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D&I Lessons through the lens of a puppy

This summer we welcomed home the newest member of our family – a mini golden Labradoodle named Aliya (Ali for short).

She has irresistible puppy eyes and big floppy ears that look far too big for her tiny golden body. She sounds like an Ewok and plays like a Disney cartoon animal bouncing and batting her paws like hands. She snuggles in our lap, licks our feet, greets us with an explosion of excitement every time we walk into the room, and rolls over to present her belly for that perfect puppy love rub.

She also runs inside to poop on the floor, chews up our fingers and clothes, eats our book and papers (so the dog does eat homework…) and steals our shoes. She whines and barks, disrupts meetings, and falls into crazy manic states reminiscent of the toddler years.

Oh no…

And so, after a couple of weeks of Ali re-enacting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we did what many new pet owners do and turned to the experts.

It is amazing the life lessons that one can learn from puppy training.

Lesson one: puppies are always learning – training is making sure what they learn is intentional

Every time we scooped up our little puppy because she was whining or gave her a toy when she barked or let her jump all over us in excitement, we were teaching her. Unfortunately, we were teaching her that whining gets her attention, barking gets her toys, and jumping all over us is a good thing.

Ali is always learning – she notices which behaviors get her what she wants, and which don’t. She doesn’t care which ones annoy us or if we are reacting out of frustration or desperation or concern. What she cares about is the toy, the food, the attention. To train her, we must control our responses, so she learns which behaviors are rewarded and which are ineffective.

Like Ali, humans are also always learning. We also notice which behaviors get rewarded or disciplined and which don’t. Many times, we don’t care if those behaviors are well received by everyone or not, if there are ‘policies’ or not, if they are best practices or not. What matters are the consequences.

So in your D&I initiatives and programs, or any other cultural initiatives – what are you truly training your employees to do or not do?

Lesson two: it’s not about what you intend, it’s about what the puppy perceives

When we chased our little puppy around the house calling for her to drop that shoe, or pulled her away from the baseboard she loved to chew, or when our kids jumped up onto the couch yelling “stop that” because she was biting at their clothes – we were telling her what we wanted. Unfortunately, we weren’t ‘speaking her language’. To her, she was being rewarded with attention so, clearly, she must be doing something good.

Puppies don’t think like humans. They don’t perceive the same meaning from actions, understand the same words, or have the same reference points. Rather than focusing on what we intended – ‘drop that shoe’, we had to focus on what she perceived – chasing = playing, therefore grabbing a shoe means I get to play. The right answer: move the shoes.

Like Ali, humans also think differently. We may share a language (or not), but we don’t all have the same opinions, perspectives, backgrounds, cultural references, etc. Communicating effectively is not about what you intend to say, it’s about how the recipient perceives the message.

This is the root of many D&I challenges – from unintended and hurtful microaggressions to biases within the hiring and promotion processes. Imagine the positive impact if we shifted the focus of our interactions from ‘what I mean’ to ‘what you perceive’.

Lesson three: Take the time to observe and listen

Just as we were always, but not always effectively, communicating with our little puppy, she was always, but not always effectively, communicating with us. Those whines and barks, the way her tail and ears moved, how she sat or walked or stood, all of them were messages. Unfortunately, we weren’t listening.

Once we started paying attention, we started noticing the subtle, but expressive differences. Straight back, nose down, fast steps = it was time to go potty. Arched back, meandering steps, head bobbing = on the hunt for scraps (or bugs). Whine with ears forward = pay attention to me! Whine with ears back = I got to go potty. Chewing rhythmically = I need puppy love. Chewing chaotically with head movements = time to play. Once we switched from assuming to really observing and listening, we understood.

How many times have we been in a conversation where we are so focused on what we want to say or accomplish, we completely miss the other person’s reaction? And if we do catch the reaction, how many times has it been misinterpreted or reinterpreted to align with our assumptions or desires?

At the core of any communication is both the conveying and the receiving of information. From deep conversations about diversity and inclusion to what to order for lunch – to truly understand those involved, include time to observe and listen to others.

Bringing it all together

When little Ali joined our family, we expected a lot of love and a bumpy, chewed up road to incorporating her into our family. What we got was a huge helping of self-reflection and some great little life lessons in humanity (along with the chewed-up shoes and adorable belly rubs).

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