One of the first things I learned when I began volunteering at a local animal shelter was the importance of communicating without words. Because dogs can’t talk, and a rescue dog who has lived its whole life without much human contact can’t understand what my words mean. The dog can only “read” my body language and respond to the tone of my voice, which means I have to be intentional about the wordless messages I’m sending. And really, that applies with my human interactions as well.
I was in a deli one day and the man who took my order made a little small talk while he was preparing my sandwich. When he handed it over to me he paused, and then said, “I’m sorry if I offended you, ma’am.” Surprised, I assured him that he hadn’t. It wasn’t till much later that I realized that I was probably scowling at him the whole time he was talking, not because of what he was saying, but because I had a horrible sinus headache at the time. If anything, I was the one who was being offensive.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been had my feelings hurt when I’m feeling down because it seemed as if my friends and family were avoiding me like the plague just when I needed them most. It took me years to realize that was likely because when I’m feeling that way, I’m usually sending off a distinct “leave me alone” vibe. I may have been thinking, “Please come cheer me up,” but the message people were getting was “Stay away from me!”
It’s not easy for me to pay attention to, much less control, all the non-verbal ways I communicate with others. It’s hard not to scowl when my head is pounding, or to be friendly and engaging when I’m feeling worried or depressed. Sadly, I have a face that others can “read like a book,” which means that if I’m thinking about something that is upsetting me, I’m going to look angry. Even when I’m not the slightest bit angry at the person who happens to be standing right in front of me.
But if I can manage to control the “vibes” I’m sending off when I deal with the shelter dogs, surely I can figure out a way to do that with people, too. Especially since most of the people I interact with do understand my words, and I don’t need to rely on body language and tone of voice to get my message across. I need to remember to speak up and actually tell people what I’m feeling, which is so much better than, say, trying to smile when I’m feeling badly, either physically or emotionally.
It’s so easy to misunderstand each other, especially when we’re preoccupied or upset, and to be disappointed when others aren’t responding to us the way we want them to respond. And those are the times when I’m grateful for the lessons that the shelter dogs have taught me, which is that I need to be very intentional about what kind of message I’m sending out, either with or without my words. Because I’ve found that once others understand what I really mean, their response is often just exactly what I need.