What Training Bears Taught Me About Communication at Work: Part 3

This is Part 3 of a 3-Part series. CLICK HERE for an introduction to the series and Lessons 1 & 2. CLICK HERE for Lessons 3 &4. 


Lesson 5. Don’t Stand on Your Toes

I was helping one of our leaders with a routine training exercise and we got to the part where the bear is supposed to respond to a few commands while sitting on her “mark,” which is a tree stump about 2 feet tall.

The head trainer told the bear to sit up on her haunches on the mark, “Up, up!” and raised two fingers straight in the air. Both bears have done this a zillion times and know the automatically by now.

But this time was different.

Rather than sitting on her haunches, the bear stood all the way up on the mark.

Joy and Lady are about 6 feet tall on their own. Add in the two-foot trunk and even the bravest college student will need new pants.

I’m sure it only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like slow motion – staring straight up at this 500+ pound bear looming over us getting more irritated by the second that she hasn’t gotten her craisins yet. She let out an agitated growl which at the time sounded like the lion at the beginning of those old MGM movies. All I remember thinking was, well at least this will be a great story at my funeral.

Thankfully, we refocused ourselves and managed to maneuver the bear off the mark to safety.

What the heck was that? we asked each other afterward.

Bears don’t speak english, but it turns out they are very perceptive of the way words are communicated. We discovered that in this particular instance, our lead trainer had added different inflection to his voice that made it sound like the bear needed to do more than just sit up. Also, the trainer stood on his toes for a moment when pointing his fingers, triggering the bear to think she needed to go higher.  

These mistakes are similar to ones we all make every day. We treat communication like following a recipe. As long as we put the right words in the right order, poof, we’re good to go. However, as any chef will attest, cooking a great meal goes far beyond a set of simple instructions. In the same way, our training team had to change our mindset that it wasn’t just the commands themselves that made the message, but the way we made the commands that could change everything.

You’re probably aware that nonverbal communication is important, but you might not have considered how often they take center stage at work.

Here are a few examples:

  • Email – Considering time of day. Use of caps, bold, color, underlines. Starting with “Please…” vs. ending with “... please.” Subject line construction. Always flagging a message as “important.” Length of the message. Paragraph breaks. Passive aggressive questions. Sarcasm.

  • Meetings – Putting your phone on the table. Setting up a meeting then assigning it to someone else. Arriving late. Leaving early. Recurring meetings. Deciding who and how many people need to be there. Deciding how much time to block. Location. Agenda construction. Seating arrangements.

  • Managing – Delegating. Hoarding information. Having to personally approve everything the team does. Delivering good news. Delivering bad news. Interviewing. Accepting responsibility. Humor.

Each of these examples can have a different effect depending on the way it is presented. How we choose to use nonverbal tools (tone, timing, facial expression, silence, etc.) turns the recipe into a meal.

Words are simply vessels for meaning. Pay attention to the how rather than merely the what. And don’t tell a bear to sit while standing on your toes.

Lesson 6. People Aren’t Bears

I saved the best and most important lesson for last. People aren’t bears. Most people aren’t dangerous. Most people aren’t one craisin away from ripping your face off. And most people know how to use a bathroom. Although from these examples it seems they might share some striking similarities with small children.

Lady and Joy were fun to be around. They taught me some important lessons and gave me a bunch of great stories. But they don’t know my name. They don’t talk to me when I go back for a visit. We don’t have a group text. They haven’t liked any of my tweets. They’re not even on Facebook. Our ability to have connection is limited.

Whether we’re learning how to be a servant leader, attempting to change behavior, devising a new plan, maintaining composure through stress, or mastering our nonverbals, we must keep in mind that we’re communicating with other humans who have the same capacity and need for connection as we do. People don’t abandon their humanity at the office entrance. It can be tempting to think that whenever we are trying to get others to perform a task or accept an idea that all we have to do is push the right buttons and pull the right levers. However, this mindset is an affront to what we all crave in our work regardless of age, experience, or background. We all want to feel like we’re doing meaningful work with people who care about us. I know I’m biased, but if there’s a more crucial aspect at the core of accomplishing these two purposes than communication, I’m all ears.

Training bears was a neat experience that obviously taught me some important life lessons. If I’m honest, though, Lady and Joy are not the main characters of this series. My team members are the ones who know my name, who can reminisce about crazy stories, who can make me laugh about stupid mistakes, who can make me better by reminding me what’s really important.

Whatever our work is, it cannot be as important as the people it impacts. Bosses, employees, teammates, coworkers, family, customers, donors, manufacturers, suppliers, are all just synonyms for people. And the more we can tailor our communication to be more human, the more successful our work (and workplaces) will become.