Can your dog help improve your listening skills? Yip!
8 January 2022
To improve your communication, take a cue from your pet. According to the organizational psychologist Adam Grant, one-third of women reported that their pets were better listeners than their partners.
This is a jarring statistic — shocking, even. To put it bluntly: women often prefer their petter half.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that goldfish did not figure into this survey. The bottom line is: a heck of a lot of women feel better understood by their furry friend.
The abundance of cute cat and dog videos out there attests to the fact that Fluffy and Fido are wildly popular. But good listeners? How is this possible when pets can’t even speak our language?
First of all, I am going to discount women’s response somewhat under the assumption that their proffered pet preference was a secret sideswipe at their partners for being lousy communicators. It feels so good to give such an outrageous answer — especially when your partner won’t find out about it. It’s a smug and sneaky way of getting in a little dig.
Harmless, but not useful in improving communication, either.
Communication embodies more than language
Part of the problem is how we define communication. Modern society focuses on verbal language, often to the detriment of body language. But this isn’t true for all phases of our lives: babies are fluent in body language. Janine Driver wrote a whole book about this topic.
I remember once when my two-month-old daughter even understood a joke I made to my husband. Seeing me get up from the couch with the baby to change her diaper, he looked at me quizzically and asked,
“What? Again, so soon?”
“Oh yes!” I said. “She already $/#!* again” making a fake fart noise.
My daughter was watching and listening to me closely and when I made that noise — she giggled. She was too young to understand my words, but she instinctively knew I was making a joke.
I’ll never forget that moment. It taught me never to underestimate my kids’ intelligence. It also gave me an unforgettable lesson in the power of body language.
It’s unfortunate that as we grow older, we attend school and become more and more book-oriented. We focus increasingly on speaking and writing skills and forget the power of body language. This neglect is being aided and abetted by the explosive use of technology in lieu of in-person communication.
But never fear: it’s Rover to the rescue!
Or in this case, Batzi, Ginger and Teddy. The name of the Jack Russell terrier at the left, Batzi, is Bavarian dialect for something along the lines of “little squishy blob,” a tongue-in-cheek moniker for a little muscly guy who routinely runs circles around the kitchen island and zooms across the fields surrounding the house at lightning speed, terrorizing anyone in his path.
But what can we learn from the three polite pooches pictured here?
Pay attention to posture
All three dogs are sitting up perfectly straight. Their bodies are aligned to the front, indicating the focus of their attention. If you want to show someone you’re listening, sprawling out on the floor or hanging halfway off the side of your chair is not the way to go. Batzi and co have figured this out.
Humans: Sit down, sit up straight, turn and face your interlocutor. You might have forgotten how to just sit and listen to someone without fidgeting. For inspiration, study the photo of our furry canines sitting at attention. Now that’s what I call focus.
Imagine if everyone in meetings did this. This could be dangerous: people might have to start putting actual content into their PowerPoint presentations! And who knows where that would lead!
The eyes have it
Dogs are masters at using their eyes to convey a message. In this photo, they are visibly spellbound by the person taking the picture, eyes wide open with anticipation. This could be related to the fact that she is holding doggie treats in her hand, but we can’t be sure.
Humans: Look at the person who’s talking to you. Good. And keep looking.
In case this isn’t clear, let’s list up all the places you should not be looking: your smartphone, computer or any other screen for that matter, which are proliferating nowadays and seem to be everywhere except for the bathroom, but we may see that yet. Also, don’t look or gesture at other people in the room, especially to exchange secret messages or communicate under the radar.
Finally, don’t look out the window, even if someone happens to walk by and catches your attention. An exception can be made if the Loch Ness monster, a yeti or Bigfoot saunters past. In that case, grab your phone quick and take a picture. You can apologize later.
Also resist the temptation to use this opportunity to check the status of your fingernails, straighten up your desk, wipe crumbs off the table or rearrange the couch cushions. All not good.
Once again, the crystal-clear canine counsel is: look at the person talking to you.
The only exception (apart from a guest appearance of the above-mentioned creatures) is averting your eyes intermittently to avoid the impression that you are staring. That’s just as bad as not looking at all.
Mouths are not just for talking
A closed mouth may not be saying anything, but it is still sending a clear message: “I’m listening.”
Here, all three dogs have buttoned their lips. Considering that dogs perspire through their mouths, this is not a given. Dogs often hang their mouths open to breathe more easily, too. But here they have their mouths closed to neaten their appearance. It’s what they’d do if they were standing at attention for roll call in the army. You don’t see those guys blowing bubbles, biting their lips — or drooling, as the case may be.
Humans: Just put a lid on it, as grandma would say. If you keep your mouth shut, it will keep you from interrupting. And keep the flies out (another quote from grandma).
Don’t lick yourself, either, just in case that’s something you ever do.
Our three tail-waggers are abstaining from one of their favorite communication activities to heighten their focus. No twitchy tails here. Instead, they’re intent on what their mistress is trying to tell them.
Humans: Sit! It’s as easy as that. Sitting still will help you zero in on the person talking to you.
This also means not crossing and uncrossing your legs, not fussing over your coffee (in goes the cream; one, two spoonfuls of sugar; stir, stir, stir; tap, tap, tap…slurp.) No. By all means pour yourself coffee but don’t make a production out of it. It makes it look as if you are more interested in your coffee than the person across from you. If that’s the case, you need to reconsider why you’re listening to this person in the first place.
If this is all too complicated for you, just print out the picture of Batzi, Ginger and Teddy and tape it to the side of your computer. Do what they do. You’ll be fine.