The following article was originally printed in Teaching Dogs magazine.
In the signature line of my e-mail, I include the following quote by Frederick W. Faber: “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.” The mid-nineteenth century theologian was, no doubt, referring to religious conversion, but I have found the quote inspiring in all aspects of my life, especially when teaching people about dogs and clicker training.
A Message Needs an Audience
As teachers, we want to inspire and inform and educate. Our ability to influence, however, goes far beyond our time spent in class. Every time we interact with someone, we have the opportunity to make a difference. It’s a heady experience to share the miracle of clicker training. Sometimes, however, it’s so easy to get caught up in the importance of the message that we forget to consider the needs of the individual we’re talking to.
Recently on the ClickerSolutions mailing list, a young woman approached the list with a problem. She was seven months pregnant, and her beloved Cocker spaniel had been showing signs of fear aggression toward young children. What could she do? One list member had, sadly, faced a similar problem and, more sadly, her situation had an unhappy ending despite her sincere efforts to the contrary. She wanted very much to spare this woman and her child the pain she had suffered. “The dog can’t be rehabbed without putting children in danger,” she said. “It’s hopeless.” The young woman, understandably devastated, unsubcribed.
Honestly, I don’t know whether the dog could have been rehabilitated or not. I don’t know how severe the problem was or how dedicated or skilled the young woman was. And I do know that the person who responded to her had only her and the child’s best interests in mind. But the young woman will never know that, because she couldn’t hear the message. The person who replied was so wrapped up in her message that she forgot about the individual.
The Price of “Right”
If someone fails to hear our message, it’s easy to blame the listener. After all, we have the strength of our convictions. We know, when push comes to shove, we are right. Unfortunately, if “we” are right, then by definition, “they” are wrong, and few people are open to hearing how wrong they are. They close their ears, their minds, and their hearts. Being right may be its own reward, but it can be darn lonely.
The truth is, right and wrong, even in dog training, is rarely the black and white issue we try to make it be. It’s a giant field of grey, with contingencies and conditions and circumstances. Rather than two easily-defined extremes, reality is a continuum with nearly everyone falling somewhere in the middle. A kind word can coax someone forward. A harsh or judgmental one—no matter how “right”—can push the person backwards.
Recently I started a new project in a writing class. I had been mulling on a new story for months, and I had spent weeks fitting together the puzzle pieces of the various plot lines. Every time I spoke to my instructor, I raved about how excited I was about the new project. Finally, I was ready to present it. The resulting critique was devastating. My instructor gave an honest assessment of the project—and every criticism was spot on accurate. But that was all there was—there was no empathy, no support, no balance. I was hurt and angry. I shared the story with another instructor, and he had the same criticisms, but he spent an equal amount of time telling me what I had done well, saying specifically, “This is a great idea—definitely worth pursuing.” One stuck to fact and opinion and broke my heart and closed my mind. The other shared a little kindness and inspired me to dig in and try again.
Changing Others, Changing Ourselves
Still, not everyone is an open vessel, waiting for a kind word to guide them toward the Promised Land. Some people are not only resistant to change but may be actively arguing a conflicting point of view. Sometimes we have to deal with people we honestly believe are wrong—people who exhibit behaviors we consider unethical, immoral, abusive, or potentially dangerous. No amount of kindness and empathy can force someone to change who is unwilling to change. That may be true. But that kindness and empathy may change us.
If faced with a situation you don’t like, you have several choices.
- Avoid the situation or find an alternative outlet that doesn’t have the same stressors. If the situation is too negative for you, this may be the best choice. I avoid certain mailing lists, because the conflict there makes me physically ill. The consequence is that people on those lists that might be open to my message don’t get to hear it. However, I remain able to help people in other places.
- Alter the situation to make it as bearable as possible. I train occasionally at a traditional school near my home. I don’t debate with the members or contradict the instructors there. Instead I train quietly, leaving if the stress gets to be too much for me or my dogs. I have made friends there, and I have learned quite a bit. I have also gained several clients, referred by the owners, because I am regarded as someone fair and open-minded.
- Actively try to change the current situation. This choice will, without a doubt, put you in direct conflict with some people. Stick to solutions to problems, not the people behind them. Argue for your solution based on data and results, not ethics or morals. Put your energy into supporting what you believe in instead of fighting against what you don’t.
- Create a different situation according to your own specifications. This is a wonderful solution if your goal is to find like-minded people. My friend, Debbie Otero, and I created the ClickerSolutions mailing list because we were dissatisfied with the other lists we had been members of.
Each of the above the choices has one thing in common—it requires a change in your behavior. You cannot change someone who isn’t open to change. You can only change yourself—your behavior, your approach, your outlook.
I am not in the business of converting (sinners or otherwise), but putting kindness first has enabled me to make positive changes that fact, opinion, or emotional appeal alone would never have accomplished. Sometimes the changes were giant leaps, sometimes single steps, sometimes just a seed of an idea waiting for the right mix of sunshine and rain. And sometimes, when I was really fortunate, the change was in me as well.