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What Can Dogs Teach Us About Communication?

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A few years ago, my good friend Sara Campbell started fostering dogs with Detroit Dog Rescue (DDR). It’s part of her way to give back to the greater community, her way of helping dogs find loving owners and safe homes.

Many of the dogs at DDR have been mistreated and have some behavioral issues. Sara has had to work with some hard cases. Sara is very good at helping the dogs to overcome fear of humans to help them adjust to living with humans in a safe and loving environment.

She is a bit of a dog whisperer, that Sara Campbell.

Along the way she has taught me a thing or two about canine body language and non-verbal cues.

I’ve had to learn that a scared dog will look down to appear smaller, lower his head, and center his weight on his back legs. I did not know that exaggerated yawning can often indicate stress. Barking, besides being a sign of stress, can imply boredom, confusion, or fear.

It’s taken extra effort to understand Sara’s foster dogs so that I can interact with them and Sara.

I haven’t always had the best luck either. One of her fosters bit me (badly) because I wasn’t paying attention.

I didn’t have the luxury of spoken words to help me interpret what I was seeing. I didn’t rely on the dog’s body language to help me communicate and interact.

All that thinking about dogs and body language made me start to think about humans and their body language.

So, what about humans?

How much time do we spend using body language to confirm and clarify what we are hearing?

According to Sandler founder David Sandler, spoken words make up only 7% of the way we communicate, but we put so much emphasis on it, often without context.

Body language on the other hand, makes up 55% of the way we communicate and it, in my opinion, is underutilized in improving human interaction and communication.

Body language is made up of many aspects. Some of those include:

  • Eye contact,
  • Facial expressions,
  • Hand gestures, and
  • Posture.

Let’s take a closer look at the three most important ones.

Facial Expressions

Psychologist Paul Ekman found that there are six universal facial expressions. They are:

  • Happiness,
  • Sadness,
  • Surprise,
  • Fear,
  • Disgust, and
  • Anger.

Did you notice that four of the six were negative?

In her 2014 article, “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World,” Jennifer Read Hawthorne suggested that a person has up to 60,000 thoughts per day, of which 80% are negative.

Perhaps that’s the correlation?

Posture

How people stand could say a lot about what they are thinking or feeling.

Have ever seen someone hold their arms with hands on their hips and elbows turned outward? Hold their arms crossed? Have their feet facing directly towards someone? Shaking their legs? Lowering their head? Mirroring you?

Each of these things mean something different.

When someone stands with their hands on their hips, it enlarges the person’s upper body, and makes them appear more powerful and in charge.

When a person crosses their arms, it usually shows that they are closed off and using their arms as a physical barrier between you and them. (However, there are some people who are more comfortable standing that way. Learn to differentiate between the two.)

If a person has their feet facing directly towards you, it means they are interested and want to approach you.

Someone shaking their leg is typically a sign that they are nervous or uncomfortable.

When someone lowers their head, it signals that a negative, judgmental, or aggressive attitude exists.

If a person mirrors you, it means they are engaged in the conversation and that feel connected and comfortable around you.

Eye Contact

Looking someone in the eyes creates respect, shows interest, conveys appreciation, and improves understanding.

Avoiding eye contact demonstrates lack of confidence or self-esteem and distrust or suspicion.

While I could ramble on explaining each of the aspects of body language in detail, I won’t. (Thanks for not rolling your eyes.)

The intent of this blog was to convey the numerous, and often complex, ways body language can help us develop more clarity with the spoken word.

Fortunately, most humans aren’t going to bite you when you misread the signs. Then again, most humans won’t tell you you’ve misread the signs, which is often worse that getting bit. (I would know.)

Sometimes you never figure it out, often to the detriment of the relationship. Wouldn’t you rather know?

I challenge you to explore these a bit more and to pay more attention to reading the nonverbal clues. It will improve the relationship, ease the anxiety, and clarify the unknown.

Ken Seawell​​

Ken Seawell

Managing Partner Sandler Michigan - EAM Consulting Group