Beyond Words

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.

IMG_0448It’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.

88 thoughts on “Beyond Words

  1. Ann, I love that you’re helping with shelter dogs! Through no fault of their own, they’re “incarcerated” and waiting for a fur-ever home. I imagine a soft touch, warm heart, and gentle words mean a lot to them. People can be just like that. Everyone is fighting a battle — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — and since we’re all sharing the same “home,” it’s crucial that we help each other over the rough spots (and be open to their help in return). It seems that those who’ve suffered the most are best able to console!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love working with shelter dogs, Debbie! It can be hard and even sad sometimes, but the rewards are so worth it. And I agree, everyone is struggling with something even during normal times, and now that we have a pandemic on top of it, now is absolutely the time to be a little bit extra kind and caring towards each other. We can’t change always change our situation, but if we change the way we react to it, we can sure make life a little bit brighter for us all, I think.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting insight into the energy you give off and how it impacts others. I’ll be thinking on that for a good long time. How wonderful that you’re helping in an animal shelter. I bet that good energy will stay with you for days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does, Ally! And yes, it took me a long time to realize that I can be unintentionally sending so many “messages” without saying a word, and that often the message people are getting isn’t at all the one I thought I was sending out. I’ve had to learn to speak up a little bit more, and to be careful of my nonverbal cues.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Working with animals made me so much more aware of this, Lynn, because our words don’t always work with them. And then I figured out that nonverbal communication also influences people much more than we ever realized. It’s something I’m still working on, and probably always will be. Thanks for your sweet comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can identify with this very well. After decades as a performer in the radio biz, as well as the stage, I grew tired of always being “on”. Now, I tend to be more inward and silent in public. I don’t want to act my way through my day. Yet, I know I need to think about others more than myself. I need to make greater efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine that constantly being “on” is exhausting, Alan! That is one of the reasons I gave up substitute teaching, because I was just coming home so tired from the effort it too. I’m an introvert at heart, and being anything else takes a ton of energy. But where I have to be careful is the ways that I’m sometimes sending out a message that is opposite of what I am really feeling, like frowning at people because of something that has nothing to do with them. It’s an effort, but worth it, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “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.”
    This is key, as everyone is (now) going through the same things. As I told a friend who felt offended at a stranger’s words: For my own sense of serenity, I try to assume the best, or at at least, assume distraction. I try, but, you know…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s so easy to offend someone unintentionally, especially these days when we’re all on edge and many are so very ready to be offended. That’s why I think it’s better to simply tell someone, I’m feeling really frazzled today, for example, rather than try to fake cheerfulness or to simply be sullen and unresponsive to someone who is trying to engage with me. It’s so easy for people to misunderstand each other!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Communication is fraught with problems. You are so right when you point out the impact of body language and facial expressions on our interactions with others! I had to learn that lesson a long time ago when I first started working in the vet clinic. I count myself very fortunate to have that knowledge! If only more people learned to “speak” to animals then maybe our communications would be clearer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point! Learning to communicate with animals really does help us to become better at non-verbal communication with humans as well. At least it started me down that path of being a little bit more self-aware.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently read that, last year, one of LeBron James’s teammates told him that he (James) sometimes had bad body-language reactions when young players on the team made bad plays. From what I gather, James tried to stop doing that kind of thing as a result of what he was told.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s so interesting! And it says very good things about LeBron James that he was willing to adjust his reactions to the younger player’s mistakes in order to help them and the team as a whole. It’s amazing what we can do when we’re willing to make adjustments!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I admit that I’ve learned to smile a bit harder behind my mask, so that it shows up in my eyes as well. I also try to say “thank you” or even just “hello” so that there is some kind of positive interaction with other people. I think one of the worst side effects of the precautions this pandemic has forced on us is that we are becoming more isolated from each other, and we have to find creative ways to stay connected until this is behind us. Thanks so much for you comment!!

      Like

    • That’s so true. I think most of us would be surprised if we knew how others sometimes see us, and not always in a good way. But as you say, all we really need is a chance to explain ourselves. I suspect that people aren’t quite as different as we think, underneath it all!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. With smiles covered and voices muffled by masks, our body language is so important. I’ve been trying to make my eyes appreciative and expressive, but I fear I’ve only succeeded in looking like Groucho Marx…. This was a great post, Ann.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’re so funny, Donna! My guess is you’re doing a great job of letting your eyes express appreciation and kindness, especially since you’ve been writing about the need for understanding and patience so eloquently in your latest posts. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve always been a big believer in eyes being the windows to the soul. When someone is speaking to me, I try to give them my full attention. I notice people’s eyes a lot more now, and try to “smile” with mine. People seem to appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think also the sound of how we speak and the tone voice of our words can tell the mood we are in. It is my beyond words. My cat seems to be always know when I call him to eat or when I am looking for him and my voice is more concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so right, animals can tell what we’re feeling simply by the tone of our voice and our movements. And I think tone of voice means a lot with people too…that’s why it’s so easy to misinterpret a text message or even an email. Without the tone and the facial expressions, we can get things so very wrong!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is so true. A couple years ago, I had a brunch at my house and one of the ladies didn’t know anyone else. When she came in, she sat the farthest away from everyone who was there and only spoke when she was spoken to. Afterwards, she said she didn’t feel comfortable, but like you mentioned, her body language and everything else sent a signal, “don’t speak to me; I’m uncomfortable.”

    It’s interesting how we attract the very thing we don’t always want.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It really is! She was probably sitting there, hoping that somehow she’d find a way to fit in better, maybe even waiting for some sort of invitation. But since her whole demeanor said, “keep your distance,” no one offered her that. It’s kind of sad how often we deflect the very things we need and want. Thanks for sharing that example!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Over the ages, dogs have read and understood humans, and I suspect some of them have a dash of ego too but largely they clamour for attention. In all these sentiments, dogs have copied the humans. Unfortunately, human emotions can be huge like icebergs, and we tend to carry our grudges past their shelf lives. Your post reminds me to mend my ways too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re so right, dogs are much better at reading us than we are at reading them….or each other, for that matter. Humans would be so much better off if we could just imitate dogs in terms of their love and their ability to live in the moment. And I love your phrase “tend to carry our grudges past their shelf lives!” That is so true, and something I need to work on for sure. Thanks for this comment!

      Like

  12. A very thoughtful post, Ann – thank you! I’ve learned a lot from having two sons with Asperger’s. They didn’t understand social cues growing up, but they have learned so much as adults. Their progress has been amazing.
    I am on the other end of this discussion. I smile a lot and often hide how I’m truly feeling. So allowing myself to scowl and express how I really feel would be a new habit!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad your sons have learned to read social cues! I know that’s such a challenge for people with Asperger’s. As for allowing yourself to scowl when you’re truly unhappy, I have to say that I think you should! That way, people know that something is bothering you, and maybe they can help. And if not help, at least know that you’re having a rough day and cut you some slack.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. hello friend, Hope all is well. I wish sir is trying his best to feel good.
    Readind your posts fills me with positivity always. It is really great that you worked with animals and got a chance to learn new way of communication actually I cannot do that. Its very difficult to manage and understand to know about how others are feeling without listening to them.
    Body language expresses in its own way but it depends upon the perception built in person’s mind according to past experience. I mean that guy making sandwich thought that he offended you but you were not.
    Today I offended by a Whats app message sent by my mother in law. I though she is pointing towards me by sending the message but then I thought may be the case that she just sent it normally.
    And you are right , its very easy to misunderstand each other.

    Good day dear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is SO easy to misunderstand each other! And I think you are right about how we can perceive even body language in different ways. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it’s a very good point. Which just goes to show how even more important it is to tell other what we are feeling and thinking whenever possible. And yes, texts and Whats App messages are especially easy to misconstrue, because you can’t hear the tone of voice or see the expression of the person who sent it. Hope all if well with you!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Yes, dogs can teach us so many life lessons can’t they, particularly those that are perhaps needy and have their own issues. Like humans too! Working (and living) with animals makes us so much more open hearted. Lovely post Ann.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’ve done this. It’s so easy to send off the wrong message because of internal state. It was a real problem in my former job. I also tend to live in my head a lot and think about things rather than react to what’s happening around me. I’m sure that contributes to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I do that same thing! I’ll be thinking of something and my facial expression will show my emotional reaction to whatever I’m thinking about, as opposed to the real life situation I happen to be in. Those of us who live in our heads a lot (as I do too) have a particularly hard time with that!

      Liked by 2 people

    • I think we have for sure, Mick. That’s one of the downsides of all this technology. We sit behind our screens or are on our cell phones, and we can’t see the other person’s body language or hear their tone of voice, and they have the same problem with us. I worry that the younger generation in particular is going to lose the ability to “read” other people at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. Because communication is a two-way thing, relying on the person being communicated with doing some of the work, their is a hierarchy of communication running from face to face (easiest) through vocal (phone call) written (letter / email) to text speak (hardest).

        Liked by 1 person

  16. In some ways it is a gift that others can ‘read your face’. That way there is no chance of pretense. Your face conveys the honest truth. Many people become so good at hiding what they are feeling, that no one knows what they really are going through. This way, at least the people closest to you always know what is going on with you. They can ‘read’ your face and understand somewhat without words. It has often been said that if you smile, you actually make yourself feel better. We are now in the world of masks, but I often smile at people in public who look kind of sad or down. Oddly, they often meet my eyes and in a strange way, even eyes can smile. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Linda! You’re right, it can be a blessing for people to look at me and get a good idea of what I’m feeling. The only problem is, sometimes what I’m feeling has nothing to do with the situation I’m actually in, because I’m thinking about something else. So I need to explain that from time to time! And I agree that the eyes can smile, and we see that even more now in these days of face masks. It’s possible produce a false smile with our mouths, I think, but never with our eyes…they give away our true feelings, and that’s a good thing!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I find it ironic that therapists and educators have spent years explaining the importance of moving beyond ‘masks’ in our life, precisely because they dehumanize and degrade the possibility for human communication. Now, politicians and others are proclaiming everyone should ‘mask up.’ In the process of donning masks and keeping our distance, our social bonds certainly have been degrading. At this point, I’m beginning to suspect the cure will be worse than the disease. On the other hand, I have a real sense that in situations where masks aren’t necessary, people are cherishing every smile and every ‘eye-catch’ in a new and deeper way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I agree, although masks help prevent the spread of this virus, they are definitely contributing to the isolation we have from one another. That’s one of the many reasons this pandemic can’t be over fast enough to suit me. It’s bad enough that people are dying from it, but the restrictions it has brought are bringing even more problems: a failing economy, social isolation, difficulty in getting medical attention for other issues, an uptick in domestic violence and depression…..the list goes on! Meanwhile, yes, when we are in a situation where masks aren’t necessary, we do cherish those smiles and facial expressions so much more. There are many things I suspect I’ll never take for granted again!

      Like

  18. I have often wondered why some people manage to be cheerful when they should feel miserable after something went wrong in their lives and even manage a smile to cheer up others in distress. Perhaps we all (myself included) should learn to smile more often. Great post, Ann!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Great food for thought, Ann! It’s something I seldom think about, the fact that we wordlessly communicate in so many ways, just like we do with dogs. I’m going to think more often about how I’m coming across to people…and dogs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s amazing how many messages we send without intending to! The dogs taught me to be more careful about that (I didn’t want to frighten them when I was handling them, and I also wanted to make sure I read them properly to know when to back off), and eventually I figured out that I need to be more careful with people too. It’s amazing what animals can teach us, if we’re willing to learn.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I really like what you are saying about giving off “leave me alone vibes” when that’s not what you want. I was in school one day and a lot of people, including my teacher, kept asking me if I was sad. I didn’t know why they kept asking me that because I wasn’t. I then realized I was really bored in that class so I was zoning out, which looks like I’m upset. If we can how our body language actually works, we could easily help more animals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the hard thing about body language is that it doesn’t always accurately portray what we’re really thinking and feeling, or at least why we’re feeling that way. People can read my face and see if I’m angry or sad, but they may misinterpret what I’m angry or sad about. And other times, we can be expressing something we’re not feeling at all, which your example proves. Thanks for the insightful comment!

      Like

  21. This is such a lovely message, Ann, and a great reminder for all of us, especially these days when our interactions are so limited by distancing and masks. Body language is a huge part of communication and it makes perfect sense that we would want it to align with our intent. I recently had the job of taming some feral kittens and I know exactly what you mean about the importance of non-verbal communication.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! It’s so funny, because how humans communicate non-verbally and how animals do it can be so very different. For instance, if I meet a new person, I will look them in the eye, smile, and probably offer my hand to shake. But if I did that same thing with a dog, they would feel very threatened. Looking them in the eye is a challenge, a smile is “showing teeth” and extending my hand is not always a good thing in the dog world. So with a new, shy, dog, I’ve learned to sit down (getting on their level), present myself at a sideways position from them with no direct eye contact, and let them approach me first rather than reach out to pet them. It’s counter-intuitive to me, but it works for them.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. There was time when people didn’t take offense so easily and neither did they rush to offend others. When they gave others the benefit of the doubt, when they took the time to try and understand the things not easily put into words.

    Life’s a lot different these days. We’ve come a long way from our horse-and-wagon days but I’m not so sure that I’m a better person than people of the olden days when life was much slower. We’ve advanced so much, life is filled with all sorts of smartsolutions intended to free us up and yet, we somehow just don’t have the time to go easy on others. I’ve a whole lot less patience, for one thing. And don’t get me started on misunderstanding people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I completely agree! So much of technology has made things more convenient for us, but not necessarily easier. Because it seems that it has also increased the demands we make upon ourselves and each other, and taken away our patience. I think that’s part of the reason people are so easily offended these days, they’re already feeling overwhelmed and vaguely angry, and it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge. Others seem to have decided that being outraged is the only sign that they care about the events around them and act accordingly. What the world needs now is tolerance and understanding, but sadly, those do seem to be in short supply. Thanks for your comment….as you can tell, it really spoke to me!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, animals operate on instinct so much more than people, and that enables them to understand things that we often miss. My husband is fighting cancer right now, and it’s amazing how often our dog curls up next to him to offer comfort and support. And yes, volunteering at the shelter is rewarding. It can also be hard and frustrating, but honestly, it’s so worth it in the end. We know that what we do actually saves animals, and it doesn’t get better than that!

      Like

  23. What a beautiful lesson from these unloved dogs- now feeling love thanks to people like you. I think you give the dogs a lesson just as they give you one. I feel myself communicate with dogs through petting them. Unfortunately I can’t pet humans so I try to use a smile instead. 😚

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! Yes, sometimes dogs are so much simpler because you can just pet them and don’t have to worry about the words you use. They have taught me a lot about how to be careful of my body language and tone of voice. Thank you for your kind words: I do hope I’ve taught them that they can trust humans and that the world isn’t such a bad place. Some of the dogs come to our shelter from homes when people give them up for one reason or another. But others come from the streets, or are rescued from hoarders or sub-standard breeders. (Or even dog fighting rings.) Those dogs have no experience with people that is good, so it is up to us to teach them. And it is very rewarding when we are successful, and we see them bloom into the dog they were born to be.

      Like

  24. Hi Ann – this is a point I haven’t read a lot of discussion about but what you say is so true. I also know that it’s hard to accurately “read” some of the expressions of people close to me. Then I catch myself in the mirror and think, my god, I’m doing the same thing. It’s work to smile or look pleasant all the time, but I try my hardest to do that because the reaction is so good. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Barbara! I know what you mean, sometimes I’m scowling and it has nothing to do with the people who are around me at the time. So then I have two choices: either smile anyway, or at least tell the others what I’m worried or stressed about, so they know my expressions aren’t directed at them personally.

      Liked by 1 person

  25. I love what you learned from the dogs at the shelter and how it is applicable to relationships overall. Now-a-days, nearly all my communication (except with my husband) is over the internet. I do try to keep in mind how my words sound. In this format, you can’t take the words back, they are permanently out there. And, the receiver can’t see your facial expressions. Communication in any form is tricky! Very nice food for thought, as always, Ann.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny, because the internet makes it so much easier to get in touch with others, but it also increases the chance for misunderstanding what they really think and feel. I think that’s part of the reason we see so much anger on social media. (That, and the fact that these days we’re almost programmed to be outraged about something or another.) But I agree, communication in any form is tricky, because even in person communication can lead to serious misunderstandings. Thanks for the comment, Brenda!

      Like

  26. thank you for the reminder. especially that of wanting one thing from others but, unfortunately, sending a different message with our actions. indeed, it is important to be intentional and clear with our communications 🙂❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  27. I can relate with this a lot, Ann! I’ve often experienced the same thing – people often misinterpret my feelings because as well and it’s kind of upsetting. There you are, feeling low and would love some cheering up but all you get is being avoided because obviously my body language sends out the wrong signals. Either that or all the others suck at interpreting signs. 😉 Anyway, as you said, better to be clear and tell others what we feel or think instead of letting them guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Either that or all the others suck at interpreting signs”…..I laughed out loud at that, Sarah! Thanks! It’s nice to think that, but yeah, I think I’m usually sending out “leave me alone or else” signs when what I most want is someone to come and cheer me up. So now I’ve learned to just come out and say, “I’m having a bad day, do you have time to talk?” That usually works!

      Liked by 1 person

  28. That was interesting. I had a friend once who apparently did the same thing. I was often asking him what was wrong and he would say nothing. I said you’re making that face and he would say that’s just the way my face looks. Funny that I’ve never thought about it from the other side.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.