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The Art of Communicating
Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee
and just as hard to sleep after.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, ‘Gift from the Sea’
The word communicate comes from the latin communis or common. We speak of a common room that everyone shares or a university commons where everyone shares the space. It indicates that two people or two groups have something shared in common but in our world today I maintain that there is nothing common about communication. Many of the world’s problems and disputes can be traced to poor communication.
The dictionary defines communication as the transmission of information, thought or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood. As a working definition we’ll consider that communication has been successful if there is shared understanding between those trying to communicate.
So what is the result of shared understanding? What are the implications of a lack of shared understanding? Does shared understanding guarantee acceptance, openness and trust between people and groups?
I maintain that while good communication doesn’t guarantee our lives will be enhanced, poor communication will make bad situations worse and make it difficult to have and maintain open, useful relationships in life.
The outcome, then, of successful communication should be to increase understanding and thereby improve relationships – and who doesn’t need improved relationships?
Families, co-workers, governments all need better communication. So let’s examine what happens when we communicate, where the problems lie, and what we can each do to improve our communication skills.
I. The pieces of the communication process
Communication is a two-way street, and people tend to structure their phrases along well-traveled linguistic routes to optimize their chances of being understood. –Christopher Manning,
Communication is a process; that is, it has definable steps that can be examined. We will look at communicating as a cycle going round and round unendingly. Remember, however, that examining the communication process is like putting your VCR on pause; you look at a frozen snapshot of a dynamic, unending process. It’s often been said that one cannot not communicate unless you’re dead or unconscious; communication takes place – for bad or for good – when we’re trying and when we’re not.
The sender has something he wants to share with someone else. In our simplified model, the sender is the person communicating. Unfortunately the sender’s information is in his mind. While much work has been done on trying to prove ESP, for most of us we’ve got to get the information we want to share out of our mind and into the other person’s mind by other means.
The receiver is just that – the other person or persons that the sender is trying to communicate with. What we’ll find is that the receiver has some obstacles in the way that will affect whether shared understanding is achieved or not. While the sender has the responsibility to craft a clear message, the receiver has additional responsibilities of hearing, listening, and providing feedback.
C. A message
The message is not just some words. The message is a rich combination of thoughts, feelings, words, and meanings. Even a sender that says, “it’s simple”, doesn’t realize the blended nature of the message they want to convey. Many communication problems stem from the idea that communication is simple.
D. Some ways of generating a signal
Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word
before you let it fall.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1809 – 1894)
The signal we are speaking of is how we encode the message in our heads and broadcast it to the receiver. We’ll find that this includes more than the sounds of words; it can include feelings, attitudes, and our unique personality. If you think about this, all communication is indirect in that we use the tools of language and nonverbal communication to attempt to share what we are experiencing inside ourselves.
E. A brain
I would while away the hours,
Conversin’ with the flowers . . .
If I only had a brain. —
The Scarecrow in the Wizard of OZ
Our brains are rich, complicated places. All communication is filtered through our personality, our background, our upbringing, our culture, and our current state of being. When you are tired or stressed or in circumstances that are unpleasant, communication becomes that much harder.
F. Shared understanding
Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly;
for the end of speech is not ostentation but to be understood.
We return to our definition. The degree to which someone understands what we are trying to communicate will depend on many factors. How much alike are we? Do we share any background experiences? Are our language skills, attitudes, beliefs similar or dissimilar? What assumptions have we made about each other based on stereotypes?
It’s probably fair to say that the degree of understanding could be rated on a scale from very well understood to completely misunderstood. And anyone who says “I understand perfectly” is probably deceiving themselves.
Feedback in our model are the reactions of the receiver that are being communicated back to the sender. Feedback causes the sender to modify his message to increase the chances of its being understood by the receiver. Each of us has experienced the feeling “they don’t have a clue about what I’m trying to say”. How did we reach this conclusion? By interpreting the feedback the receiver is generating. This feedback can be verbal or nonverbal.
H. Communication blocked by noise
The factor of “noise” may occur anywhere along the communication line, and it may be physical, physiological, or psychological in nature.
When using radio to communicate, the static sometimes is so strong that the message is lost. Communication theorists call this kind of interruption during communication “noise”. For our purposes noise is any part of the communication process that diminishes shared understanding. Noise can be found in any part of our model. The sender can have poor communication skills. The receiver may be unable to receive the message for a variety of reasons. The channels they use to communicate may be inappropriate for the situation. Feedback may be misinterpreted or ignored.
As we continue we will examine noise factors that decrease shared understanding and ways of eliminating or reducing the noise so that communication has a better chance.
II. Temperament and Communication
Temperament comes from the Latin tem perave, which means to mix. It relates to the fact that we are each a unique mixture of personality traits – background, intelligence, feelings, education, culture and on and on. It seems obvious but your temperament impacts your communication style.
A. What is temperament?
Temperament can also be called personality type and incorporates self-image or self-esteem.
We’ll talk more about self-image later but now we’ll focus on our “natural” temperament or personality that we inherit along with our eye color and body type. The ancients thought that temperament was caused by the mixture of certain bodily fluids called humours.
B. The four types
Why four? Why not 104? Over the centuries, through observation and study, it has been determined that each of us is a blend of four distinct personality types – and more specifically we are usually a blend of two of the four types. Who wrote this rule? How do we know it’s true? Again the evidence is mostly empirical or by experience though the underlying concepts come from the work of Carl Jung.
For our purposes, we’ll use the ancient Greek nomenclature for temperament types – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine, and Melancholy. These are certainly only one way of discussing the four – other models use the names of animals, the acronym DiSC, and the most famous – the Meyers-Briggs naming system.
Temperament strongly affects communication style. But so does our cultural background, so does our educational experience. The point is that temperament is only one part of our communication style.
The choleric type is sometimes called the Driver. A choleric person is goal-oriented, no-nonsense, hard-nosed person. They are extraverted, strong willed persons. You can spot a choleric by their impatient, action-oriented style.
As regards communicating, the choleric gets straight to the point and is not much concerned with the feelings of others. They say what they mean and it can often be pointed and critical.
The sanguine temperament is an outgoing, warm, people person. They are talkers and are concerned with the feelings of others. They are best when meeting and greeting others. They are extraverted, warm, and enthusiastic.
The sanguine is loath to hurt others’ feelings and will avoid conflict at almost any price. Their communication style is outgoing and talkative. They will often touch the person they are talking to.
The melancholy is highly organized, detailed, and critical. You can spot a melancholy by their organized desktop or workspace. They are introverted and often moody. They dislike their anyone moving their “stuff”.
As a communicator, the melancholy will be precise, detailed and critical. They often feel they are “right” because they have taken the time to carefully analyze whatever subject they are talking about.
The phlegmatic is the quietest of the four types. While generally calm on the surface they are the most likely to be anxious internally when communicating.
Again I want to emphasize that no one is purely one temperament type. Another presentation I do on understanding temperament goes into much more detail on the 16 combinations of personality traits.
Everything that irritates us about others
can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
Carl Jung (1857-1961)
In a nutshell, personality affects communication because each style has a different primary way of communicating. Cholerics want “just the facts, ma’am”. Sanguines want to talk, and talk, and talk. Melancholies want clear concise detailed information and Phlegmatics just want to get along. If you can adapt your natural style to be more like the other person’s style, you’ll find it easier to get their attention and, ultimately, share understanding with them.
III. Self concept and Communication
Self-concept or self image is that internal picture we hold of ourselves – it’s who WE think WE are. The amazing thing is that often others hold different pictures of us that don’t agree with who we think we are. Each of us communicates out of our self-image. While affected by temperament, self-concept goes beyond our built in personality style.
A. How is our self-image developed?
Self-image develops as we develop. As we grow we each seek clues from around us that help us define who “we” are. Into our search comes “significant others”. A significant other is defined as someone who’s input we accept as having validity. This group includes many people such as parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and, again, anyone that we receive input from concerning our image of ourselves.
For good and for bad, we take in these other peoples’ opinions. They tell us how acceptable we are, they give us messages about our abilities or lack of abilities. As we develop we hear these voices tell us that we’re good or that we’re bad or that we can do anything we set our minds to or that we’ll never amount to anything.
B. How does our self-image change?
The problem here is that other people express their opinion – and that’s all it is. No matter how well a parent knows us or a teacher observes us, what they express about us is their opinion. How many people have been called “shy” for so long that they accept it as true? One interesting story deals with Suzzane Sommers. She had a verbally abusive father who told her she was no good, dumb, ugly and would never amount to anything. This affected her well into her adult life and was reflected in a series of bad relationships and failed life projects.
Only after her father died did she begin to see that she had worth and value. Through a great deal of work she was able to begin to change how she saw herself and her self image changed into that of a competent, intelligent woman.
C. How self-image affects communication
This story illustrates how self-image affects our communication. If you’ve been known as shy or dumb or a teacher’s pet, this affects how you see yourself and how others who know you react to you. In my personal life, I grew up extremely shy and bashful. I did not react well in social situations and, because I grew up in a small town going to school with the same kids year after year, this “social retardation” followed me throughout high school.
But when I left for college 600 miles away, the realization began to dawn on me that no one there knew me as shy or bashful. I was able to dig out from under that old self-image and become more outgoing and more “myself” – the “myself” I wanted to be.
So our self-concept may contain information that is wrong and cause many communication problems. Self study and possibly professional counseling are means of rooting out self concept problems.
IV. Non-verbal Communication
Communication takes place on many levels simultaneously. We often tend to think of only the words that are spoken but that part of the message may only account for 20% of communication. So what’s happening in the other 80%?
A. What is it?
What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
Non-verbal communication is everything else BUT the words. It includes many components including vocal qualities such as tone of voice, as well as gestures, body language, accents and attitudes. Significant communication can take place without a word being spoken.
B. Where is it learned?
The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking
confess the secrets of the heart
St. Jerome (342 – 420 AD)
The key to understanding non-verbal communication is to study its’ roots. Babies in the crib cannot understand words but they quickly learn to respond to voices and facial expressions. We begin to learn what a person means from their voice and their body language long before we understand the words themselves.
And this is significant because as we grow we continue to interpret non-verbal communication at an unconscious level; not even aware that we are analyzing and critiquing the other person for their non-verbal message while attending to what they are saying verbally.
C. Why do we pay attention to it?
Jeff Foxworthy tells a story about the difference between men and women when looking at a new house. The woman is deciding how to decorate, the man is wondering where someone will try to break in. So to lower the chances of a break in, Jeff compares the well cared for lawn versus an overgrown lawn. According to Jeff, when you see an uncut lawn with a car motor hanging from the porch and a dog on a chain, “that’s a house where a gun lives!”
He’s saying that how we choose to dress, how we talk, where we live – all are examples of nonverbal communication.
We can’t help but automatically process non-verbal cues as we communicate. How many times have we “tuned someone out” because of some non-verbal behavior that affects us. Because it is learned unconsciously in infancy, non-verbal communications comes “online” without us thinking about it. It might be someone’s accent, their perceived level of education or learning, their vocal qualities or some other behavior – we always pay attention to it.
D. How can we use it more effectively?
Knowing how powerfully our nonverbal cues are can allow us to “shape” our message. By paying attention to how we speak, how we look, how our voice sound, we can improve our chances of attaining shared understanding.
At the same time, consciously paying attention to our reactions to other’s nonverbal messages will give us more information than we are getting by only attending to the words.
One of the biggest problems in communication relates to listening. How many parents have chanted the mantra “you’re not listening” to a child? How many people have gotten lost because of only half-listening to a set of directions?
A. Listening is NOT the same as hearing.
Listening and hearing are not exactly the same thing. While it is true that you must hear in order to listen, it isn’t always true that if you hear you ARE listening. Hearing is a function carried out by your brain wherein the sounds received by our ears are assigned meaning. But just because our brain understands the words doesn’t mean that our minds will understand what is received.
B. Problems related to listening
1. Our brains are much faster than our mouths.
Part of the problem is that our minds are much faster than our mouths. We typically speak anywhere from 30 to 100 words per minute but our minds can process information much faster than that. So if the first few words do not “hook” our attention we will rapidly “drift” off to think of something else.
2. We lack interest or we prejudge what we are hearing.
This hearing/listening disparity not only results in a lack of interest but can also cause us to prejudge what we are hearing. If we perceive a person to be uninteresting or dull or abrasive, these perceptions will cause us to judge the speaker and color what they are saying through our own attitudinal “filters”.
3. We don’t seek or give feedback.
Remember that our model of communication is a cycle – an ongoing give and take of information being shared. If we purposefully or accidentally give no feedback, the sender will have no idea or a distorted idea of how they are communicating. Distorted feedback could include agreeing with the sender when we really have no clue of what they are trying to say.
VI. Assertion and confrontation
Not all communication is pleasant. Emotionally charged conversations can cause their own problems that have to be dealt with. Sanguine and Phlegmatic temperaments (the two introverted styles) are especially prone to “clamming up” when the Choleric and Melancholies crank up. The easier thing to do in these situations is to withdraw into ourselves and not even try.
The answer is a learned skill called assertiveness. The first thing to be learned is that because a person tries to dominate a communication event doesn’t mean it’s their “right”. Each of us has as much right to be heard and understood as any other. Convincing yourself that this is true can be a long process – but until you believe it, you’ll never take the initiative to stick up for yourself. There are books and training tapes available that can help you. One classic that is still available in bookstores and libraries is “When I say No I feel Guilty.”
Once you’ve begun to believe that you have a right to be heard, you can begin to practice simple but powerful behaviors that will help you.
The formula is “D”escribe the behavior that upsets you such as “when you interrupt me . . .”, “E”xplain how it makes you feel, “when you interrupt me I feel angry . . .”, “S”pecify what you want to be different, “I would prefer that you say . . . “, and “C”onsequences, “If you can’t do this, then . . .”
Assertiveness may not make you feel less stressed but it can, if practiced, improve the chances of your being heard and understood.
VII. How to improve your communication skills
So what are some specific behaviors that you can implement that will improve your communication quotient? Here are several.
A. Listen – don’t assume.
Make sure you have finished speaking
before your audience has finished listening.
The key to to improved listening is using the “extra” time available in the hearing process. As you listen to someone, examine what they’re saying, question your understanding of what is being said, involve yourself in the conversation.
B. Improve your self-concept.
Since all communication is filtered through our self-image, it makes sense that the better that self-image is, the better our chance of sharing understanding. Improving self-concept involves challenging assumptions we have about ourselves. Unlearning old attitudes and feelings can be a long and involved process; additionally replacing these dysfunctional attitudes with new and better feelings and attitudes can be a struggle.
C. Learn to decipher non-verbal communication.
Remember that non-verbal communication is processed by each of us almost unconsciously. By becoming consciously aware of another’s tone off voice, posture, gestures, and facial expressions, we will raise our level of understanding several notches.
What is essential to a person’s word is the meaning given to it by that person – the thought, feeling or action that person associates with it and hopes to convey to others. Through our word we literally give to others a piece of our mind. Through others’ words we may know their thoughts and feelings and share in their lives.
E. Ask questions – don’t pretend to understand when you don’t.
The “old saw” has a lot of truth – to assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. Too often we nod when someone asks if we understand when understanding is no where in sight. So much of the time we don’t wish to appear foolish so we feign understanding.
Conclusion – the benefits of improved communication.
The ability to communicate effectively has implications for every part of life. Better communication can improve family relationships, enhance business relationships, and improve overall quality of life. Think again of how many disputes, arguments and disagreements were all rooted in poor communication?
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