Prior to starting my own business, I worked as a hostage/crisis negotiator with the FBI. Listening carefully to others was a critical part of the job. Lives could be lost if I got it wrong. Thanks to all my training and real-world experience, I’d like to think that my listening skills are fairly well-tuned. Yet they pale in comparison to my dog’s.
That’s right: my dog has got this listening thing on lock. And don’t get smug about it. She kicks your butt, too.
My dog takes in everything I say and do and uses it to formulate how to interact with me to get the outcomes she wants. She can’t talk, yet she’s somehow figured out my language in all the areas that matter to her. She understands when I mention her favorite foods, for example, or when I inquire about the fullness of her bladder, or offer to help her out the door.
Body Language and the “Effective Pause”
She is a consummate body language expert. Man, she can read me cold. She picks up my mood instantly by noticing how I’m standing, sitting, gesturing, walking. She knows my routines. In the morning, she knows where to stand to avoid getting trampled as I rush around. She also knows where to stand to hinder my progress when she’d rather I re-think the whole “leaving the house” thing.
She knows where I keep the best snacks. It doesn’t matter where she is in the house, if I get close enough to the right kitchen cabinet, suddenly I have attentive company leaning into my ankle. Her whole body is engaged in connecting me to her desired outcome, namely me choosing the right snack. If it looks like I’m forgetting to offer her the standard share, she demonstrates her mastery of the staring contest. In the trade, we call this the “effective pause.” She waits patiently for me to do the right thing.
She stands about six inches tall, maybe eight if you count her ears. She has to crane her neck just to see my face, yet she knows what emotion it’s advertising at any given moment. She reads my expression to make sure it matches my tone of voice.
She knows what a furrowed brow, direct eye contact, and clipped speech means: that it’s time to de-escalate the situation by breaking into her best downward-dog-with-tail-wiggle pose.
Now let’s pause and think about what it took for her to master all these verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, the amount of concentration she has invested in reading my gestures, expressions, and vocal indicators to gauge what’s going on in my head. She is a devoted student of human behavior, and it all started with listening. She knows when the best time is to ask for a belly rub, and when to appear like she’s earning her keep with some well-timed barking at noises outside.
What Can We Learn from My Dog?
Plenty, in fact. Imagine, for instance, that you’re meeting a potential client for the first time. You’d want to demonstrate that you speak their language. That their concerns are yours. You’d want to listen for areas of possible collaboration and mutual benefit. You’d want to know for sure what they’re feeling.
Do their words match their face and body signals? When you hit a friction point, make a mental note: maybe you can help them solve whatever issue they’re dealing with. With close observation, you can assess if the situation calls for reframing a challenge, or simply guidance back toward a shared goal. Sometimes it’s nothing more than an encouraging note, letting them know you are there for them.
When you make the effort to listen to others with your full faculties engaged, amazing things can happen.
Your potential client will feel more comfortable about you and what you represent. This comfort will translate into increased trust, which will move you way up their go-to list for future work.
So yes, when it comes to successful communication, we can learn a lot from our dogs. Still, for all their hard-won skills, it’s tempting to think we are the smart ones. Everyone knows the trick of how to string together insulting words with an up-tone to make our pets think we’re praising them. We “cracked the code” We’re comic geniuses! Cue the belly laughter. We’re the smarter species, after all.
But ask yourself this on your next walk: Who’s picking up whose poo in this relationship? Exactly. Now that’s funny.