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5 Primal Principles of Communication

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Rule #1: Turn away when he looks at you.

Rule #2: When he turns his head, it's your time to look at him. But whatever you do, never stare him in the eyes -- he'll think you're challenging him. And that's something you don't want to do!

No, I'm not talking about dealing with a psychopath. I'm talking about having an everyday communication with a gorilla capable of tossing you into a tree.

I was taught the techniques of proper gorilla communication during a trip to Africa 20 years ago. And I have to tell you, I learned at least as much about harmonious and productive communication from a large silverback as I did from reading scores of books on the subject by leading experts.

I was fortunate enough to visit the area where primatologist Dian Fossey did her groundbreaking research and fieldwork. Our guide told us that your initial encounter with a gorilla is critical, and that you have to go through certain rituals if you want to have a good experience with the creature. So I was confused when a female gorilla with her baby in tow came out of the bush, about 20 feet ahead of me, and then proceeded to ignore our presence. "What's the big deal?" I asked myself. I'd hardly finished the thought when a large male gorilla plunked himself five feet in front of the female and looked right at me. Then I got it. He was in charge and we were playing by his rules.

Once I got into the rhythm of turning away when the gorilla looked at me and turning back when he looked away, we established "communication harmony." He rewarded me for catching on by letting me take numerous photos of him in various poses.

I not only walked away from the encounter with dozens of wonderful photos, but I extracted some cross-species lessons that have proved invaluable in establishing rapport with people in my personal and business life. Here's a summary that may help you, too:

  1. Be a good listener. With the gorilla, it was all about being a courteous observer. With people it's about being an attentive listener. When you're attentive, you show respect, and I believe that everyone wants respect as much as they want anything else.
  2. Take turns holding the floor. This point is about civility and the sharing of power. If you break the rules when dealing with a gorilla, the fur will start flying. This is also often the case with people, too. But if you're patient and take turns listening and speaking, the result can be incredibly productive for all.
  3. Pause before responding. When the gorilla looked away, I paused a moment before taking my turn and looking at him. I can't prove it, but I bet the pause spoke volumes. With people, take a moment to ponder what the other person said. When you pause, you signal that the other person has spoken something worthy of your attention. No primate or human research is needed to prove the power of the pause button.
  4. Use the word "and" rather than "but." "But" is a fighting word; "and" is cooperative word and a bridge to a dialogue. When I engaged the gorilla, I cooperated and never challenged him -- the equivalent of "and" words. Had I chosen to force my own way of communicating, I might have introduced the equivalent of "but" words, and my own butt might have wound up in the sling. When you communicate with your fellow human beings, "and" indicates that you're interested in having a dialogue, even if you disagree.
  5. Show interest in the conversation. During my repartee with the gorilla I followed his lead, and picked up a small stick and stared at it, which is exactly what he did as we communicated. Match and mirror others in subtle ways when you're in a conversation -- it gives a sense of commonality, and the other person will appreciate it.

Finally, here's my favorite takeaway -- it's a little trick that I like to call "pay attention to what is going on between the two of you." I was very alert to the interaction between me and the gorilla; I'd have been a fool to do otherwise. If you miss a beat, the other party knows that your focus is elsewhere and you may pay the consequences.

Before I met the gorilla, I was often under the illusion that I was participating in a productive conversation, only to later find that I was on FM and the other party was on AM. The old silverback taught me the importance of listening between the lines -- because sometimes the heart and soul of the conversation are never said in words.

Communication is the ultimate human connection. If you follow the "silverback tips" that I learned, you'll maximize your chances of successfully establishing rapport with others. And you may never be in a position where someone angrily growls (like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver), "Hey... you lookin' at me?"

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