June 8, 2021

The Incredible Lesson my Dog taught me about Communication.

I was out “walking with Cupcake.”

Notice how different that feels than “I was out walking Cupcake,” which feels like a chore. Truth be told, most of the time, she’s walking me. I imagine the sound of her voice saying, “Hey honey, you look like you could use some fresh air, so I’m taking you out for a walk in the neighborhood.”

My husband and I usually walk her when he gets home from work. It’s a simple way to honor his need to unwind since work is now three minutes away from home. And while he’s decompressing, I get some face time and a chance to feel out his mood. It gives me an opportunity to think about what I can do for him after his 15-hour day on the front lines. In doing what I can for him, I am nurturing us. Notice the difference in how that feels. I am taking care of Alan and Cathy. It becomes about self-care.

We used to talk all the time when he was a doctor on staff. But now he’s a big shot, and I’m lucky if I get to hear the sound of his voice. His days are hectic. There isn’t much downtime. He’s on his feet constantly and putting out fires. The job description is leadership. Sometimes after a long day, he welcomes distraction. On those days, we talk about Cupcake’s habits—where she likes to sniff, who she likes to sniff, where she likes to sniff on those she likes to sniff.

I told him how I learned which direction she prefers based on the way she pulls as we leave the driveway. I shared the signals she gives me when alerting me to which dogs she wants to visit and those she’d prefer to see from the other side of the street. She knows which owners I like to chat with and which I could take a pass on altogether. Some days we even talk about the people the dogs are walking, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I am reminded of an exchange Alan and I had walking off his day. There is no eloquent way to talk about it, so I’ll do my best to talk around it. Any dog owner worth their weight in biscuits knows that the number one priority on a walk is number two. Exercise is just the icing on the cake. The true mission is to give them a chance to “P and P.” (They don’t have the luxury of hopping on the toilet, so it’s a thing.)

The sweet spot in any dog owner’s life is the day their dog makes the connection between walking and “making.” Today, as we approached Cuppie’s favorite shaded patch of grass, I watched her get into position. She looked over at me, and I looked right back; our eyes locked.

There was a day, not so long ago, when she would look at me and I imagined her little dog voice to be saying, “Hey girl, can I get a moment. please?” One day, Alan and I belly laughed as we exchanged our interpretation of the look. Whenever she would look over her shoulder at him in the heat of the moment, he would look away, out of respect. It sounds silly, but he felt like it was a moment that deserved privacy. I actually found myself doing the same. One day last year, curiosity got the best of me, so I Googled, “Why do dogs look over at you when they’re taking care of business?”

The actual reason a dog looks over at you is because she is feeling vulnerable while squatting down. She wants to be certain you have her back while she’s “going.” Making eye contact is her way of reaching out for reassurance. How misguided that Alan and I both were looking away with the very best of intentions, likely leaving her feeling anxious about her predicament. What she needed was a kind tone and assurance that we would keep her safe. She was feeling abandoned as we were doing our best to make her feel most comfortable. We assumed we knew exactly what she was asking for, so we assumed we were giving her precisely what was needed. Everyone knows what happens when you assume.

It is human nature to handle situations based on the only information we know to be true. How often do we assume we have all of the information we need when, in fact, we do not. How often do we presume to have it all figured out without asking questions that might fill in a few of the gaps? Clearly, Cupcake couldn’t speak, so she looked at us with those sweet eyes.

As humans, we are blessed with the divine gift of verbal communication. It becomes skillful, only when you work it. We are able to help those around us understand what we want or need, when they aren’t giving it to us, but we have to speak up and make our needs clear. We have the luxury of vocabulary. Choosing the shiniest word possible stacks the odds in our favor. More often than not, it is a case of miscommunication or the absence of communication altogether when misunderstandings occur. We have to work that muscle to make it strong.

When someone asks me for something, they do it from their own state of clarity. Often they assume that I am as clear on the request as they are. To be sure I understand, I often repeat it back to the person. I try to use the same words—and even the same tone in my voice—that conveys the spirit of their words. I practiced this exercise over and over one Sunday afternoon in a workshop my husband and I took. This was the golden nugget.

To be sure you clearly understand what is being asked of you, play it back. That way, the person who initiated the exchange can agree that is what he or she was asking or clarify any misunderstanding. This is the foundation of true communication. We speak, and we are heard. Sometimes there is a step in between the two that derails the interaction.

At first, it may feel awkward and the words might feel forced. Stay with it. It will become second nature quickly. You will start to notice the difference in the quality of your communication—in how effectively you deliver your intention based on how clearly it is understood.

This mirroring technique is quite simple. If there is any disconnect, it will become obvious immediately, and a quick redirect will get you back on track. Being able to communicate clearly has kept me out of more than a few hot messes.



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