By Leia Minch, Raptor Curator CPBT-KA

Humans are a funny animal. We communicate in a variety of ways including verbal, physical (touch, facial language, body language) and through writing. Some may argue that what separates humans from non-human animals is our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings in verbal and written language. Throughout the globe we have different languages, dialects, dictions and phrases. Despite our many methods of communication, as a species we seem to be quite awful at communicating effectively.

I was thinking about this one day while guiding an intern though a target training session with one of our ambassadors. When we’re working with animals, we stress the importance of clear, honest and upfront communication to build strong behaviors and strong relationships with our feathered co-workers. We want the bird to know our intentions and we want to make it clear what we are asking of them. In return, the birds give us the same clear, honest and upfront communication. I’ve yet to see a bird miscommunicate to me when he/she was asking me to leave their enclosure or when they were leaning forward, getting ready to perform a behavior. Even though the bird cannot verbally communicate his/her thoughts or feelings, I know what behavior is likely to occur based on what their body language tells me.

A hawk with its wings out, standing tall on its legs and its head feathers fluffed in a square manner is asking for someone to back off.

It may be safe to say that when we’re practicing clear, honest and upfront communication with non-human animals we don’t have to worry about our message getting “lost in translation” between the animal and the trainer. I believe this is because non-human animal trainers don’t rely solely on verbal communication to get our message across to the other, as we do so often with our own species.

When I am communicating with a bird, I am consciously an active participant of the two-way communication between us. I look at the bird’s eyes, what their body posture is telling me and how their feathers are positioned. I use all of this information to then give the bird feedback on what they are telling me. For example, should I leave their aviary, should I ask for them to come to the scale, is the owl ready to fly across the room?

An owl leaning forward toward the offered glove is likely going to step up on to the glove.

I think it’s important to use these same communication techniques with the humans we share our lives with as well. All animals learn in the same way. Because humans mainly use verbal communication with another, (which adds another facet of complication) we have to go out of our way to ensure the message we are receiving from the other is the message they are trying to communicate. Communication is not easy. Despite doing it every day, it’s not something we often think to get better at. By honing a few different skills, we can all become better communicators with one another.

1) Use body and facial language cues to help interpret the message the other person may be trying to get across. The physical forms of communication can be just as powerful and the words coming out of the person’s mouth.

2) Practice active listening and feedback. When someone else is trying to communicate with you, confirm what you’ve just heard the other person say. Take time to understand their words and clarify that you are interpreting them correctly.  This could potentially clear up any miscommunication between two parties.

3) Acknowledge your own personal bias. We each have different experiences and knowledge. We interpret information based on our previous experiences. It’s important that we don’t assume the way we interpret information is the way that everyone will interpret the same message.

We can prevent miscommunication errors by being active listeners, reading the other’s body language, and confirming the interpreted message back to the other.

By being open, honest and understanding, we can all practice better communication skills with another and prevent potentially harmful miscommunication.

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