A discussion with my husband reminded me of this topic, and I figured this is as good as any day to talk about Positive Communication. I am starting to become more and more frustrated with society due to our negative tendencies. And I realized something significant about Animal Training and Human Communication.
Animal Training is all about communicating with another species. It’s pretty amazing, actually. We are able to talk to the animals in our own language, and they oblige by participating in our sessions, doing what we ask them to do. But how does this happen? We don’t speak non-human animal, and they don’t speak human. We create a bridge to meet in the middle using consistency and and clear communication. When training with operant conditioning, most animal trainers focus on positive reinforcement. This doesn’t mean that it is “good reward”. Positive in this context means “to give”. Think of positive and negative in training terms as electrical charges. They are neither good nor bad. So, positive reinforcement means “to give something (of value or desired) that will increase the likelihood of behavior occurring again”. And negative reinforcement takes away something (that is aversive) to increase likelihood of behavior.
Why exactly do animal trainers focus so much on positive reinforcement? Is it because they want to seem as good and humane as possible, and be the nice guys that rewards the animals? Well, sure, I mean, I certainly wanted animals to work well with me. But anyone who is a parent or teacher knows that being nice is not necessarily the best method. Positive reinforcement requires a certain amount of discipline, just as much as punishment or negative reinforcement. You don’t reward an animal for “trying” to do the behavior. Animal trainers all have to embrace our inner Yoda. “Do or do not, there is no try.” Positive reinforcement is used more often because it is WAY more effective to convey to an animal what you want them to do than to get them to do what you want by telling them what you don’t want them to do. I mean, even the sentence is easier to say in regards to positive reinforcement.
Animal trainers are then, hence, positive communicators. We tell the animal what we like and encourage them to do what we want through rewards. Think of a trainer trying to get a dog to sit. Which way would be easier? By rewarding the dog for performing actions that lead to a sit? Or by punishing it with yanks on the collar for walking, standing, lying down, pawing, or any other behavior. They have NO IDEA what you want from them. And it becomes increasingly confusing and frustrating for them.
Humans work the same way. Say your friends are helping you move. One of your friends has a lamp, and goes to put it down on the kitchen table. You quickly respond, “oh, no, don’t put the lamp there.” Now, fortunately we speak the same language, so your friend could potentially ask “well, where would you like the lamp to go?” but for the sake of argument, let’s just say your friend doesn’t ask, instead puts the lamp in another spot. “It doesn’t go there, either.” At this point, unless your friend speaks up, they will likely stop placing the lamp anywhere and just hold it, not knowing where it goes, and not wanting you to “punish” them for putting it in the wrong place. How much easier would it be to simply tell your friend “Oh, could you place the lamp on the nightstand in the bedroom for me?” .
This is incredibly relevant to fitness as well. I have my certificate as a personal trainer, and while I keep swearing up and down that I will not take on clients as my job, I’m starting to wobble on that notion in hopes of getting even more people interested and invested in EarthFit. I sometimes practice my personal training skills on my husband while working out. And I noticed during our last workout that I tend to use negative communication. I say “don’t” or “you shouldn’t” or “stop” when noticing his form is off or if I want him to do an exercise a different way. And that doesn’t help him learn what he needs to. Instead of telling Chris to not rock his hips when doing a plank movement, it’s better communication and more beneficial to communicate in a positive way. “Try to keep your hips as stable as possible while doing the plank movement. It’s a bit harder, but will be more effective in stabilizing your core.” There. Now we both are getting what we want!
How much more effective would we all be as communicators and as a society if we removed “don’t”, “no”, “stop”, and “shouldn’t” from our vocabulary? How much would our relationships improve if we spoke in a positive manner rather than focusing on the negative? Perhaps our way of communicating to each other is one of the reasons we tend to be so negatively focused about our lives. How much would our overall health and well-being improve if we just focused on the positive, even in how we speak to each other? It works wonders for animal trainers and their relationships. It couldn’t hurt to try with ourselves.