Communication tips... from a little bird.
For the past week, I’ve been trying to communicate…. with a bird.
His name is Martini, and he’s a cute little Budgie. He has an intelligent face, a beautiful white tail, and an addiction to millet (parakeet junk food). I (foolishly) believed we would have no problem becoming friends, because I tamed a similar blue parakeet who showed up at my mother’s house a couple of months ago looking for a new home. It took a few days of patient attention to convince that bird that my mother and I were not monsters, and now she video calls me every day with an adorable bird on her shoulder. They are inseparable. I’ve been missing him. We had a connection.
So, I got my own little blue bird and was ready to shower him with love and treats and toys and playtime…
… and after a week, I’d say his feelings about me have reached grudging acceptance. He will squawk at me if he doesn’t like the food, and he will eat treats from my hand while giving me an extremely suspicious look, but that’s about as far as our conversation has gone.
But it got me thinking about communication in general. A lot of the mistakes I’ve made (and narrowly avoided making) with the bird are the same mistakes I see from people in conflict. So, I’m going to make a list of communication rules that apply to people and to birds.
- Know that you don’t speak their language. This one is easy when your conversational partner is literally squawking, and less easy when they are an adult human who technically does speak the same language you do. But, no matter how well we think we understand each other’s words, we never fully know what’s going on in someone else’s head. We all attach different meanings to things, we all have our own set of assumptions, and we all look at everything through the lens of our own experiences. If you understand that you don’t understand, you’re already ten steps ahead in the communication game.
- Communicate their way. My bird, for example, likes music, so singing to him is a lot more effective than talking to him. He’s also pretty food motivated, so offering a treat goes a lot farther than any other kind of communication! In conflict, we tend to focus on making the other person understand us, and the strategy is often “say it again, say it louder, or say it in slightly different words.” If you want to make a real impact, figure out how the other person communicates, and adjust to them. Maybe you’ll find that they’re responsive to emotional arguments or storytelling, while you’ve been focused on facts and figures… or they shut down in the face of your passionate argument… or they really love a debate… whatever it is, you’ll make more progress communicating their way than your way.
- Timing is everything. Every successful interaction I’ve had with the bird (and I’m defining success rather loosely right now) happened because I approached him when he was receptive. And people aren’t any different! Choose your moment wisely, and your difficult conversation will be much easier. People, like my parakeet, are going to be more receptive when they feel comfortable. So, think about the time and the setting. And when you’re in the conversation, be observant and take breaks as needed.
- Know what you have to give, and be generous with it. This is easy in the bird’s case. As I said, he likes treats, especially millet, and I have a whole bag of that. But people aren’t so different in the “treat” department. In conflict, we can get stuck thinking about what we need to get, or what we don’t want to give up. But, if we want to make progress with people, an easy way to do that is to have a giving mentality. That doesn’t mean you need to concede what’s important to you. But always ask yourself what you have to offer, and give that freely, even when you’re not willing to compromise your position. Even if it is just a kind word, a smile, or a fresh pot of coffee, offering something helps.
- Figure out what they really need. If I asked the parakeet, I guarantee he’d tell me he needed a steady diet of junk food, and that’s definitely not true! And if I just gave him what I want to give him, he’d be terrified, because he doesn’t want a whole lot of love and attention from a big scary human right now. If you’re in a conflict or negotiation and you don’t really know what the other person needs, you can play your part perfectly and never get close to an agreement. Some people hide their motivations on purpose, or even outright lie about them. Others think they are communicating their needs clearly, but don’t quite get the point across. Others just assume you know what they need. (And a lot of us give people what we want to give them without even thinking about what they actually need.) So, ask. And ask again. Ask follow up questions. Explore their answers. Be curious about it. Pay attention to any mismatch between their words and actions. Do outside research. This is a place to spend time, because it is the key to an agreement that works. (In the bird’s case, this process has involved watching a lot of bird care videos, ordering a ridiculous amount of stuff from Amazon, and, in a few months, it will probably mean getting him a feathered friend to make him feel more at home.)