Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I had the privilege of swimming with dolphins. I loved it…and I hated it. How could I hate swimming with dolphins? Because in the midst of their perfectly performed “show,” I felt like they were acting as well-trained robots…but I wanted to spend time with them so that I could understand these incredible creatures.

My daughter and I and a trainer were in the water with two dolphins for several hours. We used hand gestures to get them to dance, speak, roll over for tummy rubs and fetch toys. We also swam out from the dock to hitch rides with them by grabbing onto the dorsal fin of the dolphins on either side of me, and once I even swam belly to belly with a single dolphin. It really was an incredible experience. It is clear that the dolphins were well-treated and had a wonderful relationship with the trainers at Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys.

But after we were done, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. It was like having a one-night stand—slam, bam, thank you Flipper. Were the dolphins happy having strangers put their hands on them, rubbing and hugging them? And doing it multiple times per day 365 days a year? Were there some people who the dolphins felt comfortable with and others who made them uncomfortable but they still had to be polite to all?

In hindsight, I would have preferred to sit on the docks and watch them interact with their trainers, look in their eyes and try to understand the beings behind the performance.

This experience came back to me when I was watching one of the most popular movies currently on Netflix—My Octopus Teacher.

My Octopus Teacher is a documentary starring South African filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster. He spent about a year free-diving off the chilly coast of South Africa and befriended an octopus living in the ocean’s kelp forest. Foster didn’t intend to make friends with an octopus. He was simply returning to his native waters as a way to decompress from a tiresome and stressful filmmaking schedule.

But something magical happened when he relaxed and simply was present in the water…with no agenda or goal. He was just snorkeling, shallow-diving and looking. Not observing…just looking. And in the quiet of looking, Foster saw details of undersea life that he had never seen, even when he was a young boy swimming in the same cove on a daily basis. Foster’s openness to whatever happened while he was swimming allowed him to see the curious, subtle behaviors of the octopus and, through perseverance, he earned this otherwordly creature’s trust and “friendship.”

In psychology, there is a concept called “mirroring,” in which people unconsciously imitate the gestures, postures and behaviors of the people they are with. Most often, when individuals behave in sync with one another, it is a sign of connection. Mirroring also has become a powerful tool, for those who choose to use it, as a way to create rapid rapport with someone. In business, highly skilled salespeople learn to adjust their behaviors and speech patterns to that of a potential client as a way to put the other person at ease, connect with him or her and, of course, hopefully land a sale. On a personal level, it’s a highly effective means of creating connections with others, including love interests. The key to the successful use of mirroring—it has to be genuine.

Active listening is another version of mirroring. Again, it requires the listener to totally focus on the speaker and fully hear what he/she is saying…without opinions and without editing. It requires getting out of your own head and empathetically attending to what the other person is thinking and feeling from his point of view.

So now, let’s come back to one of my favorite (or least favorite) topics of today—our country’s social divide…the nonstop partisan finger-pointing, name-calling and we-versus-they behavior that seems to have engulfed every corner of society. In recent weeks, two friends with whom I was quite close admitted to blocking me on social media. Why? Because of our differences of opinion and viewpoints. I actually was rather surprised to hear it since, in my humble opinion, I would never initiate political posts…and the times when I might have chimed in on someone else’s thread, it generally was to provide a link to a report that demonstrated another aspect of the conversation. I don’t like to say “always” and “never,” but I’m quite certain I don’t use the word “you” in any of those posts. And yet, those dear friends choose to isolate rather than understand.

I’ve since had conversations with each of these wonderful women to reaffirm my love and respect for them and my openness to hearing and learning from them…and to express my hopes that they would want to do the same. Why would I do that? Because living in my own lane and speaking only to those who think the same as I do is boring and discriminatory.

With the cries across the country against discrimination, it’s seems odd to behave in such discriminatory ways.

I choose, instead, to look beyond my own world and see what I can learn when I let go of my agenda and let myself observe and absorb. The older I get, the more I realize how little I actually know. I am excited to learn from the endless number of teachers out there. How about you?

Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast,  where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life. 

Related Articles