The Different Languages of Communication
Communication is essential to the human experience, yet we are often misunderstood. People communicate with one another many times a day, each in a unique form, and the messages we send are often complex and easily misinterpreted. Every person communicates with language of some kind, but that is not where communication ends. Some people accentuate the language they use with the look in their eyes; others use hand gestures or body language to convey their meaning. Babies will cry to communicate long before they are able to talk, and deaf children may choose to ignore the people around them by closing their eyes. Expression takes many forms, but human beings aren’t the only members of the animal kingdom that express themselves in unexpected ways.
Bees have a distinct way of letting the rest of the hive know about ample food sources they discover: They dance. The “dance floor” is found inside the comb and bees use it to communicate the location of flowers (and pollen) to the other members of the hive. The orientation of a bee’s movements and the frequency of her vibrations indicate the distance of the flowers from the hive and the direction the bees will need to travel to take advantage of the food source. There are two main dances that forager bees perform: The “Round Dance,” in which the bee runs in a small circle (performed when food is nearby), and the “Tail-Wagging Dance,” which accurately describes the distance and direction of the food source from the hive to the other bees (performed when the food is a bit farther away).
Like humans, different bees will communicate in different ways, so each dance is unique to the bees performing it, as are the circumstances under which the dances are performed. For example, some European honeybees perform the Tail-Wagging Dance when the source of food is more than 100 meters away, whereas others, like some Indian bees, may do this dance when the food is just a few meters away. As the other bees watch the dance, they pay attention to what the bee is saying with its movements so that they can learn where to go for an ample supply of food.
We can take a few tips from the bees about how to communicate well and share information with others.
- Listen actively
- React, but do not rescue
- Give them a reason to listen
Listening is crucial to effective communication. Without an understanding of what is actually being communicated, we are like the deaf child who simply closes his or her eyes in defiance. At times, listening actively is very hard, especially when we struggle to concentrate on the person or the message. Something that may help is to focus on your “target.” Look others in the eye; show them you are engaged in what they are saying. Think about what is being said rather than how the message is being delivered, and avoid distractions whenever possible. Many wise people have suggested that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason; we should remember to use them in proportion when communicating with others.
React, but do not rescue
We spend less time listening to people during conversations than we’d probably like to admit. Instead, we think of ways to respond, or we search for ways to “rescue” the person from the problem. We want to solve the problem and end up imposing our own solutions on the person, whether our advice was solicited or not. Rather than defaulting to these tired strategies, try something new: Respond to what you heard. Let the person know you have heard what was said, but do not try to be a hero. Rather than “rescuing” the person, listen carefully and acknowledge what was said. Don’t be afraid to react, but save your advice for another time.
Give them a reason to listen
Offer honest and useful feedback when prompted. Share information that will be helpful, but don’t allow personal biases or ulterior motives to creep in to your conversation. Don’t begin by telling others that you know “just how they feel”; most people are offended by this on some level, and at its very best, a statement like this one is inaccurate. Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy, and don’t diminish another person’s experiences by claiming to have had the same ones. Listen with two ears and one mouth.
The dance of human communication must be carefully choreographed, but when it is performed well, all kinds of relationships will improve. Our “dance” will not only allow us to transfer information more accurately and efficiently, it will show our willingness to genuinely listen to others—and to be heard by them—helping us to take the first steps towards greater understanding and improved communication with the people around us.