Review – Leader Effectiveness Training

Leader Effectiveness Training

by Dr. Thomas Gordon, published 1977, 2001

Introduction

I find this book to be interesting as a potential “handbook of general management practices” and as such, I made extensive notes throughout the text as I read. There are many sections of the book that I copied in whole into my notes. My plan for this review, unlike other reviews focused on pithiness and synthesizing my impressions into a summary, is to keep more of these notes and direct transcriptions from the book in tact so that I have a good resource in the future.

What is leadership effectiveness?

How to influence people without using power is the key to leader effectiveness.

A revolution has started– a human relations revolution of great significance. People want to be treated with respect and with dignity; people are demanding to have a strong voice in their own working lives; people are less willing to be coerced and exploited; people want the right to achieve self-respect in their work and have work that is meaningful and rewarding; people are rebelling against inhuman working environments in very human ways — by jobhopping, absenteeism, apathetic attitudes, antagonism and malicious mischief.

While workplace regulation and government interference don’t help the capitalist or manager in this regard, the shift in workplace expectations is cultural and -psycho-intellectual-progressive (not political-progressive!) and gone are the days, real or imagined, of early industrialism in this country in which the business had all the power and could dictate, like a “captain” how would would be performed or else. Today, the dignity of the organization’s members is paramount to leadership effectiveness and great managers both a.) leave their associates feeling heard and understood and b.) offer them agreeable reasons to do the company’s work that serve their own self-interests.

Seems simple enough, so why does workplace and managerial conflict persist?

People come naturally to these built-in patterns of negative responses; they learned them when they were children. The leader inherits each group member’s “inner child of the past.”

[…]

Because group members at first perceive most leaders as probable controllers and dominators, that’s the way they will respond to her, even though the leader may have no intention of using power and authority.

It is vogue to ask of people to “leave your personal problems at home.” But this proves naive because it is the same person having problems at home who comes to work– there is no way to cleave one’s personality into two halves, work and personal. Further, people wish to believe that personality dynamics are mysterious or pertain only to events and developments occurring in the present, adult life. However, just as it is the same person at work and at home, it is also the same person who is an adult now but was a child in the past! A manager need not become people’s personal therapists, but they do need to understand that many of the negative, “childish” behaviors they witness in workplace conflict are in fact a result of unmet childhood needs and failed coping strategies developed in childhood adversity and trauma.

Being the leader doesn’t make you one, because leaders don’t automatically get the respect and acceptance of their group members; so in order to earn the leadership of their group and have a positive influence on the group members, leaders must learn some specific skills and methods.

How leaders acquire followers

There is a set of principles rooted in human evolutionary biology and the logic of economic scarcity that informs social organization development and leadership roles therein:

  1. Every individual is engaged in a struggle to survive by meeting needs and relieving tensions
  2. Means are necessary to survival
  3. Most means are acquired through relationships with other people; therefore people and the groups they form become the means of survival
  4. People seek out relationships in which others are seen as the means of survival
  5. People join groups with the goal of satisfying their needs and ensuring their own survival
  6. People follow a leader and permit them to direct their activities whom they believe will help them get what they need and want to survive

Organizational needs are primarily for increased productivity and efficiency, while the group members needs are sometimes those that motivate them to resist pressure for increased production and efficiency.

An effective leader cannot be only a “human relations specialist” nor only a “productivity specialist”, they must be both.

A job must provide opportunity for growth, responsibility, recognition and advancement if it is to be satisfying; it is not enough to simply remove dissatisfying items from a job.

Expecting people to show up for work just to earn a paycheck is not enough. People also want a sense of personal satisfaction and meaning from doing work they consider important and doing it well.

The principle function of a group leader is to facilitate problem-solving; in somewhat different times, it is to maximize productive work time and achieve mutual need satisfaction.

Effective leaders must behave in such a way that they come to be perceived almost as another group member; at the same time they must help all group members feel as free as the leader to make contributions and perform needed functions in the group.

Group members draw away from leaders who make them feel inadequate or lower their self-esteem.

When leaders achieve this “another member” status, they actually increase the contributions they can make to the group, because their ideas will get evaluated like those of other members.

An effective group leader, then, does not need to solve problems, but to see to it that they get solved.

A 6-step process for effective problem solving

  1. Identifying and defining the problem
  2. Generating alternative solutions
  3. Evaluating alternative solutions
  4. Decision-making
  5. Implementing the decision
  6. Following up to evaluate the solution

Observant leaders can use “signaling behavior” to become alert to the existence of a problem:

  • being unusually uncommunicative
  • sulking
  • avoiding you
  • excessive absenteeism
  • being unusually irritable
  • not smiling as much as usual
  • daydreaming
  • tardiness
  • looking downcast or depressed
  • being sarcastic
  • walking slower (or faster)
  • slouching in their chairs

Once alert to a problem, a leader can follow the problem-solving process to resolve it and thus allow the team member to return to their productive functioning within their organizational role.

As a rule, people don’t get down to the real problem until after they have first ventilated a feeling or sent some opening message.

It has not been an evolutionarily-successful social strategy for human beings to be directly confrontational. As a result, most people learn in childhood to show they are hurt or have a problem without specifying what it is upfront. This necessitates the leader engaging in an exploratory process to help the person with the problem feel comfortable revealing what their problem actually is.

The “helpee” usually will not move into the problem-solving process unless the listener sends an invitation– opens the door for the helpee:

  • “Would you like to talk about it?”
  • “Can I be of any help with this problem?”
  • “I’d be interested to hear how you feel.”
  • “Would it help to talk about it?”

Active Listening as a tool for building trust and leader engagement

Active Listening involves establishing equilibrium between the expression of the person needing help and the impression being received by the one trying to help them. Frequent and continuous feedback of the results of the receiver’s decoding is what “Active Listening” is all about. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. It’s a check: is my impression acceptable to the sender?

At least two ingredients are necessary in any relationship of one person fostering growth and psychological health in another– empathy and acceptance. Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of the others and understand their “personal world of meaning.” Acceptance is feeling good about what a person is doing.

The 12 Roadblocks to Communication

There are 12 common roadblocks to effective, empathetic communication between leaders and followers and almost every leader makes the mistake of running into one of these roadblocks at some time or other in the course of carrying out their leadership duties.

  1. Ordering, Directing, Commanding
  2. Warning, Admonishing, Threatening
  3. Moralizing, Preaching, Imploring
  4. Advising, Giving Suggestions or Solutions
  5. Persuading with Logic, Lecturing, Arguing
  6. Judging, Criticizing, Disagreeing, Blaming
  7. Praising, Agreeing, Evaluating Positively, Buttering Up
  8. Name-calling, Ridiculing, Shaming
  9. Interpreting, Analyzing, Diagnosing
  10. Reassuring, Sympathizing, Consoling, Supporting
  11. Probing, Questioning, Interrogating
  12. Distracting, Diverting, Kidding

What makes these roadblocks ineffective tools of communication?

Implicit in these 12 categories of listener responses is the desire or intent to change rather than accept the sender, acting as vehicles for communicating unacceptance. A climate of unacceptance is very unconducive to personal growth, development and psychological health.

Listening helps keep the responsibility for problem-solving with the member. The 12 Roadblocks tend to grab responsibility away from the owner of the problem and deposit it in the hands of the leader.

Part of demonstrating acceptance is being willing to hear the WHOLE person, not just the part of the person we enjoy being around or working with. Feelings, even negative feelings, are part of everyone’s total reality and existence and will be a necessary part of an effective leader’s daily experience.

Contrary to the “feelings don’t belong here” belief, there is evidence that expressing feelings actually increases a group’s effectiveness and productivity. Openness in expressing feelings serves very much the same function for a group as pain does for one’s organism.

Leaders should treat feelings as “friendly”, not dangerous. Feelings should be welcomed because they are cues and clues that some problem exists.

Negative feelings can be quite transitory. People purposely select strong negative feelings as codes to communicate “I want to make sure I get your full attention” or “I want you to know how bad you’ve made me feel.”

However, don’t confuse the simple expression of a negative emotion as the start and end point of the problem to be explored. Sometimes people don’t know what the real reason is for their discomfort and need help finding it, and other times they just aren’t comfortable saying what it is.

People’s problems are like onions– they come in layers.

This is not unlike a child’s temper tantrum, and, as parents know full well, the best strategy is to wait for the feelings to dissipate.

Leaders do a lot of teaching– giving instructions, explaining new policies or procedures, doing on-the-job training. Yet very few leaders have received special training to carry out this important function.

Little or no learning is going to occur until you acknowledge the team member’s feelings and help him work through them somehow. Your teaching has to stop until you get evidence that he is again ready to learn. This is the most important principle of effective teaching. Just as you can’t be a leader without followers, you can’t be a teacher without learners.

Getting learners more actively involved and participating in the learning process is the mark of an effective teacher.

It’s also naive to believe that problems can simply be ignored or avoided.

The price unassertive leaders pay is that the problems rarely go away; they suffer in silent martyrdom or build up feelings of resentment toward the person causing the problem.

The difference between “I-Messages” and “You-Messages”

You-Messages carry a high risk of damaging relationships because:

  • they make people feel guilty
  • they may be felt as blame, put-downs, criticism or rejection
  • they may communicate a lack of respect for the other person
  • they often cause reactive or retaliatory behavior
  • they may be damaging to the recipient’s self-esteem
  • they can produce resistance, rather than openness, to change
  • they may make a person feel hurt and later, resentful
  • they are often felt as punitive

People are seldom aware their behavior is unacceptable to another. Their behavior is usually motivated only by a desire to meet their own needs, not by a deliberate intent to interfere with the needs of others. When you send a You-Message, you communicate “You are bad for doing something to meet your needs.”

I-Messages are less confrontational because they represent a plea for help from one person to the other. Most people are willing to be of service to others when asked for their help.

The Three Components of a Complete I-Message:

  1. a brief, non-blameful description of the behavior you find unacceptable
  2. your honest feelings
  3. the tangible and concrete effect of the behavior on you (the consequences)

BEHAVIOR + FEELINGS + EFFECT

When people resist changing, it is generally useless to keep hammering at them with subsequent I-Messages; what is called for at such times is a quick shift to Active Listening.

The “diagnostic model” is the fashionable management belief that a leader’s job is to figure out what kind of person each of their team members is and then to speak “their language.”

The assumption implicit in the diagnostic model is that it is the leader who assumes responsibility for producing changes in the group members, and the more leaders know about their team, the cleverer they will be in selecting methods for changing them. This is ultimately a method of manipulation.

This is the “language of control” versus the “language of influence” in the confrontive model, where the leader cares more about knowing how people feel than why they feel that way.

With the confrontive model, leaders need only understand their own feelings and how to communicate them in a nonblameful way; then they need to put listening skills to work so they and their group members can work out mutually acceptable solutions. This is simpler than trying to “figure people out” to manipulate them into doing what you want done.

The role of meetings for effective leaders

There are two kinds of meetings, each with a distinct purpose: informational and problem-solving.

Informational meetings are for such purposes as personal growth, continuing education, keeping informed about what other group members are doing (including the leader). Should problems arise, they should be put on the agenda for the next Problem-Solving Meeting. Problem-Solving meetings have 6 types, following the six step process for problem-solving outlined above.

An organization without many problems is one that is not growing, changing, adapting. Expect problems, and embrace them as vehicles to making organizational progress!

Leadership effectiveness requires regularly scheduled meetings for problem-solving and decision-making with your management team. “Show me an ineffective organization or group and I’ll give you a leader who either does not have management meetings at all or who conducts them poorly.”

Guidelines for effective management team meetings:

  1. Frequency of meetings; it is important to meet at the same time, day and place on a regularly scheduled basis, with or without the leader
  2. Duration of meetings; meetings should start and end at rigidly enforced times, and include a break if meeting for longer than two hours; it is better to have multiple meetings than one that is too long
  3. Priority of meetings; ideally the meeting should have priority over other organizational responsibilities and people should be prepared to be fully present during the meeting
  4. Alternates for members; if a member can not attend, he can designate an alternate with authority to act on his behalf
  5. Place of meeting; conference rooms with sufficient privacy, quiet, seating and comfort are preferable to offsite lunches or dinners
  6. Physical arrangements; white boards, chart pads and other note-taking instruments should be present, members should be seated and have tables for writing on and refreshments for relaxing; the meeting leader should not necessarily sit at the head of the table
  7. The recording function; the leader should not be the recorder as they must be free to perform other functions; the recorder can be a designated person or a rotating responsibility; the recorder should capture decisions, plans for dealing with unresolved problems, problems emerging from the discussion to be placed on future agendas, task assignments and follow-up actions; a brief formula is a statement of the problem and who is to do what by when; meeting notes should be distributed to attendees after the meeting
  8. Developing the Agenda; the group should own its own agenda, not the leader; the agenda can be collected and formed before the meeting or at the beginning; discussion should wait until the agenda is complete
  9. Establishing priorities for the agenda; the most critical items should be discussed first
  10. Rules for speaking; effective groups usually function informally; the leader can be most helpful not in setting rules, but in ensuring each attendee has a chance to provide input
  11. Kinds of problems appropriate for the group; typically appropriate problems are those which require data from the group to solve, and whose solutions require the group members to implement or which effect the members of the group
  12. Kinds of problems inappropriate for meetings; never use group time to solve problems affecting only some of the members, that are too unimportant for that level of the group, that require study and preliminary data gathering (without conducting this first), or that are outside the authority of the group
  13. Rules for decision-making; ideally, all members of the group should agree on the solution and the problem should be discussed until all members are able to voluntarily buy in; voting should only be used to help the group understand which direction members are leaning, not to settle upon the solution and make a decision; when time does not permit further discussion, decision-making can be delegated to one, two or three members acting as a subgroup
  14. Confidentiality of Group Meetings; the procedures of the group should be kept in confidence to encourage open sharing, and only the decisions of the group should be shared publicly, not how they were arrived at
  15. Disposition of Agenda Items; every agenda item should be disposed of by reaching a solution, delegating the problem for further study outside the group, delegating the problem to an individual or subgroup for a recommendation, being placed on the agenda of a future meeting, taking the problem off the agenda by the person submitting it, or having the problem redefined in new terms; no problem should be left hanging
  16. Record of the Meeting; notes should be distributed promptly and cover all decisions made by the group, the disposition of all agenda items and all task assignments with due dates including WHO does WHAT by WHEN
  17. Procedures for Continual Evaluation of Group Effectiveness; the group can improve the functioning of its meetings by periodically reflecting upon itself and evaluating its own performance by written or oral evaluation and feedback

Some leaders pride themselves on having a problem-free workplace. They ask and expect people to “forgive and forget” or, worse, to not bring up problems in the first place. They pay a heavy price for this attitude of enforced ignorance.

The absence of conflict may be symptomatic of an organization or group that is not functioning effectively– not growing, changing, adapting, improving or creatively meeting new challenges. The number of conflicts in groups (including families) is not at all indicative of how “healthy” they are. The true index is whether the conflicts get resolved and by what method they get resolved.

I have heard executives proudly describe their groups or organizations: “We’re just a big happy family around here– we get along, no problems.” I am always suspicious of such leaders, as I am suspicious of husbands and wives who say, “We’ve been married for twenty years and we’ve never had a fight.” Usually that means that their conflicts are not allowed to surface and be faced.

Beware also of team members who avoid bringing up conflicts in order to earn rewards and avoid punishment.

In relationships with leaders who rely heavily on reward and punishment, group members selectively send messages that they think will only bring rewards, avoiding messages that might invite punishment.

These leaders, too, believe they are operating without problems or conflict, but are usually unpleasantly surprised to learn something major has simply been hidden from them out of view!

It gets a lot of mocking treatment amongst pundits and the entertainment industry, but it’s nonetheless worth reiterating the The No-Lose Method of Conflict Resolution: we will work together to find a solution to this problem that respects both our needs. For organizations which fear reward and punishment-based leadership, this can be an effective means of building trust that problems can be talked about because they will be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

An additional concept is the “Principle of Participation” which states that those who are responsible for helping to shape a decision, feel responsible for seeing that it works. Utilizing the PoP, leaders can avoid the temptation to dictate solutions to problems that are brought to their attention and instead get their team members involvement in finding a resolution that they will actively support.

The Periodic Planning Conference Concept

People who believe they ARE the organization will want to contribute to its success, this means people need:

  1. Work that is meaningful and provides need-fulfilling experiences
  2. Their ideas and contributions are valued and needed
  3. Guidance for how to grow and develop so they can enjoy the satisfaction of being more competent over time
  4. A feeling of freedom and self-determination through improving their own performance

The Periodic Planning Conference (PPC) is an instrumental practice in soliciting their ideas, providing guidance and giving them a sense of self-determination in improving their performance such that ultimately work becomes more meaningful and need-fulfilling because the person is creating their own work.

The PPC is an alternative to the annual performance appraisal and is instead a regularly scheduled conference, generally every six months, with each group member. It may be as short as a half hour, averages two hours but may involve several meetings stretched over a period of days.

Items for discussion:

  • Group member’s ideas for improving performance in the next six months
  • Ideas for developing new skills
  • Plans to institute changes in carrying out functions of the job
  • Discuss ways the group leader can help the group member accomplish their goals in the next six months
  • Discuss with group leader ANY problem or concern impacting their job performance, job satisfaction or future with the company

It focuses on FUTURE performance (what can be done) rather than PAST performance (what has been done). It has no scores and focuses on job functions rather than personal characteristics or qualities. It is a two-way conference.

The rationale:

  • It is the leaders’ responsibility to help the individual member improve their performance
  • Provides useful organizational by-products:
    • Identifying qualified candidates for each level of management
    • Providing means for systematic follow-up and development of people
    • Focus on job performance instead of personality traits (de-personalize management)
    • Help people to help themselves grow in the job and the org
  • Builds a relationship between leader and group member where free discussion can exist and problems can become visible and addressed
  • Focuses on the future, engages with positive behaviors to make improvements
  • Group members become more engaged in their work by suggesting solutions to their own problems
  • Provides an opportunity to resolve conflicts when they arise, creating a mutually rewarding relationship

Important assumptions to discuss and keep in mind during a PPC:

  • Companies face competition and must make constant progress to avoid being surpassed by competitors; for the company to grow, people must grow; most people don’t like standing still
  • There is ALWAYS a better way of doing things
  • No one is EVER working at 100% of capacity
  • Change, growth and modification are an inevitable part of effective organizations
  • People are strongly motivated to accomplish goals they set themselves, not goals set for them by others
  • People are happier when given a chance to accomplish more

Steps to prepare for a PPC

  1. Prepare your people
    1. Explain the deficiencies of traditional performance-rating systems
    2. Explain the rationale of the PPC and its assumptions
    3. Listen to the feelings of team members
    4. Influence them to try the new PPC system on an experimental basis
  2. Get mutual agreement on job functions; what is the team member expected to contribute to the organization? What do they do in return for their wage/salary?
    1. What do you do to contribute to the organization?
    2. What do you do that warrants the organization paying you a salary?
    3. Why does your job exist? What is it supposed to contribute?
    4. When you feel you are doing a good job, what are you actually accomplishing for the organization?
    5. Procedure
      1. Explain the definition of a job function as opposed to a job duty
      2. Ask the team member to develop his own list
      3. Developer your own list as the leader
      4. Review them together
  3. Get mutual agreement on how performance is to be measured
    1. Reduces misunderstandings
    2. Points out what data will be needed for the group member to evaluate their own performance

Conducting the PPC

  1. Set the date for the PPC in advance, preferably by 1 week minimum
  2. Ask your team member to prepare goals in preparation for the conference
  3. Provide an opportunity to ask questions about the PPC
  4. Explain that the focus of the PPC is on the future, not the past, and that the team member is expected to “carry the ball” in presenting goals
  5. Explain your own goals for the work group, so the team member understands the larger context

Potential questions to prompt the team member in preparing for the PPC:

  • What do you want to accomplish in the coming year?
  • In which of your job functions do you feel the need for improvement?
  • What are your goals for doing a more effective job?
  • What help will you need from the organization to attain this goal?
  • What is your program this year for improving your performance or the performance of your work group?
  • What benchmark will let you know that you have improved?

Key points to remember about the PPC:

  • It’s the team member’s ball. Get his ideas and feelings out first. Active Listening.
  • Remember to keep the discussion forward-looking, the past is gone.
  • When it’s your turn to talk, be candid, honest and open. Send I-Messages.
  • Secure agreement on the goals to be accomplished. Keep their number to a workable size. Use Method III.
  • As a leader you want to have a clear understanding of how your team member plans to reach each goal– what actions are planned.
  • Share ideas when you think there is an opportunity or need
  • Maintain a climate that is warm, friendly and informal, but task-oriented.
  • Setting goals is a commitment to change, some may resist sticking their necks out
  • Review and put into writing goals agreed upon, with a copy for each participant (and, can share with the group)

Implementing the decisions of a PPC

  1. Provide data needed to evaluate progress
  2. Provide material, financial or personnel resources required to accomplish goals
  3. Make yourself available as a counselor or facilitator of problem-solving (use the Six Step process)

Expected benefits of the PPC

  1. Team members respond to trust by becoming more responsible and less dependent
  2. Higher motivation in your team members
  3. Greater self-fulfillment and satisfaction from team members
  4. You will spend less time supervising and overseeing
  5. Witness continuous improvement in job performance; doing things better will become the norm

Deeper issues for leaders

Just as the adults before us are grown versions of the children they once were, and a person at work is the same person he is at home, leaders must reflect on how their choices and actions will extend and reverberate beyond the narrow confines of the workplace. These personal philosophical inquiries may be of benefit for the leader in contemplating his place in society at large and, more importantly, what kind of impact he wants to have on that society:

  • What kind of person do you want to be? How you behave as a leader will shape you as a person
  • What kind of relationship do you want? How you behave as a leader will determine the kinds of relationships you have with others
  • What kind of organization do you want? Organizations are made of people in relationships, so the kinds of people and the types of relationships they have determine the type of organization they form
  • What kind of society do you want? An open society requires open leaders running open organizations where the members are allowed to exercise their own talents and wills
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Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part II

I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:

I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.

In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.

But is it that simple?

In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?

And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.

Here is another anecdote:

“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.

As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?

Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.

But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!

I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:

  • The townsfolk of Reggio Emilia specifically designed their approach “so that they’d never have to deal with fascism again”
  • The local municipality once considered cutting funding for the preschool programs, and the parents became hysterical and lobbied the government to maintain the spending
  • The head marm narrating in the video described the “citizenship” focus of the Reggio Emilia approach by citing the way townsfolk became engaged in local political debates at the town councils, where she emphasized “everyone was free to argue and disagree, but eventually they reached agreement”; she cited this as a really positive example of the civic-spirited genesis of the approach

Here is the video:

And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:

Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.

In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.

While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.

 

Review – Your Self-Confident Baby

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities

by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998

I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.

The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:

  • Major premise; your baby comes built in with the tools it needs to learn and navigate its environment, and will create its own learning problems and discover its own solutions when given freedom to explore the world at its own pace
  • Minor premise; good parenting is less about what you put in early on and more about what you don’t, especially with regards to worry, anxiety and active interventionism

This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:

  • American parenting; your baby may be capable of great and wonderful things (which you implicitly choose for it), but like a Calvinist, you will only know for sure if you actively work to develop these talents and capabilities in your child. Failing to do so means risking that your child will turn out to be not one of the Elect, but a poor loser, or worse, quite average and content
  • Asian parenting; babies are stupid and a constant and confusing source of pride and worry for their parents, and if they are not condescended constantly almost from the moment they are born, they risk becoming ingrates, drug users, or worse, free thinkers, rather than guided automatons with eternal respect for their revered elders

American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?

So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.

But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.

Gerber offers these basic principles:

  • basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner
  • an environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing
  • time for uninterrupted play
  • freedom to explore and interact with other infants
  • involvement of the child in all care-giving activities to allow them to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient
  • sensitive observation of the child to understand their needs
  • consistency and clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline

Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.

Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.

According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?

Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.

This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!

Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:

  • As parents, our role in our baby’s development is primarily trust
  • Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as her model of love and the ideal she’ll seek for future intimate bonds
  • The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are
  • Grieving people want and need to be heard, not fixed
  • A nice bedtime habit to start with your child is to recapture the day… You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, present and future and gives her life a connected flow
  • Since our lifespan is getting longer, why not slow down?
  • We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing
  • Babies are dependent, not helpless
  • “Readiness is when they [the baby] do it.” “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it himself.”
  • Instead of teaching words, use them
  • “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to”
  • Purposefully inflicting pain on a child can not be done with love

Skeptical Remarks About Dog Ownership

I own a working breed dog, but I do not have a working purpose for the animal as I live in a suburban community that is at least a one hour drive away from the kind of terrain and property arrangements where one might actually be able to put a dog to work. Currently, I also live in a smaller-sized apartment with my wife, the Wolf, which meets our space needs in large part without being wasteful, but which is not ideal for the dog who would do better with a yard to run free in. I have several friends who think our dog ownership decision is something of a lifestyle mistake– they see only costs and are unclear on the benefits.

In the interest of trying to think objectively about my life choices, I want to explore their skepticism as if it were my own. Why do I own a dog? What am I getting out of this seemingly parasitical arrangement?

In many ways, owning a dog is like having a child who never grows up:

  • the dog is dependent upon you for its feeding and care
  • the dog imposes additional costs in terms of food, occasional medical attention, dog equipment (leash, collar, dog toys, etc.)
  • the dog has limited communication capabilities and often leaves its owners guessing as to what its needs are and how they might best be resolved
  • the dog has a penchant for behaving in unpredictable and undesirable ways (barking at strangers, pacing about the bedroom late at night, distracting visitors)
  • the dog puts severe constraints on your ability to travel and come and go as you please, requiring special arrangements anytime you’re out of town for extended periods of time
  • the dog thrives on routine and predictability, which means your life becomes more routine-based and therefore monotonous to the extent you decide to cater to your dog’s needs
  • the dog represents a commitment and the responsibility which entails can not be shed at a whim

These shortcomings and limitations of dog ownership are very real. I have counseled many a friend and young family member to think twice before taking on the responsibility of a dog while single and resource-light. The demands of letting the dog out throughout the day and giving the dog substantial exercise can be extremely stressful to a young professional or amateur careerist operating on their own, not to mention the hindering effect dog ownership has on the attempt to have a nightlife and with it, a sex life! Taking on a dog before you take on a full time partner is like turning on a homing beacon for the irresponsible and imbalanced that simultaneously sets off an ear-piercing frequency that can only be sensed by the collected, cool-headed types you’d ideally want to attract but are instead unwittingly driving away.

And while the ongoing costs of dog ownership are fairly minimal (dog food is the gag fate of impoverished elderly people everywhere for a reason), dogs seem to have a nasty habit of swallowing things, breaking things or otherwise becoming near-fatally ill in the most costly and inconvenient manner possible for those least able to bear the financial strain, and such situations can be an impressive financial setback for those just starting out in life. How would you like to shell out $2,500 cash for surgery on a recently discovered tumor your poor old dog has developed? Or spend multiples of that treating an animal who is congenitally predisposed to the painful and debilitating disease known as degenerative myelopathy?

One of the supposed joys of dog ownership is taking your dog out in public as you traipse about town. But in doing so you take two major risks. The first is that you will attract a crazy person with an obsessive compulsion to pet or otherwise inappropriately interact with your dog. The second is that your dog will become frightened or alarmed by another animal, ideally a small child, and bite, at which point you will now have a dead dog (put down by the authorities) and a costly lawsuit to defend yourself against from the animal’s owners (parents, other dog-owner, etc.) which you will undoubtedly lose.

To avoid such troubles, you might think of taking your dog to the park, where it can roam and run and chase a ball to its heart’s content with little risk of an upsetting interaction with a stranger. But if you live in a town like I do, with strongly enforced leash laws and bans on dog activity on school grounds, which constitute a majority of the open public spaces nearby, you’re kind of out of luck on this draw. You can’t let your dog, legally, off its 6-foot leash which doesn’t make for a fun game of fetch, and you can’t, legally, even go to most of the places otherwise suitable for playing with a dog unless you’re interested in attracting a dog catcher and paying a fine and/or losing your “privilege” to own a dog (said privilege operating on two levels of irony given the tenor of this post so far, and the views of this author on the role of governments in society).

In that case, you might go to a dog park. These are specially designated areas where a variety of dogs of differing size, temperament, training discipline and owner profile all congregate and go nuts on one another, rolling in fleas, transferring diseases to one another, pissing and shitting all over the place and more than occasionally getting into fights. Many of the owners are the same caliber of insane as the standard weirdos who might try to approach you when you’re out about town walking your dog, which is also enjoyable. And you can still get sued if something goes wrong. (You could also be mauled yourself!) A dog park is actually a good case in miniature for a broad policy of social segregation, of dogkind and mankind alike.

It’s actually difficult for me to think of anything I enjoy about owning a dog that I could not enjoy without the dog itself. I could say that owning a dog is a good excuse to get some exercise and walk the neighborhood, but I could surely do that without the dog and in fact many people do, some jog instead of walk but nonetheless they get it done without a four-legged friend. I could say that a dog is a good home security system, but it’s probably inferior to today’s WiFi and app-connected DIY home monitoring system technology in both cost and effectiveness, and unfortunately this “security system” goes on vacation whenever you do, needing to be boarded at additional expense away from home when you’re away. I could say that a dog provides one with warmth and companionship, but that’d be an indication of an imbalanced, emotionally needy mind that could probably get that relationship more authentically from another human being after some workouts with a qualified therapist. And I could say that a dog adds a playful spirit of spontaneity to one’s life, but I’ve never been fond of jumping out of airplanes and I imagine you could accomplish much the same thing that way if you really wanted to do so. Besides, as I said before, where I live there’s no place to play with my dog and it’s hard to be too spontaneous in the living room in the small hours of the evening.

What value, then, is there in owning a dog? For someone with a working purpose connected to their lifestyle (shepherding, farming, mountain rescue, police/security work), dogs probably make sense. In fact, anthropologists and evolutionary theorists posit that dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago precisely because of the important functional relationships they could establish with hunter-gatherer societies.

But we don’t live in those societies anymore, at least, I don’t, and for the modern, non-rural person such as myself a dog doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose.

And since we all live in interventionist welfare societies now, maybe it doesn’t make any sense to have children, either.

Review – The Dog’s Mind

The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior

by Bruce Fogle, DVM, MRCVS, published 1992

Peering into the canine mind

If you’ve ever owned a dog, or even just observed one owned by someone else, it seems almost inevitable to ask yourself the question, “What is going on inside that dog’s head right now?”

I grew up with dogs and have fond memories of four different family dogs of different breeds since childhood. But as a child and even a teenager I didn’t spend much time trying to understand the dogs. They were just there, part of the family landscape and in many ways I took them for granted.

Those fond childhood memories influenced my decision almost two years ago to acquire my own dog. This time, my decision was purpose-driven based upon what I understood about dogs and dog breeds, what I hoped for as a lifestyle to be had with my new companion and my own emotional idealism concerning the dog. We ended up buying a pure bred female German Shepherd from a professional breeder who creates showdogs and pets from German working bloodlines. She is a beautiful, intelligent creature to put it mildly.

We spent a considerable amount of time before and after acquiring our puppy studying articles, videos, books and other information at sites like Leerburg.com and others around the web (two other titles which were helpful, amongst many: The Art of Raising A Puppy and How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend) trying to establish a baseline of knowledge concerning both dog biology and dog psychology to aid the integration of this creature into our home and to improve our chances of training and controlling the animal in a manner beneficial to both parties.

While we’ve been largely successful in this endeavor (so much so that it is hard not to be a bit judgmental towards most of the other dopey, clueless dog owners and dog lovers we come across on a daily basis) the mystery largely remains– what is going on inside that little doggie brain?

The unity of The Dog’s Mind

The author is a practicing veterinarian who I gather may have been an American (or at least was fond of the American revolution at one point, based upon the names he gave to his two Golden Retrievers) but at any rate now lives in the UK. This is a strength of the book because he clearly has personal experience with thousands of dogs of a multitude of breeds and he obviously loves the animal, but it is also a weakness because Mr. Fogle is so intelligent and academically-minded that he often spends a lot of time going into medical and biological minutiae that the average pet owner neither needs to understand (“Here’s a short explanation of DNA sequencing in the dog genome!”) nor is likely to be interested in (“A research study into the effect of X on lab rats showed Y, which may provide interesting insight on the nature of dogs as well.”).

In other words, this is an at-times-top-heavy but otherwise practically-oriented book written by an extremely knowledgeable, experienced and well-read author (read: “scientific”) that explores not dog behavior, or dog psychology but the dog’s mind.

Essentially, Mr. Fogle seeks to explain how

the dog’s mind is a result of instinct, genetics, evolution and selective breeding… hormones influence the mind… and… maternal and peer imprinting and human intervention alter the ways of the dog.

Key ideas here are that the near ancestor of dogs are wolves, a species which inhabits an “opportunist omnivore” ecological niche, and that dogs can never get away from this historical and genetic fact and that despite breed differences which emphasize one characteristic of the dog over another (scent versus eyesight versus aggressiveness versus size, etc.) the mental core of the dog is common to all breeds and can be shaped by humans the same way.

Physiology and psychology

“The Dog’s Mind” is divided into two parts, “The Anatomy and Physiology of the Dog’s Mind” and “The Psychology of the Dog’s Mind”. The first part explores the role of genetics, the “wiring”, size and layout of the dog’s brain, the five senses, the interplay of hormones and the communication strategies of dogs while the second part explores maternal, peer and human imprinting, social behavior, breed differences and finally the effects of age and ill health on the dog’s mind.

Dogs are sentient beings, aware of their own personalities… Dogs dream… They are amazingly perceptive to nuance and observe the most imperceptible changes in us… dogs have been bred to retain the juvenile characteristics of play, exploration and subservience to the leader.

There are so many fascinating insights in this book, far too many to quote them all so I plan to cover some of the more interesting or important ones and sprinkle other quotes without comment as I go.

Speaking of genetics, the author observes that there are more genes which control behavior than there are genes which control “morphology” (the dog’s physical characteristics and appearance) which is part of the reason that there is a large difference in the morphology of an Irish wolfhound and a Chihuahua after generations of selective breeding, yet the “mind” of each animal is quite similar. It also explains why dogs remain so wolflike after thousands of years of domestication and co-habitation with humans. This is so key for dog owners (and the general public!) to understand and yet, tragically, it is not. Most people expect from dogs thought processes and behaviors that are simply unreasonable given the dog’s mind. The dog comes from the wolf, a predator animal, and every dog, no matter how big, small or lovable, continues to think of himself as a predator animal. Like the wolf, the dog is also a pack animal. Amongst modern humans it is popular to be egalitarian and democratically-minded, but to dogs aristocracy and a pecking order is the most natural and desirable system in the world, so much so that attempts to make the dog an “equal” in a human pack can be greatly destabilizing to the point of psycho-somatic derangement.

(Pro tip: if you ever see a “mean” dog that barks/yips at every dog and stranger passerby, you are actually witnessing a situation where the human is unwittingly beta and the dog has designated itself the alpha pack leader and protector… a truly sad and, for the human, completely unwitting state of affairs!)

In the dog’s limbic system, a battle plays out between his instinctive behavior and the negative or positive stimulus humans provide by punishing or rewarding certain behaviors. If we can create a stronger stimulus than the instinct, the limbic system is overridden and we’re able to control the dog’s behavior. A dog that is “uncontrollable” is simply a dog whose owner has not found a sufficiently stimulating punishment or reward to alter behavior. This is important not just for control but trainability– the dog’s mind is most amenable to learning when its interest is aroused which is why positive reinforcement (systems like “marker training“) tend to be the most effective ways to establish long-term behavioral conditioning in the dog’s mind.

Touch is the earliest and possibly the most important of all the canine senses.

The role that senses play in the dog’s mind is another critical piece of the puzzle. When a newborn pup emerges from the womb, its ear canals are closed shut, it can not open its eyes and its wonderful sniffer is fairly ineffective. Touch and sensations of warmth are how it maneuvers itself toward its mother’s teat for its nourishment. This connection to touch remains with the dog its entire life and becomes therefore an important tool of social communication– touch a dog and it feels rewarded, ignore a dog and it feels despondent.

While touch has the biggest social implication, it is smell that is the strongest of the five senses. The book explains that taste is actually fairly restricted for dogs, they basically experience taste as “pleasant”, “indifferent”, and “unpleasant” unlike the human experience of salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, etc. And while a dog’s vision is in many ways superior to a human’s both in terms of distance and operation under varied light conditions, the positioning of the eyes on a dog mean that it is best-adjusted to observing peripheral motion, the “furtive movement” of its prey, rather than focusing on objects directly in front of it. Dogs are also known for their ability to hear sound frequencies humans can not perceive and are even considered to be “musical”, but it is truly the sense of smell that is most developed and differentiated in the dog which means that the dog’s mind primarily experiences the state of reality through smell.

Dogs have around 220 million scent receptors around their nose compared to the average human’s five million.

Smell memories last for life and affect almost all canine behaviors.

The dog uses scent in a number of ways– to sense prey, to sense other dogs, to sense a mating opportunity, etc. The reason dogs seem to forward with humans, sniffing our butts just as they sniff other dogs, is because in a dog the anal glands have developed to give an ID to other dogs. And because smell is so key to the functioning of the dog’s mind, it is the ability to get out of the house and smell things, rather than the exercise, which is most satisfying and important to a dog on a walk. It also means that “the quality of life of a blind dog can still be quite good.”

The chapter on hormones is somewhat technical but one important idea is that in tact male dogs live their entire lives with male sex hormone circulating throughout their body, whereas in tact females only experience the female sex hormone twice a year for a total of four months. This means the volatility of a female dog’s personality is greater than a male’s.

Selective breeding by humans has enhanced the “infantile” vocalizations of dogs. For example, adult dogs rarely whine at each other, but rather at us humans– a learned response. There are 5 primary vocalizations for dogs:

  1. infantile sounds; cry, whimper, whine
  2. warning sounds; bark, growl
  3. eliciting sounds; howl
  4. withdrawal sounds; yelp
  5. pleasure sounds; moan

Dogs also are masters of body language in communicating to one another, and to observant humans, how they are feeling, manipulating the position of their mouths, ears, tails, hackles, front and hind quarters and even their entire bodies to demonstrate a range of emotional experiences. And in dogs, staring is a form of dominance (like physical mounting), only alpha dogs can look directly at other dogs, so when you pet your dog and it looks away it is expressing deference to you, not disinterest.

Dog psychology

When it comes to the developing dog mind, early exposure to mild stress (loud noises, sudden movements, bright lights, etc.) are valuable in creating a stable, even-tempered pet. Dogs are learning all the time and what they are exposed to frequently and at duration (called “flooding”) they learn to tolerate or even accept as natural.

The concept of “imprinting” is also important. There is a key window in the puppy’s development, from around weeks 6-12, during which it is critical the puppy not only be exposed to humans but also to other dogs so that it learns that both are part of its pack. A puppy only exposed to humans becomes fearful and protective around other dogs, and a puppy only exposed to dogs becomes anxious and often untrainable with humans.

Play is a lifelong activity in dogs… as strong in wolves as it is in Yorkshire terriers.

But even with this human imprinting, a dog still thinks of itself as a dog and expects the human to behave as a dog does, participating in group activities, playing, hunting together and sleeping in the same den.

Puppy Aptitude Tests (PAT) have become popular when selecting a pet from a new litter, but there is little research that shows these techniques are successful indicators of long-term behavior other than those which demonstrate aggression or dominance, which tend to persist into adulthood but which are also rare in high levels in the dog population as a whole.

Regarding dog training, it is important to remember that dogs don’t think symbolically, they operate on a “what you see is what you get” basis. They learn three ways:

  1. observation
  2. classical conditioning
  3. operant conditioning

Dogs are also ALWAYS learning. They pay attention to all cause and effect relationships and will expect them to happen consistently in the future once substantiated once unless they are conditioned out of the expectation. This is why, for example, my dog becomes alert and predatory at the corner of my block in front of a house where it once saw a cat on the lawn– it happened one time and is now imprinted in her mind so she expects to see the cat each time and gets aroused in anticipation.

It’s worth quoting Mr. Fogle at length on this point:

Dogs are learning all the time and our objective is to control the stimuli, responses and rewards. We can do so by reinforcing, not reinforcing or punishing the behavior… They learn fastest when their behavior is consistently rewarded… The timing, intensity and intervals of reinforcement all have direct consequences on learned behavior. Reinforcement must be immediate… The object of canine punishment should be to reveal your power, not inflict pain… if a learned behavior is not reinforced, it is eventually lost.

Another important implication of the way dogs are always learning is that they interpret our reactions to their behavior as the control they have over us. If we respond to unwanted behaviors, they see that as their dominance or assertiveness operating. As humans, we must be very thoughtful about how we respond to all dog behaviors, good and bad, at least as far as we morally categorize them as such.

There was also an interesting list in the book showing tendency of behaviors between male and female, with more likely in females at the top and more likely in males at the bottom:

  • Obedience training
  • Housebreaking ease
  • Affection demand
  • Watchdog barking (baselined at 0)
  • Excessive barking (baselined at 0)
  • Excitability (baselined at 0)
  • Playfulness
  • Destructiveness
  • Snapping at children
  • Territory defense
  • General activity
  • Aggression with dogs
  • Dominance over owner

I also thought it was interesting that the author noted that most dog breeds are similar in intelligence although their capacity to excel in certain roles and functions is quite different. Many people tend to think of very small and very large breeds as “dumb” dogs not worth training.

Conclusion

As I said, there is a ton of information in this book. I had read a lot of it in other places before I got to this book, and I found some of the detailed explanations of biological processes a bit overwhelming and beyond my interest in reading the book but that doesn’t change the fact that this is chock full of info. In fact, there is a very handy appendix with training tips for some of the primary behaviors every pet dog should have (come, sit, stay, down, etc.) and the latter half of the book dealing with dog psychology includes not only diagnoses of various forms of dog aggression but also suggestions on how to prevent or treat their development as behavior traits, which could be helpful to many people who think they “just have an aggressive/mean dog.”

Dogs don’t think and behave as we like them to, they think and behave as they do, and what they do is strongly influenced by their genetic heritage as wolves as well as the early experiences they have in the litter and in our care. If we want to have enjoyable relationships with our dogs and other people’s dogs which are increasingly prevalent parts of our society, we would do well to become familiar with the essential knowledge contained in books like “The Dog’s Mind.” It will fundamentally change our relationship with these creatures and may even leave us appreciating, rather than bemoaning, our biological differences.

Review – Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., published 2003

What is all this hippie nonsense?

A common question, this is the best introduction I’ve found so far, via a lecture given by the author.

 

The NVC Process

To practice the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process involves four components, which are:

  1. observations – the concrete actions that affect our well-being
  2. feelings – the emotions we experience in relation to what we observe
  3. needs – values, desires, etc., that generate our feelings
  4. requests – the concrete actions we’d like to see others take in order to enrich our lives

The NVC process is not a new way to manipulate other people; it involves giving and receiving a level of respect and empathy common to ourselves and others which entails:

  • expressing honestly through the 4 components
  • receiving empathetically through the 4 components

Obstacles to needs-based communication

There are many pitfalls that trap us in our efforts to communicate our unique needs. One common communication style which serves to hinder compassionate communication is moralistic judgment, an impersonal way of communicating the focuses on the “wrongness” of the actions of others rather than on revealing what a person thinks and feels inside of themselves. In truth, analyzing and judging the behavior of others is actually a reflection of our own needs and values. For example, “The rich are so selfish!” might be an attempt to communicate something closer to, “When I witness poverty, I feel sad; I value living in a community where everyone seems to have enough to take care of themselves.” The danger of moralistic judgments is that the act of classifying can promote violence by creating adversarial, us-them attitudes toward others– people become obstacles to satisfying our needs and values rather than potential partners.

Another problematic approach to communication involves making comparisons, which are simply another form of judgment. When we make comparisons, we block compassion– for ourselves and for others. It is another way to build walls and separateness.

Compassion is similarly difficult to achieve when we engage in denial of responsibility by using language which obscures the connection between our own thoughts, feelings and actions. In Nazi Germany, officers responsible for the Holocaust and other atrocities relied on Amtssprache, or “office talk/bureaucratese”, to deny responsibility for their actions because everything they did, they did because of “superiors’ orders” or “company policy” or “just following the law/doing my job.”

There are many ways in which we can deny responsibility for our actions by attributing their cause to factors external to the self:

  • vague, impersonal forces; “I did X because I had to”
  • condition, diagnosis or personal history; “I do X because I am Y”
  • actions of others; “I did X because Y did Z”
  • dictates of authority; “I did X because Y told me to” (Amtssprache)
  • group pressure; “I did X because everyone in group T does X”
  • institutional policies, regulations or rules; “I did X because those are the rules around here when people do Y”
  • gender, social or age roles; “I hate X, but I do it because I am a good Y”
  • uncontrollable impulses; “I was overcome by my urge to do X”

History is rife with examples,

We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think and feel

Two other ways we create obstacles to life-enriching communication are by stating our desires as demands, and speaking in terms of “who deserves what”.

A demand explicitly or implicitly threatens listeners with blame or punishment if they fail to comply

Similarly, speaking in terms of “deserving” creates the impression of “badness” or “wrongness” and promotes behavior based upon fear and punishment-avoidance (a negative philosophy) rather than goal-seeking and personal benefit (a positive philosophy). In other words,

it’s in everyone’s interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefitting themselves

Implementing NVC: nuances and complexities

At this point you might be thinking, “NVC sounds interesting, but how do I actually use it?” Even the first element, observation, can hang people up.

The reason that the NVC process stresses observing without evaluating is that when people hear evaluation, they are less likely to hear our intended message and instead hear criticism which puts them on the defensive rather than being receptive to what we have to say. However, the NVC process doesn’t require complete objectivity and detachment from emotional realities, only that when evaluations are made they are based on observations specific to time and context. In other words, evaluations must be about specific actions taken within specific time periods. For example, “John is a great guy” is a generalized evaluation whereas, “John helped the little old lady cross the street yesterday afternoon” is an observation without evaluation.

Another element of NVC that new adoptees struggle with is separating feelings from non-feelings (thoughts). It is a common construct of the modern English language (and many others) to use “feel” in place of “think”. Red flags for feel/think confusion are the use of the following after the word “feel” when making a statement:

  • words such as “that,” “like,” and “as if”; “I feel like a failure” or “I feel that you shouldn’t do that”
  • the pronouns “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” and “it”; “I feel it is useless”, “I feel I am always running around”
  • names or nouns referring to people; “I feel my boss doesn’t like me” or “I feel Jeff is doing a great job”

In NVC, there is a difference between expressing how we feel, and expressing what we think we are (self-evaluation):

  • feeling; “I feel disappointed/sad/frustrated with myself as an X”
  • evaluation; “I feel pathetic as an X”, which is better stated, “I am a pathetic X”

Part of developing our ability to accurately express feelings entails developing our feelings vocabulary, and learning which words connote states of being or evaluations of capability, and which words can authentically convey an emotional response to such values or needs.

The other critical component involved in accurately expressing out feelings is taking responsibility for their cause. The common misconception is that external factors cause internal emotional reactions. The reality that, while external factors may provide a stimulus, the direct cause is our internal values, beliefs, expectations and needs; when they are satisfied, we have one set of feelings (positive) and when they are violated or negated, we experience a different set of feelings (negative).

When we receive a negative message from another person, we have four options for choosing how to react to it:

  1. blame ourselves
  2. blame others
  3. sense our own feelings and needs
  4. sense others’ feelings and needs

Accepting responsibility for our feelings involves acknowledging our needs, desires, expectations, values or thoughts. We commonly mask these things by using unaccountable language such as:

  • use of impersonal pronouns such as “it” or “that”; “It makes me so X when Y” or “That makes me feel Z”
  • use of the expression “I feel X because…” followed by a person or personal pronoun other than “I”; “I feel X because you…” or “I feel X when Z…”
  • statements which only mention the actions of others; “When Y does X, I feel Z”

The simplest remedy is to adopt use of the phrase “I feel… because I need…” which connects our own feelings to our own needs. This can improve our communication with others, as well, because when people hear things that sound like criticism they invest their energy in self-defense, whereas when we directly connect our feelings to our needs we give people an opportunity to behave compassionately toward us.

If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met

The liberation cometh

Emotional liberation is the state of being achievable through disciplined and consistent practice of the NVC process wherein an individual is able to freely and safely express his authentic feelings and needs to others, and to similarly be free and secure in receiving these authentic feelings and needs from others. The movement from emotional slavery to emotional freedom typically involves three transformational stages:

  1. emotional slavery; we see ourselves as responsible for others’ feelings
  2. obnoxious observation; we feel reluctant as we realize we no longer want to be responsible for others’ feelings
  3. emotional liberation; we take responsibility for our intentions and actions

Implementing NVC: the final step, making requests

The fourth component of NVC, making requests, is in some ways the most challenging of all. To practice effective request-making it is important to be in the habit of utilizing positive language as it is hard to “do a don’t.” Thinking of a way to express your request in the form of “Would you be willing to do X?” instead of “Please stop Y” serves to remove incentives for resistance and fighting and gives the other person an opportunity to make a positive contribution to your well being.

Similarly, the focus should be on making specific, concrete, actionable requests rather than something general, ambiguous, vague or abstract.

We often use vague and abstract language to indicate how we want other people to feel or be without naming a concrete action they could take to reach that state

Being clear about what you’re requesting from another person makes it more likely they’ll be willing and able to comply with your request– how can a person satisfy your needs if they don’t know what they are and don’t know what they could do to help you with them? Don’t make people guess!

Additionally, expressing feelings without providing a request can confuse people and lead them to believe you are trying to pin guilt for your emotions on them, rather than prompting them to take some corrective action. For example, “It bothers me that you forgot to do X” is not a clear request for a person to do X and may be interpreted as “You make me feel bad!” which is antagonistic and inspires self-defensive reactions.

Whenever we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return

Another guideline for making requests is to ask for a reflection– ask the person you just made a request of to reflect the request back to you to confirm you have been understood.

After we’ve communicated a request, we’re often interested in knowing how our the other person has reacted. We can get a better understanding of this by soliciting honest feedback through one of three ways:

  1. inquiring about what the listener is feeling
  2. inquiring about what the listener is thinking
  3. inquiring as to whether the listener is willing to take a particular action

A key here is to specify which thoughts or feelings we’d have to have shared; without specificity, the other person may reply at length with thoughts and feelings that are not the ones we’re seeking. Particularly challenging situations arise when making requests of a group.

When we address a group without being clear what we are wanting back, unproductive discussions will often follow

Keep in mind that there is a difference between making a request and making a demand. The difference is that when a person hears a demand, they believe they will be punished or blamed if they don’t comply. This leaves them with two options:

  • submit
  • rebel

Notice how “respond with compassion and seek resolution” is not one of the options. If the speaker criticizes or judges the listener’s response, it is a demand, not a request. A request implies that a person is free to disregard it if they don’t want to comply; that’s their right as a free individual with their own needs and wants.

Making a request implies we are prepared to show empathetic understanding of another when they are unwilling to comply with our request. However, if someone doesn’t comply with our request, we don’t have to give up. We do have an obligation, though, to empathize with their reasons for not complying before attempting to persuade.

Conclusion

This is a powerful and transformative framework for not only communicating with others but better understanding one’s self and one’s own needs. The world would be a much different place if it were more widely understood.