Here is what one can learn about relating well by spending a lot of time around non-human animals, in particular. But all of it also involves and is applicable to human animals as well. This is based on our personal experience with animals of all sorts. These rules even more strongly apply to smaller animals like cats where there is a size and strength imbalance. Then again, wariness and circumspection is common in relating to others in general, across species divides or not, at least until a personal relationship is developed. Sometimes we easily connect with individuals while, at other times, it might take months or years to be allowed into someone’s personal world. But it all begins with simple behaviors in acting friendly. Below are guidelines to keep in mind, as gathered over a lifetime:
- Trust has to be developed and all relationships are about trust. Win over the trust of the other by acting and exhibiting that you are trustworthy. Be confident in your body and in the world, but don’t be intimidating, aggressive, confrontational, pushy, intense, or overwhelming. Be relaxed in that confidence, be relaxed in your body-mind. Soften your awareness and defocus or broaden your gaze. Open up all of your senses and take in the full experience of being in the presence of another. Let a smile naturally come to your face, a smile that includes the eyes, if the mood is right.
- Meet them on their level and get inside their space or mentality, sometimes literally and directly but often instead easing your way sideways. Observe what they do, how they act and interact, how they inhabit the world, and how they hold themselves. This requires close observation, empathy, and intuition. Sense your way into what it feels like to be that other. Viscerally imagine what it would be like to be inside their body. Seek rapport and resonance, sometimes by mimicking their behavior, body language, gestures, breathing, etc but without mockery. If needed, make yourself appear smaller or otherwise in conformance to the physicality of the other.
- Center yourself in positive intent and express positive regard. Fully empathize with the other. Embody, emanate, and communicate loving-kindness. Feel it in yourself, in your entire body. Allow your muscles to relax, your breathing to slow. Create a shared psychic space of relating. This requires openness and vulnerability in allowing yourself to be seen. Don’t hold back your emotion in fear of being judged or rejected. Be tender-hearted with genuine compassionate concern and attentive interest.
- Speak with focused intent to that other and, if you know it, use their name. Make sure you have their attention in return. Use whatever verbal and non-verbal communication necessary. And be acutely aware of the response you’re getting. Accommodate and change in each moment. Seek to elicit a positive response, however slight or subtle. Encourage two-way engagement, a sense of mutual regard. If the other communicates in whatever form, listen with your whole being and maybe even use active listening. Express back what they are expressing or otherwise indicate you’re heard and acknowledge it while holding a space of trust and safety, of kind-heartedness.
- Look for openings as invitations of relating more deeply. If possible and appropriate without offense or discomfort, make physical contact such as greeting them by shaking their hand, touching their shoulder, or simply being in close proximity. Treat them as you would a family member or an old friend. Enjoy yourself and enjoy their company. Show them that you want to be around them. Don’t be detached and cold, but be ready to back off if your advances are not welcomed. Trust is often built up over long periods of time. Building a relationship with someone new, whether a stranger or a stray, is a process. The initial meeting is often a mere acknowledgement. Patience is key.
We won’t claim to be experts about any of this. Admittedly, our success rate is low with human animals. It is far easier to accomplish relating well with certain domesticated species of non-human animals, of course. There is an upfront simplicity to relating to a cat, dog, parakeet, guinea pig, etc. Much of it extremely simple like speaking softly and maybe raising the pitch of one’s voice slightly. Really listen to yourself as if hearing from the perspective of another. What do you sound like? How would you feel and respond if someone spoke to you that way?
Such advice as entering the space with a sideways approach can often be taken literally, particularly with animals like cats and horses. Actually, stand or sit with the side of your body toward them and/or else with your eyes averted (with cats, try squinting and blinking slowly as you occasionally gaze at them). That can work with humans as well (think of two friends relaxing in chairs next to one another while sharing a view), although in some cultures one more often faces another directly when talking. A sideways posture is merely one possible way to show relaxation and hence trust, but other ways can include drinking a cup of tea, clasping one’s hands, sitting on the ground, grooming behaviors, etc.
It’s always important to sense what a particular individual expects and is used to, specifically in any given context and conditions. So, there are no hard and fast rules, just suggestions of things to try and ways of thinking. Every relationship is an ongoing experiment and exploration. What worked in the past might not work in the present. It’s too easy to get stuck in mindless habits and not fully appreciate the other individual as they are in the moment. Take it all as a mindfulness practice. Loosen your hold on the egoic identity. Reality is always about relationship, and relationship is always about a greater sense of inclusionary experience and identity.
When we were younger, a New Agey lady we knew would pet houseflies and she said she did it by sending them loving vibes. It worked, whatever she was doing, as the houseflies would always sit still. We can’t claim such an ability with insects, but we know it works well with so many other forms of life. It’s simply connecting to another being. In our experience as biological lifeforms, there is nothing like another biological lifeform to act as a biofeedback machine, in helping one to learn how to get into a particular affective state and mindset. Most important, there is something about relating gently that is at the heart of relating well, no matter the nature of the relationship. If nothing else, it’s a nice ideal to aspire toward.
7 thoughts on “Relating Well”
Hello! It has been a while since you last published a post. This is one that is more unusual as it also relates to nonhumans.
As your self-appointed proofreader, I would like to point out the following to you:
(1) Add “to” to the sentence “Allow your muscles [to] relax, your breathing to slow.”
(2) Delete either “the” or “a” from the sentence “while holding the a space of trust and safety”.
(3) Add “to” to the sentence “in helping one [to] learn how to get into a particular affective state and mindset”.
I have enjoyed reading your latest post, which has presented me with a very good understanding of your sensitivity towards another being, whether human or nonhuman. These strategies can also serve veterinarians and animal trainers or whisperers very well.
I would like to add that there have been many outstanding issues preventing humans from relating well to animals holistically. We humans are often too absorbed in our own affairs to notice two big elephants in the room: speciesism and anthropocentricism. Both are highly entrenched, and both are very widespread and often unacknowledged forms of prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. Despite years of fleshing out the (conceptual, philosophical, ethical, practical and/or social) framework in examining the possibility or plausibility of environmentalism meeting the needs and expectations of all humanity to help us to survive as a species, fundamental progress is still far too slow.
As you probably already know, we are already in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction. If you are interested, the main issue is twofold: speciesism and anthropocentricism. Until we critically deal with the main issue, even environmentalism in all its diversity may not suffice to turn things around, as discussed in my multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary post entitled “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality” at
Being simultaneously witty and serious about a number of outstanding issues, the said post actually ventures far beyond whatever its title may suggest or mean to any reader, especially in the very long “Conclusions” section. Please note the ISEA Model that I have devised to analyse and describe the Instrumental, Spiritual, Pro-Environment and Pro-Animal/Plant perspectives.
Like nonbinary sexual identity and transgender issues, interspecies interactions and communications are also very special in that they can and tend to transcend many boundaries and expectations imposed by human customs and belief systems. Perhaps you have heard of or studied such disciplines as zoo-anthropology or anthrozoology?
I welcome your input and am curious to know what you make of my said post. Given your very own backgrounds, interests, insights and expertise, I am certainly very keen and curious about what you will make of my said post entitled “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality“, and I look forward to the pleasure of perusing your esteemed feedback there.
We visited your blog and skimmed your post. It was another long one. But we are already generally familiar with what you were writing about, if some of the details were new to us. We don’t necessarily have any direct response to leave as a comment at that piece. But we could note that it’s not merely other species creating art, performing, or whatever in relation to humans. The relationship goes the other way as humans are inspired by the non-human world. Paul Shepard goes so far as to argue non-human animals are what made humans ‘human’.
And it’s not that humans should or should not use other lifeforms but, as is the focus here, how we relate in ecological interdependency. If we think very deeply, we delve into complex and strange territory. Many hunter-gatherers, such as totemic cultures, don’t necessarily treat animal others as distinct individuals and, from our perspective, can be rather indifferent toward their suffering. To their minds, a species is a communal identity and individual death, including for humans, is less significant as we think about it. That touches upon ego theory of mind vs bundle theory of mind, a topic we won’t get into at the moment.
About our post here, it was maybe more written as a reminder to ourselves than something to inform others. We have a great talent in connecting with certain non-human species. We’re specifically a cat person, but we tend to get along with a wide variety of creatures. It’s mostly that we’re interested and persistent in engaging with them. If we see a cat, we often will automatically and immediately drop down low to begin the process of entering their world. There is something palpably lacking in our world when we don’t have non-human animals, domestic and wild, to regularly interact with.
The human world is a whole other matter, at least modern WEIRD society that separates the human from the animal. As an introvert, we have limited energy of engagement with humans. Part of it is that it simply requires more energy and effort to deal with humans, beyond everyday superficialities and formalities. There are more games and dishonesty involved. But having been raised in the respectable upper middle class, we were modeled and taught the social niceties and so we can do small talk with strangers or schmoozing with a boss, however much we dislike it.
What we were thinking is how improved our human relations would be if we applied the same rules that we know work with so many other animals. We all share a common evolution, that is in going back far enough. Even reptiles have some basic affective and neurocognitive capacities similar to that of humans. If you move slowly and gently enough, be it in the presence of a housefly or an alligator, they won’t perceive you as predator or prey, and so their sympathetic nervous system won’t be elicited.
You simply won’t fit into their instinctual repertoire. Such behavior is evolutionarily novel within the umwelt of some species. It’s similar to the issue of singing and music. For many species, what is novel is ignored, irrelevant, or not perceived. But for other species, novelty is responded to with curiosity or even playfulness. In either case, your encouraging and creating the context where you might be able to relate more pleasantly, at least from a human perspective.
Of course, a human or other predator can use various techniques to deceptively get others to lower their defenses. One’s intentions are important. And though humans can have a talent for hiding or misrepresenting intentions, like any other animal, we also have the capacity to honestly communicate intentions. But modern WEIRD humans, specifically, are more prone to hiding as a default mode, to be reserved and repressed. And admittedly, we the blogger are no different than other WEIRDos in our human-to-human behavior.
But with animals it’s different. This has occurred to us over the years. Most people we know would be embarrassed to act as we do around animals. For example, we’ll use a high-pitched voice in talking to cats. Scientific research actually shows cats prefer such a tone because higher pitch instinctively equates to an animal that is smaller and less threatening. Yet we’ve never met another person in our life who will do this in order to befriend or calm a cat. Interestingly, our Libyan friend says he never knew any Libyan to talk to any animal with any voice because that would be considered insane.
We love cats. So, with the various cats we’ve lived with over the years, we tend to be happy or even gleeful to see them, such as when we come home from a draining day at work. We’ll express our excitement and cats, like dogs, will typically express excitement in return. The funny thing is, even if we were happy to see a close human friend, we’d never act this way. In our society, it’s considered improper to greet another human with a child-like effusion of unfiltered emotion. Such feelings, according to social norms, should be kept to one’s self or better yet suppressed entirely.
Why is that? Humans are animals too. And like other mammals, affective expression is an important part of communication. Why do we emotionally cripple ourselves, a foot-binding of the soul? When we tell our cat that we love her, we don’t worry about how she’ll take it or if she’ll reciprocate; and we don’t obsess over what ‘love’ really means or whether we really believe what we are saying. It’s simply a feeling we are making known without any worries about the words. The cat knows what we mean, at the most basic level.
Similarly, we also don’t worry what a cat thinks about it’s own name. In our experience, many cats, like dogs, do know their own names and like to hear them spoken (so do humans, as suggested by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People). They probably don’t think of the sound of their names in the way do humans. But they understand it means you’re talking to them, that your full attention and interest is turned toward them. We had a cat who knew all of the names of her fellow feline housemates and would accordingly twitch her tail, awake or asleep.
Some wild species also use personal names, such as prairie dogs. They’ll give names to individual others, including humans who regularly visit them. Human language is built on hundreds of millions of years of proto-linguistic behaviors. A few species like whales might even have evolved their own languages or something akin to it, if we can’t begin to comprehend what they might be saying. By the way, a number of human cultures have music-languages, drum-languages, whistle-languages, and hum-languages; demonstrating how different language might sound.
It’s not an issue of anthropomorphism. Rather it’s quite the opposite. Or else it’s that we are falsely projecting anthropomorphism on humanity. We forget that humans are animals too. The concept of humanity as separate from other lifeforms is a social construct that disconnects us from biological reality and immediate experience. We are earthlings on a shared planet. So, anthropocentrism is not merely a species bigotry as it prioritizes a false sense of self and being-in-the-world. The society we’ve built over millennia is not only harmful to many other species but also, in many ways, contradictory to our own nature: industrialized agriculture, mass urbanization, high inequality, etc.
Thank you for your reply and for extending the extant discussions contained in your post. However, your skimming of my said post and how and what you have broached certain issues, including anthropomorphism (bearing in mind that I mentioned anthropocentricism in my previous comment, not anthropomorphism) have indicated clearly that only a fraction of my expansive, analytical and multipronged post has been understood by you. In any case, that should suffice for the stated purpose of your latest post.
By the way, I have recently published some much shorter posts (which I have continued to improve).
Happy mid-June to you and your feline friends!
No, I did read a lot of your post and perused every section of it. In my comment, I wasn’t claiming anything about your post. I stated upfront that I had little direct comment about it. I stated that because I meant what I stated. I’m honest like that.
Given the quality and relevance of your post here, I am pleased to inform you that I have hyperlinked your post to my aforementioned post entitled “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality” so that my readers can access your post from the “Related Articles” of my said post.
Moreover, I would like to have a good token of our interaction here at my said post. Please kindly copy and paste your previous reply (the one that starts with “We visited your blog and skimmed your post”) as part of your forthcoming comment to be submitted to the comment section of my said post, to which your esteemed reply clearly pertains and also belongs. Please feel free to expand on your comment if you have additional matters to convey about my post and any salient aspects of its contents. Thank you in anticipation.
We’ll post the comment if you want. But there is a reason we did not do so originally. It really is not directly relevant to your post. We were just riffing off of some general ideas that came up in thinking about your post and mine. It was a casual comment that we jotted off with nothing particular in mind. And we’re not sure how motivated we are to offer anything more worthy that would give credit to what you wrote.
You’ve seen our past comments on your blog. When we are actually responding to your post, you’ll know it without a doubt. You’ll know what we are commenting about and why, often with quotes taken from the post to make certain exactly what we are talking about. Our comments often tend to be direct, relevant, detailed, and extensive. Anyway, we’ll get around to adding our previous comment to your post and, if inspired, we might add some more thoughts. We’ll see.
As far as anthropocentrism, we can’t see how it doesn’t inherently involve anthropomorphism. The first stage of anthropomorphism. from our perspective, is socially constructing and then internalizing the ideology of the anthropos as defining the center of human experience. Anthropocentrism seems inseparable from anthropomorphism, so we might argue.
This area of thought comes up in postmodernism, specifically the work of Michel Foucault but also in that of Bruno Latour, with apparently some influence on anthropologists (e.g., Paul Rabinow). They question human exceptionalism and human essentialism. We are only vaguely familiar with such postmodern critiques, but they generally fit in with our thinking. Our main difference is that we are more drawn to metamodernism, in that we aren’t satisfied with ending with mere critique.
Thank you for your reply and clarification. By the way, I think that you probably meant to type “drawn” rather than “drown” in the phrase “we are more drown to metamodernism”.
Given the enormous length of my post “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality“, please feel free to submit multiple comments to the comment section of the post if you later have additional matters to convey about any salient aspects of the discussions and analyses contained in this academically written post, which could potentially trigger your piquant thoughts and crystalized wisdom distilled into some brilliant comment(s), whose potency might indeed impress upon my intellect so much that your comment(s) could potentially be immortalized as quotation(s) in the post proper of this post for posterity. Even Marmalade will be proud of you, so to speak!