Dolphin Communication and Feeling Understood
Empathy from others and feeling understood have been shown to
be essential to positive human growth and development throughout
life, as infants, children, and adults. Empathy for others is
an asset in personal and work relationships. Recognizing the importance
of and finding ways to nurture empathy gained academic attention
as recently as the 1980's. How to teach and learn this communication
skill has much to offer society but still puzzles investigators.
During 25 years of dolphin communication studies, I found that
dolphins encourage and support empathy in humans. Dolphin contact
is often reported in the same terms as Feeling Understood.
Lack of connection in a dolphin experience elicits feelings similar
to those in intimate human relations when we are isolated by the
other's inattention: "It hurts to reach out to someone who
doesn't respond," (Nichols, p. 31).
How have dolphins received this power to hurt or uplift us? What
can human-dolphin relations teach us about human relationships?
Dolphins are expert communicators. They have four separate voices,
which they can use independently and simultaneously. They are
very often in tactile and eye contact with each other. Dolphins
have well developed frontal lobes cited to be a constituent of
empathy in humans (Empathy: The State of the Art and Science,
My mentor, Dr. John C. Lilly, described in detail their brains
and abilities in several books, inspiring the producer of the
Flipper TV series. He was the first to say that dolphins would
be able to speak with us and the limitations of speaking with
dolphins are with us rather than with them. He encouraged our
pursuit of communication with dolphins, as a species with brains
and intelligence equal to or greater than ours.
People now assume that dolphins are highly intelligent. This
myth of dolphin intelligence colors our interactions with them.
Leaders in human potential development have popularized dolphin
contact, swimming with wild dolphins, fueling and capitalizing
on this myth. People who go to the effort of seeking swimming
with dolphins already have preconceptions in their mind. The Seeker’s
esteem for the dolphin elevates them above other animals, and
often characterizes them as more spiritually advanced than humans.
Dolphins are being promoted as living in a higher dimension than
we are but willing to help us get there.
In Dolphin Healing Dolphin Heart by Terry Walker (1998), I was
quoted in the heading for a chapter, "The dolphins offer
us this key to communication-- friendship." Despite how we
define or prove intelligence in dolphins, despite their actual
abilities, the pervasive image of dolphins allows people to enter
into a special communication with them which is characterized
by similar phrases as feeling understood. We approach
them with respect, even honor and awe. We believe they are telepathic.
We desire and sense a deep understanding and empathy from them.
We go to them in deep friendship with a desire to be
healed by them. We also desire to participate in healing the world
and ourselves in order to help dolphins and the oceans
that sustain them. In many cases, our empathic response for dolphins
is greater than our empathy for humans.
The dolphin's key to communication—the openness of genuine friendship--
is the easiest way to explain ways we could improve our relationships.
If only we approached others as we approach dolphins. We meet
dolphins with a sense of sacred space, asking for blessings on
the journey together. We watch for signs of hidden wisdom inside
the other, anticipating that the other can read our thoughts and
feels what we project into the space between us. We read compassion
in eye-to-eye contact; we imagine deep knowingness bridging the
distance between species. Imagine our conversations with people
if we open up to deep friendship with others. By deep friendship
I don’t mean merely passing as friendly, but having a genuine
concern for the other's well being, desire to understand and be
understood by the other with respect for their good intentions
Think of situations in which we open up in friendship
while communicating. For instance, in massage the practitioner
opens herself to the client and in that space receives much more
information about the client than is usually accepted in normal
conversations. This is the sort of channel that seems to open
in dolphin communication because of our beliefs and approach to
the other. When my child is hurt, I find a place of empathy inside
myself to say “I’m sorry” deeply, with feeling. Transferring that
empathy so the child feels it too is often the only thing needed
to stop the tears. As we communicate in heartfelt friendship,
our communications will deepen. This applies to intrapersonal,
interpersonal, global and even political communications.
In the table below: people who "feel understood"
describe it as on the left. People who have had peak dolphin experiences
use the words on the right to describe the experience. Notice
Peak Dolphin Experience
"I'm optimistic and cheerful, the world seems basically
good and beautiful, men are essentially kind-life is worth
living, the future seems bright."
Brighter colors, vividness
Awe, elation, deep joy
Desire for more
Higher intellect, understanding
Universe as integrated, unified,
Predictable and thereby
Life worth living
Safe and secure
In harmony, in tune
No longer blocked
Generalized to all other dolphins
Appreciation, wanted, needed
Crucial to sensing inner world of other
Copyright (c) Roberta Goodman. All rights reserved.
Gordon, R., (1988) The Difference Between Feeling Defensive
and Feeling Understood, Journal of Business Communication,
V. 25. Ronald D. Gordon, Ph.D., is Professor of Communication
at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo.
Peak Dolphin Experience descriptions come from:
DeMares, R., (2000) Human Peak Experience Triggered by Encounters
with Cetaceans, Anthrozoos, 13 (2), pp. 89-103.