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The value of non-verbals

On one of those perfect September days a couple of weeks ago, I decided to make use of the sunshine and warmth and go on a hike.

I parked my car near an area snowmobile trail, a smooth stretch of gravel built on a former rail bed, and walked about a mile before spotting off to the side a gate at the entrance of a small, grassy trail.

Unlike the flat rail bed trail, the second trail rose and fell with the terrain, wove through old forest, followed a stream and eventually, a mile later, arrived at a little roadside park.

My September adventure was going well.

Now two miles from my car, I could have returned to it on established roads. Instead, I decided to retrace my steps through the deep woods where I knew I wouldn't be bothered.

I wasn't bothered, either, until a pair of collarless large dogs, one a German Shepherd, popped out of the woods ahead and ran towards me, teeth bared, growling and barking.

I tensed up. My childhood fear of big dogs returned. A rush of adrenaline told me to run. My brain said that wouldn't work. There was nowhere to go.

So, I scolded the dogs with all the authority I could muster and kept walking towards the beasts at a reduced pace. It was all bluff. I wanted out of there. But it worked.

The dogs lost interest.

One disappeared. The German Shepherd became friendly and, after I let it plant its muddy paws on my chest while I patted it, was my buddy for the rest of the hike.

The conflict was solved in less than a minute using nothing but non-verbal communication. We shared the trail like old friends.

Now, imagine if had we would have had to negotiate the same arrangement using words.

The dogs, through their lawyer, would have informed me that, having duly peed on 74.8 percent of the trees within a quarter mile, this territory was theirs.

According to dog law, because I was a weird-smelling intruder with no pee credentials whatsoever, they had the right -- no, the duty -- to tear the flesh off my bones.

My lawyer would cite the "Hikers are welcome" sign at the beginning of the trail as well as centuries of human legal tradition that you can't use flesh-tearing force against alleged trespassers.

Tensions would escalate. A flurry of affidavits, motions, findings and hearings would follow.

I might never have gotten back to my car!

All of that was avoided through a simple non-verbal communication.

I mention this story because in our age of instant, constant electronic communication with most everybody in our lives and many that aren't, we risk losing our talent for the most potent and efficient communication of all: face-to-face body language.

Conflicts escalate quickly in chat rooms and over e-mail. Without face-to-face contact, the imagination concocts an ugly enemy at the other end, one who deserves to have the flesh torn from his bones.

But put two humans in a room together with a problem to solve and, in many cases, civility will prevail and conflicts will be defused.

During World War II, allies Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin kept in constant contact via telegraph.

So efficient were the electronic communications that they could be compared to e-mail today.

Yet Churchill often left England for weeks on end, at great risk to himself, flying rickety planes over hostile territory, just for the purpose of sitting in the same room as his fellow leaders.

The real business of the war was conducted less through volleys of carefully written telegraphs than through smoky, convivial, boozed-up meetings between the leaders.

Those meetings transmitted volumes more information than the telegraph line could bear.

Today, we are dependent upon the telegraph to the point where purposeful face-to-face communication is simply unfashionable.

Some people prefer to communicate electronically even if they are sitting in the next room. Sending electronic bits is safer, less stressful, less hassle.

But, if the great leaders are to be believed, when something really needs to get settled, nothing beats the efficiency of a face-to-face visit with an actual human being.

We can't always allow ourselves the luxury of hiding behind a computer screen, or we won't know what to do when it finally comes time to talk.