Engage or Avoid

Simple Choice. Complex Results

Engage or avoid.

It’s how my first serious dog behavior mentor opened our session. Well, actually first he said “red pill or blue pill”, but not long after he began giving me scenarios — various situations in which people are out in the world with their dogs and confronted by something — and asking whether the answer was to engage or avoid.

The simple binary question perplexed me. My mentor went on to break down how despite the fact that dogs have complex emotional experiences of the world, they do not have the psychological brainpower to dissect those emotions in the same way humans do. He went on to detail that their relative stability and balance is based on very simple binary equations. Hungry, not hungry. Comfortable, uncomfortable. Most of all their behavior relies on their understanding of where they “fit”. Dogs are animals that live in small groups — families. (If you read me with any frequency, you know why I don’t use the “P” word for that.) Those groups are tightly-knit, hierarchically-based and have structure, roles, rules, and consequences for breaking them. The vast majority of “bad” dog behavior that’s not motivated by a physiological cause (e.g. injury or illness) is simply the dog trying to figure out what their relationship is to everything and everyone around it.

He said that one of the biggest challenges we have as humans is observing and evaluating very simple equations because, in his words, “humans complicate the f*ck out of things.”

As with pretty much everything else he taught me, he was right.

While we know volumes more than we did even 20 years about about the cognitive function and intelligence of dogs (thanks to an array of amazing academics, scientists and researchers all over the world), until a dog is able to speak literally in our language, we are, at best, guessing. The guesses are deeply educated, mind you, but they are guesses nonetheless.

So with simple creatures, simple equations work best and so when it comes to navigating the world with my dogs, I start simply with this question — engage or avoid. To engage means making sure that my dogs are in precisely the right energy and temperament (calm, balanced and focused on me, not on whatever distraction is presented). To engage also means being aware of whether whatever it is with which I’m engaging (dog, human or otherwise) mirrors that same balance. If the conditions are not met on one or both sides or if it’s unclear/undetermined, then the answer is to avoid it.

Just the other day I was walking into my office and there was a fellow out front under the shade of a tree, his head and body bent and bowed against the punishing heat of the day. Even in the shade, there’s little relief. Radiant temperatures of 110 turning asphalt and sidewalks into easy bake oven shelving.

As I walked up the front path to The Hydrant Club he called out, asking if I might be able to fill a large jug of water so he’d have water for his dog. I walk over to get it, looking all around him for the pup. Nothing. I asked where his dog was, and he said she was “around the corner”. I said I’d be right back and as I got to the door he whistled and I glanced back to see a rather large boxer type mix barreling around the corner towards him.

When I came back out his dog was by his side and staring right at me. She alerted immediately, her tail standing stiffly with a tight, rapid wag. Her ears were up and locked forward, her entire body language rigid and imposing. She began straining at the leash, a low growl rising to a bark, as her tail flew up to a near 90 degree position and wagging in a sharp, percussive pattern.

“She just wants you to pet her,” he said.

Engage or avoid?

What would you do? Would you pet the dog?

You’d be surprised how many people either don’t know, misinterpret or flat out ignore the parade of warning flags that a dog gives, showing that avoidance is the appropriate choice.

In this case, I drew near and well outside the range of the leash on which the dog was tethered. Exchanged some niceties with the owner and then removed myself from the situation. Was she friendly? Perhaps, but every sense of her body language and vocalization was a warning. Given more time, a slightly different context and approach she might have responded differently or reduced her tension in which case I could see, but in the moment the wise choice for all involved, was to avoid.

How on earth does this relate to leadership and human engagement?

Simple.

It feels to me sometimes like we’re walking around in a world where the assumption is that the other person has their teeth bared, hackles up and is ready to attack. In some cases, they may even present as such — aggressive words, name calling, friction — but in the moments where I have the presence of mind to be neutral in the face of such aggression, typically I find that the other person isn’t so dangerous after all. Other times that aggression is there, but has nothing to do with me, and if I avoid properly I can diffuse it.

A few months ago I was at a gas station. It was a hot day. Gas was pretty cheap so the lines were long but everyone was waiting very patiently. The pump opened and I pulled my car in and had to pull in at an odd angle because the pump was opposite side from my gas tank. After a bit of navigating I manage to get the car properly positioned, and then get the nozzle into the tank and began dispensing gas.

That’s when I heard it.

“Hey, bitch. Move your fucking car.”

It seemed a pretty aggressive statement for a gas station so I looked up to see what was going on and saw that it was the woman whose car was in front of mine. She’d gotten back into her car after dispensing her gas and from where she was sitting the angle of the nose of my car made it appear (I guess) that she didn’t have room. Truth was you could have done a three-point turn with a Cadillac Escalade from where she was. There was easily a six foot clearance behind her, several feet in front and nothing but net on the outside. From the place she was, all she could see, however, was that she was blocked in.

Holding my hands up I gestured to the open space as I said, “Ma’am, I’ve just started putting in the gas and I’ll be done real quick, but you actually do…”

Before I could finish she flung the door open to her car, sprang from the seat and headed right at me. Not to me. Not towards me. Most definitely at me. Even if I couldn’t have seen the expression on her face, I’d most certainly have felt her. The anger radiated off her like waves of heat bouncing off the asphalt. Instinct kicked in and I glanced quickly to see if she had anything in her hands that I needed to worry about (so sad that the first thought was to check for weapons). Seeing none, I put both of my hands up in front of me, palms together and calmly met her approach, but before I could say anything she rounded the back of her car, saw quickly that she had ample room, had a momentary look of embarrassment (quickly replaced by her fury) and she wheeled on her heel and went back to her car.

As she turned I exhaled. I hadn’t even realized that I was holding my breath. A moment of being confronted with sheer anger over something so trivial was oddly perplexing and intense — especially given the setting. Saying (I thought) under my breath and to no one in particular, I sighed again, “Wow, that was a lot of anger.”

“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU SAY BITCH?”

Apparently I hadn’t said it quite quietly enough, or perhaps the spot in which I stood was just too perfectly aligned with the audio sweet spot of the gas station canopy. Whatever the case, she had heard me and was leaning out her car window with a glare.

“Ma’am, I can see that you’re having a shitty morning. If I contributed to that in any way, I’m sorry. And whatever it is. I hope it gets better and your day is a good one from here.”

Her response to that was to flip me off, slam on the gas and squeal out of the parking lot.

Engage or avoid.

It would have been very easy to just ignore her, keeping my eyes down and waiting for her to notice the space and just leave. It also would have been easy, to meet her full frontal fury with some of my own, puffing myself up to my full 5' 5" and standing her down.

Neither of those appealed to me. The former because bowing in the face of anger isn’t my style. The latter because meeting anger with anger doesn’t do anything but just make more anger (not to mention potentially end with someone getting hurt, or worse). No, I chose to engage, and to do so from a place of 100% responsibility — for myself.

Did I change her view of the world? Doubt it. Did I make her day better? Probably not. But I certainly didn’t make her day any worse. I didn’t contribute to the jet stream of pissed off anger and fury that swirled about her, a common condition that seems to blow on prevailing winds in our world no matter which direction they go.

Before I engaged, I was clear on my own grounding. Steady. Focused. I was clear on the situation and went in fully present and aware. With that kind of engagement, things change. It can diffuse situations. Neutralize them. In some cases it can even create the space for engagement and (gasp) maybe even change and progress.

Engage or avoid.

In a society where so many people have their heads down and only pull them up to combat the world around them, I think it’s time to reconsider not just the option we choose, but how we choose it.

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