It’s all in the Wag of the Tail

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

I am a dog lover; so any story about dogs catches my eye, and I will find a way to relate it to negotiation/mediation. Here is my latest.

Recently, The Economist (November 2, 2013) and other news organizations reported on a study by Giorgio Vallortigara, Marcello Siniscalchi, Rita Lusito and Angelo Quaranta on the meaning of a dog wagging its tail. Previously, Dr. Vallortigara and other researchers found that dogs will wag their tails either to the left or to the right in response to different emotional stimuli. The "… dogs will wag their tails to the right when they see something pleasant such as a beloved human master and to the left when they see something unpleasant, such as an unfamiliar dominant dog." (The Economist.)

Now, in a follow up study, the researchers established that which way a dog wags its tail is meaningful to other dogs as well. That is, like people, they "read" other dogs. To determine this, the researchers;

"…wired up several dozen dogs of both sexes and various breeds with electrodes, to record the animals’ heart rates, and then showed them videos of dogs, or silhouettes of dogs, head-on, with tail wagging to left or right. A left-wagging tail, they found, induced a higher maximum heart rate (in other words, an anxiety response) than a right-wagging tail, and this maximum heart rate lasted longer. A right-wagging tail, indeed, produced the same results as one that was stationary." (The Economist.) "

The researchers also found that more often than not, the dog was left wagging when it displayed the familiar symptoms of a stressed out dog; ear-flattening, head-lowering and whining. (Id.)

(Frankly, I went home and tried to read my dog’s body language; although I knew Cookie was happy to see me and was wagging her tail vigorously, I could not tell that it was a right tail wag- it looked more even to me!)

So, dogs like people read and react to "body language. "Body language" (aka kinesics aka non-verbal communications) not only includes "how we hold and move our bodies" but also:

•· how we position our bodies

•· our closeness to and the space between us and other people (proxemics), and how this changes

•· our facial expressions

•· our eyes especially and how our eyes move and focus, etc

•· how we touch ourselves and others

•· how our bodies connect with other non-bodily things, for instance, pens, cigarettes, spectacles and clothing

•· our breathing, and other less noticeable physical effects, for example our heartbeat and perspiration (Body Language at p.4)

However, it tends not to include our "…pace, pitch, intonation, volume, variation, pauses etc of our voice. These are deemed verbal cues rather than visual ones. ." (Id. at 5).

Professor Albert Mehrabian, who is currently teaching, writing, consulting, and researching as Professor Emeritus of Psychology at University of California at Los Angeles, has been a pioneer in the study of how people communicate. Based on his research, he determined with respect to communicating feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike or where emotional content is important) that people communicate:

•· 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken.

•· 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).

•· 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression. (Mehrabian at 1.)

Thus, to understand the context of any communication, not only should both the speaker (to convey the meaning) and listener (to understand the meaning) pay attention to the words, each should also pay attention to the style, expression, tone, facial expression and body language, as well. (Id. at p. 3) But, Dr. Mehrabian cautions that the notion that 93% of our communication is non-verbal is NOT a general rule that can be applied across the board. As his research involved face to face spoken communications, his percentages may well NOT apply to telephone conversations, texting, e-mail communications or even video conferences. (Id. at 4-5).

As you might suspect, there is quite a lot written on this topic. I highlight it only to give you some food for thought the next time you find yourself in a negotiation or mediation. Listen not just to the words, but watch how they are being said, and more importantly, pay attention to the body language. People, like dogs, "wag their tails" signaling their emotions and what they are really thinking!

…. Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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