The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Is Your Communication Hot or Cold?

What children and dolphins know about expressing themselves in the moment

If you’re looking to become a better communicator, you might try watching a group of children playing the time-honored game of Hot and Cold.

When children hide a green crayon and guide one of their peers to the object using only verbal feedback by shouting “hot” or “cold” to excited squeals of delight, they are expertly demonstrating what behaviorists call immediacy of feedback. Children know intuitively what we adults sometimes forget. Namely, that feedback, whether positive or negative, is best delivered without delay.

In the adult world of propriety and inhibition, there are all sorts of reasons for not speaking up when we should.

“Now’s not the right time,” we think.

Then we mentally select from a long menu of potential reasons for remaining silent. The receiver of our would-be commentary, we tell ourselves, is not quite up to hearing our thoughts just now. He’s stressed. Or distracted. Or sensitive. Doesn’t take compliments well. Doesn’t take criticism well.

The list can go on and on, but the justifications usually mask our own fears about making our thoughts known rather than being valid reasons for declining to participate in feedback loops that are a vital part of effective communication.

Children seem to know better.

Take a wrong turn at the toy box and the crayon-seeker is met with a chorus of shouts: “Cold!” “You’re so cold, you’re freezing!” “Cold, cold, cold!” They giggle and jump up and down. They really want that green crayon found.

And, of course, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

In addition to the immediacy of feedback required to ultimately find the crayon, a plethora of positive, subliminal, and socializing messages are being broadcast as well: Challenges are fun. Persistence pays. Two heads (or ten or twenty) are better than one. Your peers are valuable help-mates.

When we fail to provide feedback with immediacy, the results can be disastrous. Take it from a former dolphin trainer.

I once tried to teach a dolphin to play basketball using a sponge and a hula-hoop. No sneakers or fancy court required for this game. The dolphin, Moe, knew that my training whistle indicated he had done something right. Problem was, I was a novice trainer at the time and a little beyond my depth.

Like most trainers, I wore my whistle on a lanyard around my neck. But unlike my more seasoned colleagues, I had not yet learned to hold the whistle in my mouth during training sessions. So when Moe approached the sponge floating at the surface, I was left fumbling with the lanyard.

By the time the whistle sounded, Moe had turned away from the hoop. My feedback throughout the session lacked immediacy, so by the time it was delivered Moe was already on to another behavior, often not one that would hone his basketball skills.

In the end, Moe made his feelings of frustration known by abandoning the sponge, turning toward me with narrowed eyes, and shoving a wall of water at me with his pectoral fins. The game was over and my basketball coaching career was . . . well . . . washed up. Moe, however, had clearly mastered the art of immediacy in providing feedback.

Most of the time, we only appreciate the importance of immediacy when it’s too late.

Ever met your significant other at a formal diner reception only to find him wearing that awful Homer Simpson tie you swore to yourself you’d burn when he wasn’t looking? When you express your disapproval, he may turn to you and say, “But I thought you liked this tie – you never said anything about it before.” If he does, it may be time to express yourself in the moment a bit more regularly.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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