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.