Effective communication depends on whether you are on a ‘walk’ or a ‘sniff’

Grace is racing back to the door, anxious to enter the warmth of the house. She's not wasting anytime in telling me how she feels.

Frozen from the multiple days of single-digit temperatures we’re experiencing here in New Hampshire, Grace is racing back to the house, anxious to find the warmth from inside. She’s very clear about her intent and since I was feeling the exact same desire to get out of the cold, it was easy for me to interpret her message. When we have different needs or agendas, things get complicated. More often than not, we are coming from a different perspective and messages can be misread.

It’s cold. Really cold here in New Hampshire. 

When it’s six degrees outside, you don’t dawdle. Hanging around sniffing the environment can get your toes frozen, literally. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that when Grace is high-tailing it to the door, she’s ready to get back inside so she can snuggle deep into the layers of soft fleece in her bed to warm her bones.

Not every message is that easy to understand. Sometimes we humans can be as thick as a block of ice when it comes to communicating effectively. 

Often, we’re too mired in our own world to see it from another perspective and that immediately limits our ability to communicate effectively. We neglect the opportunity to open our eyes (and other senses, like our nose) to observe and participate in a two-way dialogue.

A trusted colleague, Leaf Seligman, and I worked with a talented team at a local non-profit on Monday. Each team member brought a genuine, palpable desire to do their best work, and Leaf and I were there to help the team develop a deeper manifestation of their mission.

No matter who the group or what the objective, everyone encounters communication issues. Leaf and I are no strangers to the problem, because of course, we’re human, too. So Leaf suggested that it would be instructive to pose (and reflect) on this question: “What is the mission of ‘dogness’?”

Strange question, right? Especially when the objective is to figure out how to communicate more effectively with another person. Here’s the deal: when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, your communication will automatically improve. Leaf’s example was this: when she takes her dog, Zuki, out for a walk, Zuki doesn’t see it as a ‘walk’. Zuki is going for a ‘sniff.’ Two completely different perspectives on what looks to be the exact same activity. However, we can all picture the scene: a dog wants to explore every single scent, an innate behavior that brings meaning to the dog’s experience, while a human is not any way interested to dig a nose into rotten and disgusting smells along the way. Yes, both human and dog are walking. And both human and dog are smelling. Just not in the same proportion, nor for the same reasons.

So how does thinking about the difference between a ‘walk’ and a ‘sniff’ improve communication? Because when you look at the activity through what is inherent to the other person (or dog) you can anticipate actions or words that will naturally come from them in the process. That means you can react with more understanding and compassion. It doesn’t mean you have to do what they do, or even agree with it. But it helps you come from a place of dealing with it more effectively. Instead of getting crazy impatient with something happening (like the incessant whiffing required by dogs on what we define as a ‘walk’), you realize others are just doing what they need to do in order to make sense out of their environment.

One thing you can do to immediately improve communication: be curious about how the other person is experiencing the same situation. What challenges is he facing? What is important to her? What is his natural work style? What makes it fun? Or what makes it annoying?

Having answers to these questions will allow you to have a common ground for which to walk (or sniff). This awareness will allow you to enjoy the smells along the way!

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