The phrase, “Nobody’s here,” to my canine companion means that somebody named Nobody has arrived—which is exciting news indeed. Try and correct that impression when in fact the very opposite is true.

This revelation prompted thoughts about other statements that make no sense to a dog’s way of thinking. My dog can respond to many ‘affirmative’ instructions including come, stop, wait, sit, look, find. Conversely, negative instructions are not in her vocabulary. She cannot comprehend how ‘not’ to do something. She is incapable of ‘not jumping’ or ‘not running off;’ but she can ‘stay down’ and ‘stay close.’ This realization made me think of how we speak to other dependents in our lives.

We spend a lot of energy informing children of what they are not supposed to do: jump on the couch, pull the dog’s tail, pinch their brother or sister, throw food, yell, etc. However, the child is usually so engaged in what they were doing that they fail to come up with alternative behaviours on their own. Hence, the predictable, and perpetual, cycle of ‘negative enforcement’ ensues—the undesired behaviour continues while the caregiver gets frustrated giving the same ‘negative’ command.

What if we were to take a lesson from the pet world? Instead of constant negative commands, we intercept the undesired behaviour with a redirection—tell the child what to do rather than what not to do—maybe even participate with them for a few minutes. The alternate behaviour is reinforced with positive attention; and the inappropriate behaviour is stopped without engaging in the negative cycle.

Maybe I will have to try this with more than the dependents in my life. What would happen if I made a conscious choice to communicate with others in this manner? State what I want rather than what I don’t want. If you join me in this experiment, let me know how it goes.

May you experience improved communication within your circles of interaction—inspired by a creature focused on connection and living in the moment. Happy trails! 🙂

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