Wild Connections

What blue-footed boobies and other animals tell us about human relationships

3 Communication Missteps Animals Can Help Us Avoid

Green frogs, wrens, and prairie dogs know how to talk to each other.

A recent post by Psychology Today writer Marc Bekoff highlights the lengths to which animals go to avoid miscommunication during play (see Dog Play: Cracking the Secret Code of Man's Best Friend). The interesting thing is that it isn’t just during play where careful, often exquisitely executed, communication occurs among animals, especially those in ‘relationships’. Although we consider ourselves sophisticated communicators because of the breadth and diversity of human language, the truth is our interactions with one another our rife with misunderstandings and miscommunication. Strangely enough, the closer the relationship the more often it is plagued with this kind difficulty. If the cornerstone of a good relationship is intimately linked to communication, why does our communication end up sounding like two male grizzly bears fighting? Do couples in other species have this problem? Are geese couples waddling around arguing about whether they are listening to one another, who is right, and what the other goose really meant? Probably not.

Why is this? A good place to start looking is to determine what are some common sources of human miscommunication. I am certain there are many more, but let’s stick with the top three: Not listening, talking over one another, and saying less than you think you have.

Not listening, typically by males, is a common complaint among couples. Although there can be many reasons for this, one may be what we can call the “green frog syndrome”. I know, I know, you are wondering what on earth green frogs have to do with your partner not listening to you. See, male green frogs habituate to sounds of other frogs they hear all the time and even then they only pay attention to the deepest sounding croak. In a similar way, human brains, well male brains, are wired to pay more attention to voices with a deeper pitch (or croak!). Women’s voices are higher in pitch and tend to get even higher when they are excited or upset. This is a recipe for the often-uttered question, “Are you even listening to me?” Despite our green frog ways, it is not an excuse for not listening. Some strategies to avoid this pitfall could include recognizing when you are not listening and develop signals to re-establish attention. If all else fails, play the deep croak of a male green frog when you suspect your partner’s attention has been lost.  

Talking over one another is really another form of not listening. What if you aren’t actually talking out loud, but only formulating a response in your head while the other person is talking? Surely you are still listening right? Nope. Unfortunately, the same part of the brain the produces language also processes language, so you may as well be talking. Because we ‘hear’ our own words in our head before we speak them, we aren’t able to listen to what the other person is saying. Not only does talking or thinking about a response render you unable to listen, but it is a sure sign you aren’t in sync with your partner. Just ask black-bellied wrens. They listen and pay attention so intensely to their partner that they anticipate exactly when to start singing so there is no overlap and no gap. As if that weren’t impressive enough, if the ‘conversation’ isn’t going swell, they conclude the duet quickly and try again later.

What can we take away from black-bellied wren couples? Take turns talking! It sounds simple, but it is responsible a ton of human miscommunication simply because you aren’t listening. And if a conversation starts heading off road: stop, take a break, and try again later.

Perhaps the most basic mistake we make in our communication is saying less than we think we have. A lot less. Whether it is simple things like doing the dishes or expressing our wants, needs, opinions, and feelings, we often fail to be specific and complete in our communication, relying heavily on assuming our special other lives inside our head and just ‘knows’ what we mean.

This is a blunder even a prairie dog doesn’t make. In their case, each prairie dog relies on other prairie dogs to tell them exactly what is going on around them so they know precisely how to respond. Of course this is a matter of life and death for prairie dogs since they are usually talking about a predator. When a coyote is on the prowl prairie dogs don’t just shout “Hey! Watch out!” Instead, they say something like, “Hey! Watch out! There is Steve, that medium sized, brownish coyote, over the ridge on the left, coming at us in at a steady pace.” Why do they go to so much trouble to convey all this detail? Because by knowing the who, what, where, when, and how a listening prairie dog can correctly determine what it needs to do to live another day. 

Fortunately, we are rarely faced with such threats, but incomplete communication based on faulty assumptions is dangerous indeed. To avoid this hazard, take a page from the prairie dog playbook and provide your partner with exact and thorough information on what is going on, whether it is what you want, need, or feel.  

There you have it. Next time you have a conversation with your loved one: listen intently, take turns talking, and say more than you think you have to.

Jennifer Verdolin's latest book is Wild Connection: What animal courtship and mating tell us about human relationships. (jenniferverdolin.com) (@JVerdolin)

Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D. is an animal behavior expert currently studying lemur personality and social networks at Duke University.

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