The nuances of communicating do matter

Grace was out of control. In a happy way.

She bounded into the agility room on Friday and all bets were off for getting her attention. She wanted to greet the other two dogs. Say hello to her favorite trainer, Rachel. She jumped over the hurdles. Ran through the chute. Leapt over the A Frame. It was hard to keep up with where she was going next. She was as excited and as full of energy as I have seen her there.

She has definitely enjoyed our recent visits to agility class. But it seemed that this day was extraordinarily blissful for her. It required every skill I knew to keep her engaged in what we should be doing. Even the string cheese and duck-flavored savory treats weren’t enough to maintain her focus!

Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who has absolutely no interest in what you have to say? That’s what I felt like with Grace.

While she was bouncing off the walls, I had a revelation. One of the exercises was a front cross maneuver. As Grace exited the tunnel, I was to come in front of her and direct her to the other side. I’ve mentioned this particular technique before and we’ve done it many, many times in class. Performing the ‘front cross’ is not difficult. Yet because it’s in the middle of so many other things you’re doing, the subtleties can get lost.

However, something ‘clicked’ for me and I realized the importance of using every available aspect of communicating with Grace to keep her attention. First, I needed to be near the tunnel exit, I had to make eye contact immediately, move with her to the tire jump, call out “TIRE!” and then use my body placement and arm gesture to direct her correctly. Even knowing the importance of every aspect, I didn’t do so well on my first try. I didn’t make eye contact and I was too far away from the tire given the unique, sharp angle of the desired turn. Grace moved to my right instead of my left, missing the tire.

Rachel asked us to try it again, reminding me of the things that I had not done. This time, it worked and Grace performed beautifully! It’s not enough to say the word or just move to the next obstacle. Ensuring that I had her undivided attention was critical: it takes more than just one way to deliver a message effectively. Just like when we communicate with people.

In order to ensure that the other person correctly receives any message, we have to think of so many things – while we’re in the middle of a bunch of other things! We might be thinking about the person we’re talking to, or how we need to move to the next task awaiting us, or we might be annoyed at the noise in the adjoining room that continually distracts us. There are a multitude of things that could be demanding our attention.

So it becomes immensely difficult to be 100% present at every single moment. Yet when we get distracted, that’s the likely moment when our communication can get flawed. Perhaps we didn’t hear what the other person said. Or we missed the item that the speaker pointed to during a presentation. Did their voice provide a clue for their true feeling that was missed as we “listened”?

Our agility class helped me see the impact between crystal clear communication and “almost clear” communication. It made the difference of whether Grace understood my intended message. I’d be interested to hear examples that you would be willing to share of communication that has been effective, and perhaps, not-so-effective. What did you do that had an impact on the outcome?

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5 comments

  1. didiwright says:

    The answer to your first question in bold is ‘Yes’. It happened to me both as a teacher and as a mum, and I didn’t like the feeling that I was talking to the walls.
    I think you’ve done well understanding Grace’s excitement and drawing her attention to yourself in a non-forceful, stress-free way. This is a lesson we should all remember. When in a position of power and superiority (as a boss, parent, teacher, etc.) most of us are too quick to shout and reprimand in order to grab and retain other people’s attention.
    As for being 100% present at all times, I think that’s rather impossible. We all get distracted when there are different things happening around us. In our family, we’re divided on this issue. My husband prefers to only concentrate on one thing at a time, he says that’s how his brain works best. I, on the other hand, have always been able to multi-task and deal with several issues simultaneously, as long as they’re not of crucial importance. Anything of significance will gain my undivided attention, and I will switch off completely to anything else. My husband laughs at me and says I could find myself in the middle of Heathow airport and still be able to do my work. I guess all those years of sports training have not been in vain, they taught me how to concentrate when I have to. Which, of course, still doesn’t solve the problem of effective communication (which I still have to work on) and doesn’t answer your last question. I’ve got to think a bit more about that one. See, that’s what I love about your posts, they make me think!

    • Your comments always have a way of making me laugh and contemplate the topic. I laughed at the thought of talking to the walls, definitely appropriate description, and also the vision of your working in the middle of Heathrow! And I see what you mean that being present 100% of time isn’t truly realistic. Makes a lot of sense given how much is naturally available to distract us. One of the most important points I took from you is how easy it is for any of us to think that shouting louder will get someone’s attention. Yet it doesn’t work that way, does it. The person may hear what we are saying, but it isn’t doing a thing to bring them to a new level of agreement or understanding. Thanks, Didi, for these thoughtful observations.

      • didiwright says:

        You’re welcome, I love our engaging conversations, I feel we’re pretty much on the same wavelength and I’m sure that, if we met in real life, we’d sit down and talk all night 🙂
        You’re right about shouting not holding people’s attention. One of my favourite teachers (who was also one of the most respected) never raised his voice. What he did if people were noisy or talking over him was to go completely quiet. Eventually, people realised and stopped talking. Then he said what he had to say. He always spoke in a soft voice, and if we showed signs of restlessness, he lowered his voice even more, almost to a whisper. This forced us to listen and concentrate on his words. Clever man, I haven’t been able to master that yet.

  2. The teacher you describe does indeed have a very effective way of getting his point across. Thank you for sharing — a great idea and reminder to us when we get in a situation where we feel we aren’t being listening to. It would be counterintuitive to go quiet, but perhaps the very best thing to do. And yes, I imagine we could have many, long, and interesting conversations together!

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