I’ve been thinking a lot about tone, and sensitivity lately. In these moments of deeper thought, and then moments of less deep thought that led to google searching, I came across a study that I found quite interesting. This study concluded that body language is responsible for 55% of how someone interprets us, tone accounts for 38%, and the actual words we speak and their literal meaning make up a mere 7% of how someone understands how we are communicating with them. That got me thinking, no wonder people who work with animals on a daily basis are even more sensitive to the subtleties (or sometimes not so subtle) of body language and tone. Because the majority of our communication day in and day out, occurs with something that uses no words at all.
Horse trainers spend their lives honing in on the ability to read intent through movement, and how to use their own bodies to communicate what they want. Dog trainers, read movement and sometimes even sound as they interpret growls and barks as fear, vs aggression, vs excitement. Trainers use words as well, but the animal has no idea the literal meaning of the word. They understand a repeated sound/word during a specific action. Whoah meaning stop for a horse, cluck to increase speed, or saying sit to a dog. During initial training, words are only used after an animal has done said action in response to a physical cue. Because in training, if you use the word as a precursor to the action the precursor then becomes what the animal associates with that word. Furthermore trainers use tone not only in their words, everyone knows the excited voice we use for puppies when teaching them to come to their name, but also in body language. This is especially true in horse training. If a trainer has a reactive horse they need to stop in a pen, it may only take a smooth subtle step ahead to get them to stop. A harder headed horse that is less focused may need a stomp and arms raised. Good trainers get to the point where they can read intent from a glance, the flick of an ear, the twitch of a leg, or the softness in the eye of an animal they are working.
All of this then had me thinking about myself. About something that I’ve fought with my entire life as a quality many go after as a weakness. That is, my sensitivity. My natural instinct is to nearly ignore the literal meaning of words, but rather take meaning from tone or body language. For a long time I deduced this trait came from being bullied when I was younger, or growing up with strong personalities in my household. These things are true, but I’m seeing now that this trait of mine, my sensitivity, may have started out as a defense mechanism to read for trouble from people in my life, but it was strengthened and turned into an asset when I began training animals. May be this is why many people who are so good with animals have a history that is a bit jaded with their peers or families (my family is great by the way, just making a general statement here). Made sensitive out of fear, these people turn to animals for comfort, and then find a kinship because they have learned to read others in the same way. They then grow together, learning from one another how to communicate without words. Thus creating some of the best trainers and animal handlers in the world.
So for all of you out there who have children or partners with sensitive traits. Think about how you are talking to them. Not just the words you choose, but the body movements and your nuances of tone. Those things matter. And be extra considerate to us animal trainers, because we not only read those choices of tone and movement from you, we try to predict them. On a daily basis that ability to read others can be life or death for us. We can’t it turn off with the flip of a switch, and most of us wouldn’t trade our ability to read those tones and movements for the world because it allows us to do what we love every day and be great at it.